The Campus Minister

Pastoring in North America

Today I come offering another excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s memoir.

I know that most of us love the work that we have been called to — whether we pastor college students, pre-college youth or post-college adults. But I wonder, to what degree do we find ourselves in these words that draw attention to the clash between our call and the culture within which we are called to serve:

North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor…

In the process of realizing my vocational identity as pastor, I couldn’t help observing that there was a great deal of confusion and dissatisfaction all around me with pastoral identity. Many pastors, disappointed or disillusioned with their congregations, defect after a few years and find more congenial work. And many congregations, disappointed or disillusioned with their pastors, dismiss them and look for pastors more to their liking. In the fifty years that I have lived the vocation of pastor, these defections and dismissals have reached epidemic proportions in every branch and form of church.

I wonder if at the root of the defection is a cultural assumption that all leaders are people who “get things done,” and “make things happen.” That is certainly true of the primary leadership models that seep into our awareness from the culture — politicians, businessmen, advertisers, publicists, celebrities, and athletes. But while being a pastor certainly has some of these components, the pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God — this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful “without ceasing.”

I want to give witness to this way of understanding pastor, a way that cant’ be measured or counted, and often isn’t even noticed. I didn’t notice for a long time. I would like to provide dignity to this essentially modest and often obscure way of life in the kingdom of God.

I am personally struck by Peterson’s description of the pastor as one who is “placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God.” He’s clearly setting this against a different kind of “leading” or “pastoring” that I know I struggle with at times — one that believes I am here to “get things done” and “make things happen.”

It would seem that as the pace of the culture around us speeds up, I (we) feel compelled at times (as pastors) to provide some sort of proof that we are indeed doing something.

That we are adding to the world.

That we are worth keeping around.

I’m curious to know:

  • How does this way of thinking and understanding mis/shapes our sense of calling?
  • How does it mis/shape our ministry efforts?
  • How does it mis/shape our sense of self? and of God?
  • Where do you find yourself in the passage above?

I’d love to know what you think! Please take a moment to share your thoughts in the comment section below.


  • This is right on.  Defining success is so critical in our shaping of vision and our struggles with idolatry.  I do think God created us as goal-oriented people, much like Himself…. but we struggle with this when those goals become our pursuit of identity rather than coming out of our identity.  This whole topic makes me think that, in at least one sense, the pastor’s role is to uphold the first of the ten commandments in a culture; but not just to say, “Keep the Lord first!”, but to actually teach and demonstrate to people how this is good for us and for the world… how love abounds when we understand the heart of it.  Eh.  I’m rambling.  In short, thanks!  Good stuff.  🙂

  • Shawn Leonard

    I believe congregations have become lazy in their relationship with God. So they put the pressure on the pastor “to get things done” when in truth it really should be the congregation stepping up and doing the work of the Lord.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Shawn!

      I can relate… and have expressed similar struggles — at different times, to different people — and then yesterday was confronted by this quote from Bonhoeffer (which I share in all humility): 

      “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him (or her) in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.”

      I wrote in the margin of the book: “Yikes!” 

      Very convicting words — especially in light of the very serious tension and struggle that Peterson talks about — and that many of us feel on a day to day basis.

  • Steve Rankin

    I think Peterson is on to something crucial here.  American Christians (Protestants, anyway) are exceedingly pragmatic, “get it done” people.  The question is, “get is done” according to what measures?  This is where we get in trouble.  The measures we use tend to be driven more by popular assumptions than by biblical values.  

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