by idle Pastor,
prompted by reading Eugene Peterson’s
“Under the Unpredictable Plant” and
my current ministry-idle circumstance.
Part I The Gloved Hand
Eugene Peterson both provoked my sensibilities and connected with my reality in the introductory chapter of “Under the Unpredictable Plant.” In the book itself, just so you know, he uses the story of Jonah as a touchpoint of comparison with the call to missional ministry. He shows how we in ministry humanly tend to want dream ministry – represented by far away Tarsus, but how God calls us to messy, real ministry in the enemy territory of Nineveh. His introduction begins to set that comparison up by telling about the struggle he experienced between having the vocation of pastor and living out one’s Christian faith. Yes, we generally assume the two are glove over hand, but those in ministry usually learn that is not the case. The glove restricts the hand. He writes of his experience this way:
“Being a Christian, more often than not, seemed to get in the way of working as a pastor. Working as a pastor, with surprising frequency, seemed to put me at odds with living as a Christian.”
In North America the activity demands made of those in the vocation of spiritual leadership exceed their supporting resources, says Peterson, and the “initial consequence is that leaders substitute image for substance” giving people the white glove touch here and there temporarily. In our good days of that good feeling of being busy being the glove the people seem to prefer, we deny anything is missing, and on drained days we hope something somehow comes along to relieve and strengthen the weakening hand inside. But a helping hand does not come even as the demands on the white glove increase. In the end, the hand very often fails, it frequently goes empty, bankrupt and/or as the glove comes off it is shown to be rotten, gnarled, discoloured with gangrene. And we are surprised?
So, the question that comes to me is: Why the glove at all? But I’m getting ahead of things, I need to finish getting Peterson’s thinking out.
The glove (which by the way is my analogy, he is not responsible for it), or pastoral vocation in North America today is shaped by what the consumers of it want, and by what the influences of the professional marketplace thinks works best. The congregational consumer is about having religious needs met, on demand, at the lowest cost. The professional clerical guides say those needs should be satisfied efficiently. And so it becomes apparent to Peterson that this is all an equation of religious economics. And it is the guideline in a competitive field where the honour goes to those who do it best while keeping the glove the whitest and most admirable.
But we are learning — if we are paying attention to the glove failures and not distancing from them — that meeting that religious economic formula’s dictates ignores a spiritual formation formula that will likely end with a gangrenous, desiccated hand in a nice white glove unless a different approach is found. I’ll give one more major piece, my favourite, from Peterson before I look at other aspects in thinking this through. Peterson calls this process of being the glove “Vocational Idolatry” and I have seen the truth of that. The glove is an idol. The glove is a puppet, an impersonator, it is not real. The glove is an idea-ideal-image, graven in the collective minds of people in the marketplace as the ideal idea of a pastor. We think that since many agree with it — in other words since it is democratically arrived at by having been a majority opinion of a committee of select folks — it is not an idol, but it is. Oh how quickly we forget that we prefer to make our gods in images we have formed. We prefer to have God’s knowledge ourselves. In doing so we show that we are good and faithful kin to Adam and Eve. We pastors — I’m back to echoing Peterson here because I can’t quite make this my own confession yet — tend to be better at this than most, because we are word-crafters, idea-arrangers, and we, along with other pitch-makers, can make the change from being tillers and keepers of God’s Garden to Dominators of it sound like the right thing to do. Even to ourselves. So, says our author, only the serpent knows the deception that has taken place. And there is no room, no place, no space in people and pastor’s idol-glutted and blotted religion for the pastor to be a hand, a simple, scarred, broken, hand-priest, like the rest of the hands out there in the congregation, the other priests. Until we find ways of dropping the gloves, the puppets, the idols, the masks, we continue to avoid being real, being authentic as ministers particularly, but as congregations as well. All of this deception is most obvious in the pastor search process. Well, isn’t it? Think about it for a moment. Each party submits their 8.5 by 11 black and white portrait that they got to create themselves of their-selves. They are encouraged to dream, to speak some vision into the portrait. ‘Yes we are 50, but we dream of having the vitality of 20,’ or ‘Yes, we are but 20 but we dream of being 50 in our 5 year plan.’ Very few, if any, of these self-portraits are not glamorized, hazed over, or polished up in some way. This process is what Peterson calls “Ecclesiastical Pornography”, and I love the in-your-face-ness of that label and I love the buxom, gutsy, lust-exposing truth of how he says it:
“Parish glamorization is ecclesiastical pornography — taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are without spot or wrinkle, the shapes that a few parishes have for a few short years. These provocatively posed pictures are devoid of personal relationships. The pictures excite a lust for domination, for gratification, for uninvolved and impersonal spirituality.”
