A while ago one of the admissions guys from our denominational seminary was in town and stopped by. We talked for awhile. A short time later a book arrived in the mail. It was The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. As a result I read it while on study leave.
I am reminded of the story of Elisha hounding Elijah because he knew it was time for Elijah to “go home”. He asked for a double portion (the firstborn son’s inheritance). As I read this book I got the impression that he is the new Eugene Peterson. This is about the man in ministry and how he goes about ministry. It is not ivory tower theory, but born of the intersection of theology and life.
I am also reminded of the great men in Scripture who thought they would be great on their own terms, and then God humbled them and they became more useful. Zack is not the hero of this story, and neither are we. This is an honest book about the hard lessons he learned.
This is not a “perfect book”, and that is perfectly fine. There is plenty here to encourage, humble and re-direct. He breaks the book into 4 sections: Calling, Temptations, Reshaping the Inner Life and Reshaping the Work. There is an element of who the reader is that impacts how any book is perceived. For me the lag was in the 3rd section. In some ways though I suspect he could make a cottage industry of this with the Imperfect Husband, the Imperfect Father ….. precisely because this material does apply to all of these callings.
“My pastoral desires had become tainted, and I did not realize it. A lot of us don’t. We and our congregations suffer for it.”
The main part I took away from the first section on calling is the intersection of God’s calling and our past. Our history is important because we don’t just shake it off. It comes with us into our calling, and makes our fulfilling that calling more difficult. Our history shapes who we are (grace does too), often in ways we cannot or do not perceive. The more we ignore our history, the more it will impact how we do ministry.
The temptations pastors face, and are sometimes thrust upon them as demands, are important. In this section he has something of a mantra: “You and I were never meant to repent for not ___________. You and I are meant to repent because we tried to be.” His issue is our attempt to be like God, not in terms of His communicable attributes but in terms of His incommunicable attributes. We want to be everywhere (and at the right time), able to fix everything, knowing everything and that everything can happen NOW. Here he quotes Eugene Peterson:
“I think the besetting sin of pastors, maybe especially evangelical pastors, is impatience.”
These temptations are part of the context of fulfilling our calling. We cannot avoid these temptations, but must face them much like Luke Skywalker has to face the temptations of the dark side. Except this doesn’t happen in a cave, but in the course of ministry.
“When Jesus begins to rescue us from trying to fix it all, know it all, be everywhere for all as fast and as famously as possible, we find ourselves in a hard spot.”
The 3rd section sounds like it has been greatly influenced by The Contemplative Pastor. He encourages speaking less and listening more (James 1:19). There will be a time to speak, but first we must listen. This is made even more difficult in the social media/sound bite world we live in. He offers three thoughts for other pastors for us to ponder in our “detox”.
- The boundaries of your calling reveal God’s pastoral care for you. He knows our limitations and capacities, precisely because He gave them to you. He doesn’t expect you to go beyond those limitations. Respect them.
- In trying so hard not to miss out, you actually create the thing you fear. Too many pastors are so busy going to conferences that they miss out on their actual calling. I’m not called to go to conferences, but to shepherd people.
- Smaller is always better than larger unless, and only if, God extrudes us. I’ve only been a small church pastor. I see some larger church pastors struggling to actually shepherd. They are teachers (and there are times I wish I was primarily a teaching/preaching “pastor”). God does put some people in these larger contexts, but we have to resist the selfish ambition that claws for them, always looking for the next, better & bigger position instead of shepherding the people where you are.
“When the three-fold omni-temptation to be like God takes hold of us with speed, we gradually turn to the Bible as a tool kit to make our programs work or our sermons applaudable rather than as the words of our Beloved meant to help anyone anywhere find the way home.”
The last two chapters, Local Knowledge and Leadership, are among the high points of the book. Ministry does not happen in a vacuum, but in a real place which is different from other real places. So he talks about how to grow in knowledge of your place (made more difficult with the internet which helps us know about every other place). Leadership takes a slower pace, more intentional and contemplative, including training. I’ve done some of this in training- the idea of shadowing and attending meetings to see how the guy fits in and approaches things. I can do more.
So, the bottom line is that I highly recommend this book to pastors and elders. The pastor cannot change the local culture and expectations alone. He needs the help of those in leadership with him. As they embrace the things Zack talks about, the healthier their leadership and churches will become.