I love Eugene Peterson. Well, his writings anyway. But I am going to dare to differ with him on this one.
Let’s be clear: I am huge Eugene Peterson fan. Huge. I read him and quote him and because of him, I have read people like Wendell Berry, for one. One off-hand comment he made when he came to talk at a “Theological Breakfast” at Fuller Theological Seminary changed my whole trajectory of ministry. And I once made a complete fool of myself in order to sit next to him at a conference where we were both speakers
So, when Rhett Smith posted a link on Facebook to a Gabe Lyon’s interview about Peterson’s take on pastoral work, I immediately clicked on it. Rhett highlighted these two paragraphs and I want to take issue with one word that I wish he had omitted: “organizational”.
“The way I understood the uniqueness of the pastoral vocation is that it is insistently personal. You cannot do pastoral work in a programmatic or impersonal or organizational way.
You've got to know the names of these people, know their lives, be in their homes. The unique vocation of pastor is to know those people. And at the same time, to know the scriptures, the whole world of scripture, so that stories of those people get integrated to the stories of scripture.”
To use a kind of parallelism that renders “organizational” synonymous to “programmatic” or even worse “impersonal” is to miss some of the true challenge, the “mess amidst the mystery” (to use a Peterson term) that is pastoral work.
Pastors, at least, pastors of congregations, need be both “personal” and “organizational”. If they are not, then they are likely not pastors. Spiritual directors, certainly. Evangelists, possibly. Prophets, maybe. But to be a pastor means to pastor both persons and the communities of which those persons are part. It is to know the people, the scriptures, AND the organizational systems in which the word struggles to take root, grow in the souls and bear fruit in the lives of actual persons in actual towns and cities and cultures.
To use an illustration that I believe Peterson would both approve and understand (he has famously quoted Wendell Berry on the similarities between pastoral work and farm life), it’s the difference between Johnny Appleseed and an apple farmer.
The farmer has to attend to both the seeds and the soil, and indeed, even more than the soil. The farmer must be personally connected to the land yes, but also to the fences, the barns, the silos and the livestock. The farmer must pay personal attention to the environment, the weather, the terrain and the seasons. The farmer must attend to the whole organic system that is the farm. In the same way, a pastor can be the very best, most personally attentive, loving, caring, engaged and involved “shepherd” attending to the sheep, but if she doesn’t build a safe sheep pen, the wolves come.
And, let's be clear: For most of us pastors, the organizational part is way harder than the personal part. We became pastors because we love people and we love the word. Most of us wish that we could somehow limit our calling to knowing our people and knowing the scriptures. But we also know better. The church organizational system needs as much pastoring as any person and this is exactly where most of us are ill-prepared. We till the soil, we plant the seed, we water and wait for harvest...and then the fences fail, the roof caves in, the well runs dry and the backhoe needs a new battery. The bank calls our loan, the government changes its policies,the markets fluctuate, and huge cultural forces seem to conspire against us. (Sounds like a church, huh?)
The root word for organizational is the same as “organic”. And perhaps that is a better distinction to make. With a growing dissatisfaction of impersonal organizational models, the answer isn’t to create a false divide between personal and organizational. It is to re-personalize the organizational; to learn the ways of “organic” organizational pastoring. To reconsider our organizational models around the actual descriptions of health and fruitfulness that the scriptures teach and humans need.
And I think Eugene Peterson, himself a farmer, could help us all on thinking about this one.