Surviving Ministry

I posted a few weeks ago a post in which I pondered the oddities of Amazon’s book reviews. No matter whether the book was good, bad, or so-so (in my judgment, at least), every book’s profile eventually assumes a certain ‘shape’. Most reviewers love it, and few hate it.

It was as I was thinking about these things that my friend Mike Osborne gave me a copy of his recently released book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, on dealing with the struggles of ministry. Mike has been through the mill, as they say, which is a powerful image when you think about the mill stones used to grind grain into flour. Who wants to go through that?

Which is precisely the question. But many pastors do, and some do not come out the other side. Mike’s heart and desire in this book is to help pastors endure, survive, and flourish. And he does a great job in reaching that desire.

But when Mike asked me to review it – on Amazon – I was inwardly conflicted. What if I only thought the book was ‘so-so’? What if I didn’t like it? I can’t write a glowing review of something I find less than stellar. I know Mike’s heart, but I did not know how that would translate to the page. If I had to write critical things, what would that do to our friendship?

As I say in the review (and what follows is taken largely from my Amazon review) that was an unfounded fear. I can honestly say that this is a wonderful book. It is deeply helpful for the pastor entering ministry or struggling to survive conflict. Mike is genuine and transparent. He is a good pastor and a man committed to Christ’s church and Christ’s people. And he cares for pastors.

He gives practical guidance for those seeking a call to a church, for those seeking to survive one, and for those who have come through a difficult experience. His words ring true because he has lived that of which he speaks. He has made the mistakes he calls us to avoid. From the vantage point of one who has survived, he reaches out a hand to guide us through.

The book is well paced, showing a careful balance between instruction and illustration. It is practical and biblical and thoughtful. And it is SHORT which in itself is a virtue. Mike gets to the point quickly, and I consider that a gift (one I do not have).

Having read the book, the best testimony I can give is to buy it and give it to others, which I have done. I recommend other pastors buy it and read it themselves.

The only problem I have is the book’s price. Amazon has it listed for $22, pricey for a book of 150 pages. The publisher explained to me the reason for that, but that does not make it easier for us on a budget. What does make it easier is to buy the Kindle version ($9.99) or to buy it directly from the publisher ($17.60 plus shipping). And yet, I say, ‘Pay it’. I’ve paid such prices for books far less helpful.

The Pastor – Eugene Peterson

Over half of my thirty years of pastoral ministry have been deeply marked by the refreshing vision of pastoral ministry embodied by Eugene Peterson and given expression in his books, particularly The Contemplative Pastor and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. His sense of pastoral vocation affirmed for me a focus on pastoral care and the weekly rhythms of congregational life. He came to me as a freeing mentor delivering me from ministry models majoring on ways to grow a church. His affirmation in many ways has saved me from burning out and giving up. His is a critical voice for those called to be ordinary pastors.

So when a friend recently mentioned that he was reading and enjoying Peterson’s 2011 memoir titled simply and profoundly The Pastor, my heart ached to read it. Perhaps I should have tempered my fan-boy expectations, for I came away disappointed and sadly unsatisfied.The pastor

Peterson is foremost a story-teller, and this book is best when he simply tells his story. When freed to tell his stories, he soars. But then he attempts to apply them or draw a moral from them, and the wind falls from beneath the wings. This is more an exposition of his pastoral theology with his life and that of his congregation serving as extended illustrations of the pedagogical purpose. There is a place to develop a pastoral theology. Just don’t call it memoir. It feels as if he has begun to no longer trust his reader to draw the lessons he feels can be learned from his life, and so he insists on telling, and not just showing, and this detracts from the whole.

But unquestionably the greatest flaw is the book’s lack of transparency. Too much is hidden and unsaid. This is fatal in a memoir.

The pastors I know struggle. We struggle with doubt, with disappointment, with anger, and we feel these things intensely. A pastor’s heart is often broken. We disappoint people, we make mistakes, we worry, we question, we hurt and are hurt. How can this book about a pastor’s life be genuine and real without stories of heartache and rejection? A pastor’s life without darkness does not sound like any pastor I know. The only glimpse we have of Peterson’s emotional life are the tears at his mother’s funeral.

Of course, ministry has joys as well. When he speaks of joy in ministry it comes across as clinical. He speaks of his writing, but he says nothing about the thrill of being published, nothing about the agony or prospects of rejection, nothing of his writing habits, little of the tension between his writing and his pastoral ministry. It’s all very theologized, and in fact, boring for those who want to know both what is it like to be Eugene Peterson and what it might be like to be a pastor who also writes.

