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Being a Pastor Does Not Have To Be a Death Sentence by Ty Grigg

This week, I’m posting a review by Ty Grigg of a really important and good book on pastoral life. Ty Grigg is a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community and a regular contributor to the blog. You can read more about him here. I’ll be back posting my regular post (at the beginning of the week) next week! Also coming Wednesday, Ty responds to all the pushback to his last post on APEST last week. Should be good!

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Large.9781608997626-130x150In Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, he writes about an artist friend who painted his portrait while he was a seminarian.  When Peterson was allowed to look at the completed portrait, he had painted him in religious garb, hands folded over a Bible, face “gaunt and grim, the eyes flat and without expression” (164).  He looked sick and hollow.  The artist explained that this is what Eugene would look like in twenty years if he continued to pursue being a pastor.  Peterson kept the painting in the closet as a prophetic warning to not let the church suck the soul out of him.  As a young pastor just starting out, Peterson’s description of this painting has haunted me.  I am certainly aware that being a pastor is profoundly formational but sometimes I worry that it is forming me to be hollow rather than holy.

That Their Work Will Be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry by Cameron Lee and Kurt Fredrickson paints a vivid picture of the joys and stresses of being a pastor.  For those of us who suspect that eventually stress, burnout, and conflict may eventually take us out of pastoring, their message is simple:  Being a pastor does not have to be a death sentence – in fact, it can become a life-giving vocation again.

The book was born out of a groan.  Lee, speaking at a pastors’ event on ministry stress, mentioned offhandedly that he had contemplated writing an entire book called, “The Care and Feeding of your Pastor.”  There was a spontaneous, audible groan from the group.  This is that book.  It is written to pastors, congregations, and “seminarians” (or pastors-in-training) so that pastors might be filled with joy, rather than depressed and exhausted (Heb. 13:17).  As pastors themselves, they write from a pastor’s point of view.

The book’s clarion call for pastors (and congregations) is to return to a rhythm of Sabbath.  We live in an a-sabbath culture.  It simply makes no sense to us.  We get overworking to make things happen, busyness as confirmation of our significance, and finding identity in our jobs.  And we get rest if by ‘rest’ we mean collapsing on the couch after an exhausting day hoping that we can recover enough energy to make it through tomorrow.  But that is not Sabbath.  Pastors frequently push beyond emotionally and healthy limits in the name of sacrificial service.  They do not give themselves permission to stop, be still, and get in touch with their body and soul, with others, and with the world.

Sabbath chips away at the mindset that we are needed to keep the world spinning.  Sabbath creates space to remember who God is, who we are, and who the church is.  Sabbath reminds us that God is faithful and sovereign; that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the sheep – not us.  Sabbath reminds us that we are called by God, and we can rest in the calling knowing that God will give us and the church what is needed.  Sabbath reminds us that people are not problems to be solved or conflicts to be avoided, but a kingdom of priests filled with the Spirit and through whom God is present and working – especially in the mess.

One of the strengths of the book is the way that it is able to speak to multiple audiences at the same time:  pastors, pastor families, congregations, and pastors-in-training.  At the end of each chapter, they speak directly to each group while the others “listen in.”  This is important because it recognizes that the problem of pastors burning out needs to be owned by both pastors and congregations.

Two questions emerge for me as I read this book.

  1. We do not talk much about Sabbath in our pastoral team or in our congregation.  Are our churches safe places to talk and encourage Sabbath-keeping without fear of being perceived as lazy or fear of people feeling like projects/work when we guard our Sabbath time from being with others?  Especially in our context of bi-vocational ministry, Sabbath feels even more complicated.  Sunday feels like a “work” day – a day of ministry serving the community.  On Monday, we still have to go to work in our other “job.”  What do other bi-vocational pastors do to set aside time for quiet, prayer, and being a child of God?
  2. We need to talk more about how our environment is shipwrecking pastors.  We need to name and challenge the powers that say to pastors, “you are what you produce” and says to congregations, “your pastor should be more.”  The roles and expectations of pastors are in flux and everyone has a projection of what a pastor should do.  Some of these expectations are legitimate and some are not.  We cannot leave this entirely up to pastors or to congregations.  Churches need Spirit-led conversations about the gifts and limits of her leaders.  How do we discern locally what it looks like for a pastor to be faithfully fulfilling her or his vocation?

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