By Barry Howard
For 34 years now, I have had the privilege of serving as a pastor. Even after all of these years I consider myself to be a student of ministry, not an expert. I have been privileged to serve remarkable congregations who have challenged me, frustrated me, and taught me more than I have taught them.
Although I have been blessed with wonderful mentors across my ministry, in recent years my perspectives on being a pastor have been heavily influenced by writers such as Eugene Peterson. One of Peterson’s latest books, The Pastor: A Memoir, is an inspiring autobiographical account of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry and to live out that vocation in a unique community.
While Peterson is known to many primarily for his popular Bible translation called The Message, for me his greatest contribution has been his writings about pastoral work. Years ago I read three of Peterson’s books about pastoral ministry: Five Smooth Stones of Pastoral Work, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Unpredictable Plant. In a church world that looks to the pastor to be the CEO, a chaplain-on-demand, or an ecclesial entrepreneur, Peterson reminds ministers and churches that a pastor is more like a spiritual director, a “soul friend” who walks alongside others pointing out what God is doing in their life.
In a fast paced world, where a competitive consumerist culture has invaded the church, pastors are often expected to be an idealistic combination of captivating motivational speaker, savvy executive/administrator, and extraordinary counselor. But the call to be a pastor is unique. There is no other vocation like it.
The call to be a pastor is unique because the nature and purpose of the church is unique. Veteran pastor Hardy Clemons reminds us that the church is to be “more family than corporation.” Clemons reminds pastors and churches of their peculiar mission:
“Our goal is to minister: it is not to show a profit, amass a larger financial corpus or grow bigger for our own security. The ultimate goals are to accept God’s grace, share the good news, invite and equip disciples, and foster liberty and justice for all.”
While serving as a pastor involves skills and responsibilities that are similar to other career paths, being a pastor is a vocation like no other. Although ministers and laity alike will be tempted to compare the role of the pastor to executive roles in the marketplace, the call to be a pastor is distinctive. Peterson stresses that a call to pastoral ministry is a call to spiritual discernment and caring within a particular local congregation and community. It is not a “one size fits all” occupation that functions uniformly in cookie cutter churches.
In his Memoir, Peterson summarizes his understanding of the biblical role of a pastor:
The pastor 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.’
Each one of us is responsible to God for fulfilling our calling in life. Thirty-eight years ago I confirmed my calling to be a pastor, and I am still learning and growing and understanding more of what it means to provide spiritual direction to a congregation.
While the call to be a pastor is neither a superior calling nor an elite calling, it is an important calling. For me, being a pastor is more than what I do. It is who I am called to be. It is more than a job. Being a pastor is the life I am called to live, a life that connects with all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances at the most crucial junctures between birth and death. And that is a calling unlike any other.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)