The lack of honesty tilts to a kind of boasting which conflicts with the humility I’ve come to expect from Peterson. A number of the sections begin with his analysis of weakness in a pastoral model, or a way of ‘doing church’, and then proceeds to show how he, and his church, got it right. This is off-putting, and feels false.

But maybe he was different? I don’t think so. The final three pages of the book is a letter he wrote to a young pastor. Here alone, at the end, we see hidden references to the honesty lacking from the rest of the book. He speaks to this young pastor of not knowing what to do, of making mistakes, and of ‘faithless stretches’. This feels real, like the vocation I inhabit. But he says nothing more about it, and that is the glaring hole at the center of the book.

This is not a bad book. Eugene Peterson is not capable of writing a bad book. But it does not feel honest or true to its genre, and that makes it uninteresting, and that, in the end, makes me sad.

Gilead, Re-visited

Recently I was approached by a woman who was reading, or attempting to do so, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead for a book discussion group. The group had chosen the book upon my recommendation, so her considerable frustration with the book was focused on me.

“Tell me why it is you are making me read Gilead.”

“I’m not making you read it.”

“I know. But you must have some reason for recommending it, something we’re supposed to see in it. But I’m just not seeing it.”

Her conclusion was that she was simply too stupid to ‘get’ it which, obvious to all who know her, is by no means the case. I suggested she stop reading something she doesn’t enjoy, but she is of that stock that will plow to the end of the row no matter how many stones lie in the path.

I have yet to hear whether she has completed it. But the conversation raised a good question. Why would I recommend this book? Since I was nearing the end of my own (second!) reading, I was in a place to consider it.

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Gilead is the name of a small town in Iowa, the home of the Reverend John Ames, the elderly pastor of the local Congregational church, a church served previously by his father and his grandfather. Though in his 70s, Rev. Ames has a seven year-old son, his only child. He knows that his time with his son will be brief and not like that of other fathers. He sets out, therefore, to write a letter to convey something of his heart and history to a son with whom his time will be short. The book is this letter.

This father’s desire is to say to his son what needs saying. He wants to give him not only a sense of his history, but some direction for his future. He recounts stories, and sometimes personal or theological reflections on those stories. Through it, Rev. Ames wishes to honor and bless his son and leave him an enduring legacy.

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Great books invite multiple visits yielding fresh treasures with each visit. Gilead does not disappoint.

My first reading impressed me with wonder at the care and sensitivity with which the author, a lay female, had drawn the character of her protagonist, a male pastor. [I commented on that first reading here.] She sketches him with insight and care neither magnifying his weaknesses nor obscuring his sins. In John Ames, we see reflected the best that can be said for those whose desire it is to care for the souls of others while trying to make sense of his own. In him I see those many I’ve been privileged to know and observe, pastors rarely noticed by the world they faithfully serve.

When the spotlight normally falls on pastors, it is because of their exceptional gifts or prodigious foolishness. The ordinary faithful and flawed pastor (of which there are many) goes largely unnoticed. To find a pastor so sympathetically and accurately portrayed in a novel so widely acclaimed is a wonder which alone makes reading the book worthwhile. It gives honor to countless men and women who quietly and faithfully serve Christ in such undramatic but substantive ways.

My second reading, however, has pushed the impressions of the first to the side. Larger themes, noticed but unconsidered in the first reading, have emerged. The book brims with reflections on fathers and sons and the relationship between them. How do older generations bless the younger? Or, as it may sometimes be, curse them? How do younger generations genuinely honor the older? How can the powerful impact of the generations be navigated so as to possibly maximize blessing? Good art raises and rarely answers questions. Fiction creates a parallel world by which we can measure our own.

The book also addresses the struggle between belief and doubt. Faith is never taken for granted or shown to be an easy thing. Doubt wells up with differing levels of intensity in different characters. Are some of us meant to believe and others meant not to believe? Do we freely choose belief and unbelief? Pastor Ames wrestles with his faith mightily and is troubled by the doubts of others, particularly his friend’s son Jack. In Jack, he sees an inverse reflection of himself, and it troubles him.

Fathers, sons, faith, doubt, and through it all grace. Grace displayed, lived out, and, sometimes, rejected.

❦ ❦ ❦

Robinson Marilynne

Huckleberry Finn introduces the novel titled after him by threatening to shoot anyone trying to find a plot in the book. Those attempting to find a plot in Gilead might wish to shoot the author. The plot is revealed in a non-linear fashion. A story is told of a life well-lived, intersecting and impacting the lives of others in a profound way. There is conflict; there is climax; there is resolution. It develops slowly and erratically and is meant to be savored, not devoured. First one, and then another character is illuminated, as then, in their reflection, are we. And that is good.

