Another excerpt from the introduction of my doctoral thesis on the pastoral vocation.
Behind this project lies a 20-year long vocational crisis and a weary pastor’s soul. My personal faith journey was ignited in college through an explosive encounter with Jesus while reading the Book of Acts. Ever since that inner awakening I have wanted to do nothing but help others have their own encounter with Christ and find their place in God’s Big Story.
I remember being seized by two strong convictions at the time: first, I wanted to open the Scriptures to others in ways that made made their ears tingle and hearts burn; but, second, I wanted nothing to do with leadership in a church. I was convinced most churches were driven mainly by potlucks, politics, and pocketbooks. I was young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—driven by an idealistic picture of the early church unfettered by modern church bureaucracy with a burning desire to, in the words of Dallas Willard, “lead people to become disciples of Jesus by ravishing them with a vision of life in the kingdom of the heavens in the fellowship of Jesus.”
Like Paul standing before Festus, I stood before my Bible professors and concluded, “Very well! You professors have made the Christian life appealing, so to the professorship I shall go (cf. Acts 25:12)! God had different plans. Despite my protests and preferences, God called me into church ministry and I have been kicking and screaming ever since. Just as Paul found himself “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14), so I have found myself kicking against certain aspects or common expectations of the pastorate.
First, I want to grow disciples, but feel more pressure to grow the organization. Second, I am a reclusive introvert trying to survive in an extroverted people-pleasing profession. Third, I am a contemplative writer in an upfront, public speaking profession. Fourth, I want to go deeper with a few in a church culture that values reaching wide often at the expense of depth. Fifth, I am an idealist with a non-conformist streak, and whereas many pastors will settle into the conventional ministry/pastoral mold and make the best of it, I have spent the past 20 years resisting the pressure to conform by planting new ministries, carving out my own niche roles, and cultivating cultures that reflect (to my eyes) more ancient and biblical ideals and values.
I have often felt out of place among other pastors as they talk about their church’s growth, celebrate the latest building campaign, flex their people-pleasing muscles, discuss the latest leadership model they picked up from the latest leadership conference. The leadership vision of many pastors seems to always point “up and to the right” like business growth models. I, on the other hand, find my pastoral calling leading me repeatedly downward into isolation, frustration, and near-burnout. What has kept me going when I have wanted to quit is that my seemingly strange vision for the role of the pastor is actually quite at home with the long chain of Christian sages who have shepherded souls down through the ages.
I often feel like I am treading water in a sea of strong and savvy senior pastors, watching them stand proudly at the helm of their mighty cruise ships, while I barely keep afloat while clinging desperately to a piece of driftwood—ancient driftwood that may contain the secret to our true pastoral calling. To put it sharply: Maybe I am not strange; everyone else is!
Still, my pastoral toes are sore from kicking against the goads of conventional church and ministry for all these years. I am tired of feeling marooned in ministry on the island of misfit pastors. I am tired of treading water on the waves of every new yet quickly passing church growth trend. I am tired of clinging to driftwood while another well-funded Christian “cruise ship” crashes against the rocks in another leadership scandal. Is there another way?
Let us journey back in time to examine the ancient context for pastoral work and spiritual formation. The ancient world and these ancient sages are very different from our contemporary North American church context. Yet, for me at least, I find myself more at home in the company of these early pastors as they heeded the same call I have been given: To “proclaim [Christ], admonishing every person and teaching every person with all wisdom, so that we may present every person fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).