Four books currently sit on my reading table in my living room, and I’m partway through all of them.
One book is called, “Make or Break Your Church in 365 Days.” I read this book to give me some idea of how in the world to be a pastor. This book’s writer lays out the very clear 50-60 hour a week schedule for the pastor seeking to transform a church, all centered on one purpose: you must make more disciples of Jesus Christ outside of your church walls. The emphasis is on people outside the church; care for people inside the church comes second. The emphasis is on getting lunch with non-Christians, getting breakfast with key leaders in the church, spending lots of time in the community, and training your church to evangelize, give more money, count how many people show up to church, and get on board with the new mission so the church doesn’t age and die. If you do this, you will be a successful pastor and your church will grow in numbers.
The next book is called, “The Care of Souls.” I read this book when the previous one is too overwhelming and makes me feel I’m not doing a great job. This book’s writer admonishes that the pastor’s main responsibility is to care for souls and cure souls. The emphasis is on shepherding the people inside the church; reaching those outside the church is an additional, but not the primary, responsibility. The emphasis is on spending time by hospital bedsides, getting deeply acquainted with the congregation, and cultivating your own relationship with Jesus Christ so you can give his gifts to your people. By page 60, I have found no reference to the evangelism or the scheduling so primary in the first book. If you do this, you will be a successful pastor and your church will grow in spirit.
The third book is called, “The Pressure’s Off.” I read this book when both the previous two books are two overwhelming because I’m not carrying out either role perfectly. This writer points out the human tendency to live the “Old Way,” to conduct life in a certain way and to expect God’s blessings, and he argues that we must live the “New Way,” realizing that we don’t follow Jesus for his blessings, but for intimacy with God himself. The writer focuses on the importance of spending hours alone with Christ, not measuring one’s tangible productivity of success. If you do this or don’t do this, who knows if you’ll be a successful pastor or what will happen to your church? It’s not about the results anyway – the pressure’s off!
The fourth book is called, “Hey Ranger,” and is a collection of silly stories from a forest ranger mistaking a Saint Bernard for a bear and coming up with goofy acronyms. I read that book when I have no stomach for any of the above three.
Now that it’s borderline illegal for me to spend time with people, the way I conduct my role as a pastor has changed significantly. I can’t have meetings in person; I can’t visit people; I can’t share meals; I can’t stop by the hospital. However, though the stay-at-home order has granted me the gift of a lighter schedule and slower life, I’m trying to remember it’s not vacation, either. That’s meant a lot more reading, and I have been cycling through these books most days. As you might gain from the paragraphs above, it’s something of an emotional roller coaster.
Book 1 makes me think, “Oh, man! We have GOT to do more to reach unbelievers. We need to grow our church. I need to spend more time with key leaders. I have to learn how to evangelize. I need to de-prioritize visits with people in the church where we just sit and have coffee and don’t do something productive. I must spend 40 hours a week working to evangelize!” Book 2 makes me think, “Wait! Sitting and having coffee IS the most productive thing I can do! I need to deeply minister to the needs of my people. I must spend 40 hours a week caring for my people!” Book 3 makes me think, “Wait! I need to have a stronger relationship with Jesus. How could I possibly lead anyone to him if I don’t know him? I must spend 40 hours a week just learning to love Jesus!”
Then I realize I have a 120 hour week in my brain, and no idea where to begin, and that all of the things I’m being told to do are illegal because of a global pandemic anyway, so I read silly stories about bears.