Or it can be.

I’m glad that my friend is diligent and will finish the book. I hope she grows as fond of the Reverend John Ames, and of his creator, as I have. I hope she thanks me for ‘making’ her read it.

Center Church and the Pastoral Call

I was blessed recently to have been invited to participate with a small group of fellow-pastors in a two month reading and discussion of Timothy Keller’s textbook on church ministry, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. It was a blessed time, not so much for the book itself, as these things often go, but for the privilege of hanging out with men aiming to do ministry well.Center Church mini

I had some reflections on the book to share at our last meeting, but, sadly, I got called away and was not able to be a part of that final discussion. So, I post those thoughts here as an open letter which may, perhaps, be helpful to more than just that temporary ‘band of brothers’ now dispersed. I hope I am correct.



I’ve enjoyed the sessions we have spent over the past few months reading and discussing Keller’s book. I am honored to have been invited to participate, feeling quite often as the ant among the giants. I’ve been blessed.

As we conclude I wanted to make a simple observation and plea: that as helpful as Tim Keller has been to all of us and as insightful and comprehensive as Center Church is, if it is read alone in isolation, it can be harmful in its effect. That is, Tim Keller should never be read without a healthy balance of Eugene Peterson (or others who, like him, champion the pastoral call).

Having finished Center Church, some, as I do, may feel overwhelmed. The complexity of leading a church with wisdom and vision in our current age may be within reach for some, but it is overwhelming to ordinary pastors like myself. One can be moved by reading this to reconsider many of our practices, to implement significant redirection, and possibly to even move to the city. But one also might be moved to quit, to give up ministry altogether, crushed by the sheer weight of all the pieces to be held together to stay centered.

It is because of these tendencies that I believe Peterson needs to be kept close as a healthy counterweight and antidote.

Those of us who have read Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor know that he takes a cautious if not disdainful view of the idea of ‘running’ a church. He acknowledges that the institution needs to be managed – that a certain amount of ‘running’ a church is inevitable and necessary. But if running a church overwhelms the primary pastoral callings then something monumental has been sacrificed. It is easy to allow that to happen.

There is no one doing a better job of helping pastors think through the maze that “running” a church is than Tim Keller. Someone must lead, decisions must be made, the institution must be governed. And yet, is that the primary pastoral call? Peterson challenges that notion with a relentless drum beat calling pastors to pastoral ministry, to the time consuming realities of prayer, of preaching, of listening, of community building.

As a pastor I live with a very real tension. I want to grow a church and I want to use all the tools at my disposal for doing so, even though, truth be told, the motive for this is a volatile mixture of concern for the glory of God and the health of my own resume. At the same time I’m tugged by the compulsion to sit with people, to hear their stories, to be with them when they are suffering, and to challenge them when they are wandering.

Five SmoothWe need to hear Keller’s challenge to lead the church well, but not without Peterson’s balancing caution that “nothing in pastoral work is more liable to Pelagian tendencies than the work of giving leadership to the community of faith” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, page 211). (I think, by the way, that Keller would probably agree.)

I understand that there are those (though, thankfully, not among us) who believe that the idea of ‘shepherd’ is a harmful metaphor for thinking about pastoral ministry. I’m puzzled by that – as I see myself as primarily a shepherd. Peter Wagner once distinguished between pastors who are shepherds and those who are ranchers. I’ll never be a rancher; Peterson never aspired to be so. He resolved to never pastor a church in which he could not know the name of every member.

I’m of that school, and so either by gifting (or lack thereof!) or calling or conviction or the humbling hand of God, I’ve come to the reality that I will always pastor relatively small churches, and those churches will, more likely than not, NOT be in the city. And I want to say, on behalf of the vast majority of pastors for whom this will be true, that this is not only okay, but that it is GOOD.

Keller should be read, but NEVER without Peterson, or someone like him. Not by those who feel that being a good shepherd is still the primary call of pastoral ministry.

Thanks for the time,


Somber? Dull?

I’ve probably lost possible readers over the years by calling this blog by its rather gray title. Who wants to hang around someone, or something, that is all somber and dull? I gave my contact info to someone this week and they looked, read the URL of the blog, and gave something of a puzzled chuckle. Years ago a friend, a friend who had never been to the blog, but only knew of it, cautioned me that posting stuff about my (he presumed) depression on-line probably was not a good idea.

