As a congregation, we had achieved critical mass, we were self-supporting financially, we had built a sanctuary that gave visibility to our worshipping presence in the neighborhood. It was the beginning of what I earlier called the badlands era in which the euphoria of establishing a church had gone flat,
the adrenaline of being involved in a challenging enterprise had drained out. I had worked hard for those three years. The congregation had worked hard. We couldn’t sustain it.
Except that I tried. I formed committees. I made home visits. Longer hours. A longer workweek. Just a few years previous to this, Roger Bannister, the first 4-minute miler, wrote his autobiography in which he described life following his high-profile athletic celebrity. He wasn’t breaking records anymore.
He compensated by working harder and harder. He described himself as a carpenter who “made up for his lack of skill by using a lot of nails.” That was me. I had tried to slow down. I had tried to relax, but I was afraid of failing. I couldn’t help myself.
One evening after supper, Karen—she was 5years old at the time—asked me to read her a story. I said, “I’m sorry, Karen, but I have a meeting tonight.”
“This is the 27th night in a row you have had a meeting.” She had been keeping track, counting.
The meeting I had to go to was with the church’s elders, the ruling body of the congregation. In the 7-minute walk to the church on the way to the meeting I made a decision. If succeeding as a pastor meant failing as a parent, I was already a failed pastor. I would resign that very night.
We met in my study. I convened the meeting and scrapped the agenda. I told them what Karen had said 20 minutes earlier in our living room, and I resigned. I told them I had tried not to work so hard, but that I didn’t seem to be able to do it. “And it’s not just Karen. It’s you, too. I haven’t been a pastor to this congregation for six months. I pray in fits and starts. I feel as if I’m in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I’m not listening to you; I am thinking of ways I can get the momentum going again. My sermons are thrown together. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family.”
“So what do you want to do?” This was Craig speaking. His father had been a pastor. He knew some of this from the inside.
“I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can’t do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.
“I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is
subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can’t do this just by trying harder.
“I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ—your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can’t do that when I am running scared.
“I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make Scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a mere layperson.
“I want to have the time to read a story to Karen.
“I want to be an unbusy pastor.”
This had turned into something of a harangue. I didn’t know so much sediment of discontent had accumulated in the previous six months. The six elders had listened patiently.
“Why don’t you just do it? This is the way you started out with us. Nobody complained, did they? As far as I know, everyone was delighted. The people who didn’t like you this way have left. So what’s stopping you?” This was Jason, a retired colonel—a problem-solving mind, impatient of ambiguities.
“What’s stopping me is that I have to run this church.”
“Why don’t you let us run the church?” This was Craig again.
“Because you don’t know how.” Mildred was less than tactful. “It sounds to me like you aren’t doing such a good job yourself. Maybe we could learn.”
They did. And I did. Instead of a resignation that night, we had a reorganization. We spent the next hour discussing how to go about this. When the evening was over, they had taken over running the church. They assured me they could handle this. All of them said they had learned the running-the-church aspects in their own jobs, professions, and careers—on the job. Each in his or her own way said, “Trust us.”
We agreed that from then on I would attend no committee meetings. I would continue to moderate the monthly session (the meeting of elders), but that would be it. If they needed me to meet with them or their committees as a consultant for 20 minutes or so, they would invite me. The hands-on work of running the church—how and when and who—was their responsibility. The energy flowing around the table was palpable.
Two weeks later, there was a meeting of the stewardship committee. It was budget time. Important decisions would be made. I was at home and restless. I picked up a book, but I couldn’t concentrate. Karen didn’t ask me to read a story with her. After 30 minutes of pacing and fiddling, I walked to the
church and into the meeting of the committee. They were seated around a table. I pulled up a chair off to the side. They looked at me inquiringly. I said, “I wasn’t doing anything this evening. Just thought I’d stop in and encourage you.”
Jim, the presiding elder, an insurance agent, said, “You don’t trust us, do you?”
Taken aback, I said nothing, and then, “I guess I don’t. But I’ll try.” I left. I didn’t go back.
Trusting them wasn’t easy for me. For these three and half years of new church development I had been the leader. Things had gone well. I liked being in charge. Jim’s remark when I showed up at that budget meeting hit the mark. I didn’t trust them, but I had said I would learn; and I did, but it took me a
while. Sometimes they made plans and decisions I didn’t particularly like, but I knew I couldn’t have it both ways. If they let me be the pastor I wanted to be, I would have to let them be the elders they wanted to be. Mildred was right: I hadn’t done such a great job of running the church. I let them do it. It turned out they were perfectly capable of learning on the job.
That was it for running the church. I did my part when asked. Occasionally I would offer a suggestion or write a note, but no more committee meetings. During the next 26 years and two more major building campaigns, growing to a congregation numbering 500, still no committee meetings.
With their blessing, I was free to cultivate the invisibles that made up so much of my pastoral vocation in the long obedience. They made it possible for me to be an unbusy pastor.
From The Pastor: A Memoir. Copyright © 2011 by Euguene Peterson. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.