Perhaps it strikes some as a peculiar torture, to read a gauntlet of books that inevitably contradict the other. But for once, it’s actually been quite liberating. Over the past few years in training for this role, I have read countless books. Books like God’s Country, The Art of Pastoring, and an article The Unbusy Pastor all argue a pastor’s workweek must be very simple: pray, study, visit. You are paid to not work. You must be close to Jesus to lead people to him, and you can’t do it with a busy schedule, working no more than 40 hours. On the other hand, books like Canoeing the Mountains and Leading Congregational Change argue that churches are dying in America, and the simple pastor schedule isn’t enough, and you must equip and enable your congregation for transformation in this new age, working no less than 40 hours. Seven Lessons for Your First Year in Pastoral Ministry insists upon spending at least 20 hours in the office preparing your sermon, since it’s the most important part of your ministry, while Make or Break Your Church says half your workweek must be spent outside of the office in community, while The Imperfect Pastor says sometimes you work a full emotional day in one hour and you need to go home and rest. Spurgeon’s Lectures to His Students implies a preacher who neglects to converts souls is a failure, while Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers decries altar calls and points out only God can work conversion. And Art of Pastoring says it’s not even worth it to read the how-to books, anyway, since 20 minutes of good theology will teach you everything you need to know, but who in God’s name knows what’s going on when I open up Calvin’s Institutes?
My point isn’t to illustrate how well-read I am, but how poorly informed I feel. I’ve read a million books on how to be a pastor, grew up the son of a pastor, went to a school for pastors, have pastors as most of my best friends, and still walk into the office most Mondays with no earthly clue what in the world I’m supposed to do, since one pastor would say, “Pray,” one would say, “Study,” one would say, “Visit,” one would say, “Evangelize,” and the other would say, “What office?” And I’m still not sure what Steve says.
But it’s kind of a beautiful thing, in a way, because I know I’m not alone. Not just for the number of pastors who have told me they still have no idea what they’re doing; but because the Christian life is the same way. We’ve heard a million sermons telling us to evangelize, or stop sinning, or start giving, or keep loving. We’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover, or a bunch of how-to books, or attended a prayer retreat. We’ve been told how to live a good Christian life in a multitude of different ways, yet so many of us feel not only that we aren’t living the good Christian life we should be, but that we have no idea where even to start. The gazillions of sins I still commit every week? The countless friends I’m too scared to share the gospel with? The legions of faith doctrines I don’t understand? Where do I even begin?
I think this pandemic offers us a chance to slow down and refocus for a morning, because there are a million different voices clamoring telling us what to do, how to do it, to the point that it’s easy to want to give it all up and read about bears. That’s why, I think, my gauntlet of books has actually been a brilliant idea, because it reminds me of four things, for me as a pastor, and us as believers:
Firstly, that no matter what life looks like in and after this pandemic, I somewhere, somehow must be seeking to minister to non-Christians. That is my call as a pastor, a Christian, and a follower of God. That’s the Great Commission. Whether I’m calling old friends, volunteering at the food pantry, connecting with visitors to the church, all Christians must all seek to make more disciples of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, that no matter what life looks like in and after this pandemic, I somewhere, somehow must be seeking to minister to Christians. That too is my call as pastor, Christian, and follow of God: to love one another. That’s the Great Commandment. Whether I’m phoning members of my congregation, setting up a prayer chain, or checking in on physical needs, all Christians must seek to love the body of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, that no matter what life looks like in and after this pandemic, I somewhere, somehow must allow Jesus to minister to me. That’s my call as a child of God. I can’t do what he’s called me to do if I’m not realizing he’s called me out of love for me. That no matter whether I get an A or an F on the Great Commandment and Great Commission, Jesus’ radical love for me does not change, and the pressure is off. All Christians must seek to cultivate deep intimacy with Jesus Christ themselves.
And fourthly, that balancing all of the above three at any and every time is impossible, and even if it were possible, we’d fail at it. The 120 hour week is not realistic or sustainable, and the 40 hour week is one we’ll still struggle to manage because we’re broken people. I get the privilege of having a job dedicated to carrying out our calls as Christians, and I still struggle to balance them all. We do the very best we can, entrust the rest to God, and then can read about bears, because he loves us, it’s okay, and he’s given us a world and a God to enjoy.
In this pandemic world, let’s make sure we’re not on vacation from our responsibilities as Christians – there are people who need to know Jesus, and people who know Jesus but need to experience him through us. But let’s also make sure to receive the gift of a slower schedule, a God who loves us, and who encourages us to read about bears when the pressure’s too much.
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