I have just finished reading Eugene Peterson’s, The Pastor: A Memoir. It is bracing and consoling reading for anyone who is, or aspires to be a pastor, and it is a reality check for anyone who has a pastor. He takes aim at the American consumer culture and what it has done to our conception of church. The American values of being competitive, impersonal, and functional bothers him. One of his peers had informed their ministerial group that he was moving to a larger congregation. Peterson felt that his reasons were suspect, fueled by adrenaline, ego and size. He wrote him the following letter.
I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?
I certainly understand its appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specializes in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.
It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”
The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.”
Peterson is suspicious of the ego benefit of crowds. He thinks that it is a false goal to pursue, and destructive of pastoral ministry. The larger the church the more complex the role of the pastor. He ends up being responsible for running the church on a business model. Peterson writes that he didn’t “want to be a pastor whose sense of worth derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture.”
I know of which he speaks. Having pastored a large, multi-staff, city-wide congregation, I remember the days full of administrative duties, of having to fund the budget from year to year, of having to watch the numbers of attendees, and of having to improve results from year to year. It is soul-destroying of pastoral work. It depersonalizes the ministry. Down-sizing my responsibilities eleven years ago probably saved my health and my vocation. I can remember John Stott having to do the same thing at All Souls, Langham Place, London, when he stepped down from being Senior Pastor/Rector, and reorganized the staff to allow himself more time for the exercise of his gifts. Peterson challenges us to look again at ministry with his fresh eyes to make sure that we are not chasing after false goals.