Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Pastor

When I started out in this pastor thing I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't even know a pastor is considered self-employed and so he has to file quarterly income taxes. That was just one of many things I did not know. There were many role models but not many good ones. Most of the pastors who came to speak at the seminary I attended were older and pastoring the kind of large churches that most of us seminarians would only pastor in our imaginations. After a few fits and starts I wound up at my first full time "senior" (I was the "only" pastor) pastor position. It was a struggling small town church which was meeting in another denomination's church in town. Our church building had been condemned being about a thousand years old. So we worked hard and eventually combined the two churches into one (now we were The United Church) and planned an addition. Everyone worked hard again. Then it was done. People relaxed and some stopped attending and I wondered what I was supposed to do now. Keep working hard, keep adding new people, keep planning new programs and keep finding more volunteers and church staff. Pretty soon none of that was working and I had a growing family which I wasn't seeing much of. I was discouraged and pretty well burnt out. What else could I do. I started looking around. About that time I happened onto Eugene Peterson. First, a pastor friend of mine spent a three month sabbatical at his church in Baltimore. Then, my sister and husband who were doing youth ministry at our church went to a conference where they took one of his courses. Both were excited. So, I started reading what he was starting to publish. And I started listening to his courses on tape. He saved my ministerial life. Many times over the years. I have read just about everything he has written and that has been a lot. I have used the Message for years. That's why when his new book, Pastor, came out it did not have much in it I had not read somewhere else. Still it is nice to have all in one place and to see how his thinking and writing developed in his life. It is a good read. Highly recommended.

Peterson tells a similar story about starting out with a new church plant and when the congregation was gathered and the new building built after about four years he was in that same place, asking, now what do I do. He is a great story teller and he tells a story from early in his ministry when he didn't even expect to be a pastor. He was in NYC studying at Union Seminary working toward a PH.D. He planned to be a professor. He took a part time job at a Presbyterian Church working with young adults. Willi Ossa was the church janitor. He was also a serious painter. As Peterson got to know Willi and his wife, Willi asked if he could paint his portrait. Now Willi had grown up in Germany and his pastor supported the Nazis. He saw his church preach hatred for Jews and embrace Hitler as a modern prophet. He didn't know why Peterson or anyone would have anything to do with the church. He warned Peterson about what the church would do to his soul. Pastors were just functionaries in a bureaucracy where labels and rules were all that mattered. Willi and Peterson became friends and he did not want to see his friend hurt. For several Fridays Peterson sat for his portrait but after the session Willi would quickly cover it up. One Friday Willi's wife came into the room and looked at the nearly finished portrait. "Krank, krank", she cried. Peterson knew enough German to understand, "Sick, sick!" Then he caught Willi saying, "no, he's not sick now but that's the way he will look when the compassion is gone, when the mercy gets squeezed out of him." A couple weeks later Peterson got to see his portrait. There he was in a black robe, a red Bible on his lap with his hands folded over it. His face was gaunt and grim, eyes flat and expressionless. Peterson asked Willi why he had painted him like that. He said, I am painting you as you will look in twenty years... no matter how good your intentions, the church will suck the soul out of you... please, my friend, don't be a pastor.

Eventually, Peterson became a pastor but he says he kept that portrait in his closet for 55 years as a warning. Peterson's books functioned something like that for me. His books depict various ways to do this pastor thing; some ways he explains lead to death but some ways lead to life. He has been a good guide, a mentor; he saved my ministerial life.