Have you seen that at work? Have you felt that at work in you? I have. I have been part of it. It is what was activated when a colleague at a regional meeting said “you are not going to climb in the denomination saying things like that.” And a fear that my presentation portrait is warted arises. It is at work in me when I — as a currently between-calls pastor who is itching to get back at it in a bigger and better way — reads a juicy church ad that arouses my desire to ‘have’ that congregation and have it have me. And something is very very wrong in the spiritual economy of that. Very. Wrong. Period.
Can you sense the wrongness?
Part II The Ideal Pastor
While congregational profiles and “next pastor” descriptions are getting a bit more honest, the person they describe as their next pastor is often better than Jesus himself. Jesus would not be a satisfactory pastor for any of them. Try picture it. Oh yes, he could apply – imagine with me how this interview might go:
Church Interviewer: Thank you for coming for this interview. I can’t help but notice you did not fill out an application and submit a profile. Could you explain?
Applicant: I have no need to commend myself. If you care to and dare to, talk to some people I know on the streetcorner, they will give a commendation that counts. I’ll submit their changed lives as my letter of application.
Interviewer: Thank you. We will take that into consideration. Your forthrightness is both refreshing and … um … disturbing… This is not our usual proceeding. Let me move on to my next question, about something we have heard that we find troubling should it indeed be true. We are told you have no home or need of a home. Is that true?
Applicant: Foxes have holes and birds have nests, I find a place to stay when I get somewhere for while I am there. Most places I’m just passing through though.
I: Well may I remind you we have a 4 bedroom home you could use should you get the position.
A: Great, I met few people on the walk over here that could use some shelter.
I: Moving to another area we usually talk about in such interviews, have you been made aware of the salary package we are offering?, and, if so, do you have any comments?
A: I have food to eat you know nothing about, that food is to do the will of him who sent me.
I: OK, I’ll assume from that the offer is more than satisfactory. Could you tell us about some of your past successes in churches? What kind of things stand out? Do you have growth numbers, that kind of thing?
A: Well, not really. I tend to upset religious groups. I go in, I do what the one who sent me wills and generally there is an uproar. Once they took me outside and tried to throw me off a cliff…
Well, I hope you get the picture. And the picture is that we have so many human and cultural trappings mixed in with our idea of who and what a pastor is that when we imagine Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or Augustine, or Mother Theresa being an applicant we run into problems. (Of course we have to work hard to even imagine them applying in the first place for numerous reasons). But do we adjust our thinking? No, we laugh, and appreciate the oddness, and carry on as usual. We are so trapped, so blinded. We don’t seem to feel any dissonance that the pastor search is like a “Pastor Idol” contest, literally and media-comparatively. We don’t seem troubled that one of Donald’s Apprentices could trump Jesus at the game given a shot. Well, I am troubled. I feel great angst about it. What have we done? What have we lost? What have we bought into? What are our idols that need to be smashed?
I can’t identify your idols too well, they seem small. I’m working too hard on mine, which seem big.
Part III Thorn-sided, Warted and Ungloved
So how does a pastor who feels the pull of walking along the edge of a precipice that has a huge void called idolatry walk that path? How does he fight the persistent pull to fall into the precipice if he but relaxes his vigilance and quit fighting the system? What does such a pastor do if he wants to be employed in ministry? (Most definitely he should not be thinking the thoughts I am and more definitely than that he should never go public with them like I probably will.) Most of the time we pastors pull up the corners of our mouth and eyes and put on the puppet face, get out the airbrush and ‘play the game’ hoping things will change. And you know what,sometimes it works despite the flaws. But the times it doesn’t…
So, I feel compelled — the kind of compulsion that has never served me well by any worldly measure — to confront the glove game and ask questions about it right at a time when I should be playing along so I get a call. I have little to lose and everything to gain. So does the body of Christ. What motivates me is the sense of the wrongness of the existing process. But bluntly, another motivator is knowing that airbrushing the flaws and warts that I would have to put on my profile (the ‘pro’ reminds me of “professional’, ‘file’ reminds me of ‘defile’) today, should I try airbrush them, would smudge reality a lot, and my polite deception would be revealed once the grapevine was consulted. I also know the reality that leaving the flaws visible front and center would, in most circumstances, draw one glance and never another, in the same way one glances at a person and sees a vivid birthmark on their face and one’s eyes dart away and we try to keep them occupied elsewhere so we don’t look again. And we think “That person should wear a mask, or get surgery” and we don’t deal with why we don’t like seeing flaws.I have realized I have nothing to lose by being forthright. It is a good place to be in. In fact, it is a core understanding of the gospel which we seem to have lost. My sins, my flaws, my cracks, my shortcomings have all been graced and transformed by Jesus and they should not matter anymore to all others who have been so graced.
So here I am, a man called, a man gifted and passionate to share the gospel by preaching, teaching and living it as best he can, even though there are warts, and thorns, and birthmarks and failings…
There, the glove is off.