There have been plenty who have suggested I change the title.

But I never will.

I give an explanation for the blog’s name in the tab above labeled “It’s Ironic“. Navigate there if you like.

I bring this up now because recently Justin Taylor posted a brief survey of books which give guidance to people engaged in pastoral ministry. Of the six books mentioned, two are fiction. Of these, he writes:

Every pastor would also profit from carefully pondering Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Why fiction? In both books, the protagonist is a pastor, and you will learn how Christian life and ministry work on the inside amid the untidy details of life lived.

Both books are superb reading for any, not just pastors. Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country quickly became my hero, a model of nobility and innocence and faithfulness and compassion and grace. If he happened also to be ‘somber and rather dull, no doubt’ as Paton describes him, so be it. He is a model I’m proud to honor in my blog’s title.

Dark Night Rises

Eugene Peterson, in reflecting on the longing for intimacy with God, often elusive, of which I wrote yesterday, speaks these hopeful words:

“The appetites that God has created in us lead to the satisfactions he has promised.”

That is hopeful, but it does not promise immediate satisfaction. And so Peterson reflects on the role of pastoral ministry in guiding struggling Christians through what has been called such ‘dark nights’ of the soul. The counsel he gives pastors is applicable to all Christians as we come alongside of others who are struggling.

Too often all we know to offer those struggling spiritually are trite and simple “fixes” to their struggle of doubt and loneliness. Rather what they may need are friends comfortable with walking with them through the valley of the shadow doubt and even death. They need friends who understand that such spiritual struggles are not abnormal and cannot be rushed.

Peterson’s words are not only wise and refreshing, but counterintuitive in our technocratic age. It is good for us to hear them.

5 Smooth Stones

“The accounts of saints who tell of the ‘dark nights’ of the soul are familiar. Their search for God seems endless and futile, but is broken into by moments of ecstasy when they find (or our found by) the one they sought….”

“Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it. It does not attribute the agony of longing to a neurosis, it does not search for a cause in moral deficiency, it does not try to ‘cure’ it by working for an adaptive adjustment to ‘reality.’ It honors the quest. The difficult painful moments of unfulfilled longing are integral to the nature of the relationships.

“It is not the pastor’s job to simplify the spiritual life, to devise common-denominator formulas, to smooth out the path of discipleship. Some difficulties are inherent in the way of spiritual growth — to deny them, to minimize them, or to offer shortcuts is to divert the person from true growth. It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow.”

Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, pages 49-51

Appreciating Pastors

The religion editor of the Orlando Sentinel passed on the details from a press release he had received from a local church sponsoring a “Pastor Appreciation 5K Run/Walk”. Included in the release was the predictable content:

“A significant part of the health and strong culture of our community is built on the backs of hundreds of dedicated pastors, who week in and week out guide, nourish, counsel, comfort and challenge as many as 1,000,000 of our citizens. This is a tangible way for us to show that we are grateful,” said Patrick Morley, founder of Man in the Mirror ministries.

Wow. I know this is meant well, but it is a bit over the top. I like what I do, and I think what pastors do is important, but I also think what garbage collectors do is important (and dangerous – see #4!). Should we not have a “Garbage Collectors 5K Run/Walk”?

This run is timed with what has come to be known as ‘Pastor Appreciation Month’. Again, I know this is meant to encourage those engaged in pastoral ministry. I’m sure it arose from good people wanting to find a tangible way to thank those whose ministry has impacted them. But for me, a month in which people send cards or run races to show appreciation has just enough artificiality about it to make it just a bit distasteful.

I thrive on being appreciated. I just read appreciation differently. Assuming there are other pastors out there like me, may I make a few modest suggestions regarding how to appreciate him?

1. Faithful attendance at public worship.

2. Saying ‘yes’ when asked to take on a responsibility that relieves a burden from him.

3. Assuming a responsibility when NOT asked to do so.

4. Holding realistic expectations of his ministry. That is, not expecting him to be Jesus, Paul, Piper, or Spurgeon.

5. Inviting others to attend your church.

6. Praying for him frequently, and letting him know you are doing so.

I’m sure others can suggest other ways by which appreciation can be shown. Coming alongside of the pastor and supporting (with attendance and deeds) the ministry which means so much to his heart is the greatest encouragement.

I don’t disparage cards, and gift cards (especially when they say ‘Starbucks’ on the outside!). But they mean more when they come in, say, February.

And while we are at it, let’s buy a dozen donuts and a card and pass them on to your garbage collector to tell him thanks.