Scot McKnight has been carrying on a brilliant exchange with Mark Stevens of Australia on the calling and role of the pastor. The impetus that set this conversation in motion is the challenge of the megachurch to the vocation and current embodiment of the role of the pastor, and because I have been both nurtured within and am currently a member of a megachurch, I found these words pertinent. I have also served as a "pastor" within the large church context, though not in the senior leadership role. I know firsthand the pressures of being "visionary", or leading successful programs, of applied analytics that seem to be more numerically abstract than concrete and fleshy. I think that it is very difficult to be in a large church context and remain a pastor, rather than an entrepreneurial visionary leader of a religious enterprise. Not impossible, but very difficult.
Stevens advocates a "Petersonian" perspective on the pastorate, and in his correspondence with McKnight, draws insight from Eugene Peterson's works The Pastor and Working the Angles (if Andy Rowell's correction in the comments is on point), both to great effect. Leaning on Peterson, Stevens names the three primary aspects of pastoral vocation as:
- and Spiritual Direction.
"But of course!", you might say. Pastors should pray. They should read and study and know Scripture inside and out and help us to hear its words rightly and truthfully in our particular cultural moment. And yes, they should help us tend to our own souls, if indeed we have one, and encourage us along the path as we grow in maturity to Christ. Of course this is the role of the pastor.
But as I've said above, the large church does not always concern itself, primarily, with prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Oftentimes it is programs, soaring attendance, and strategic planning, done in a way devoid of spiritual energy; fueled by business acumen. Shepherding a soul is not the same thing as herding bodies through programs. Numerical growth is not always indicative of spiritual growth. And strategic planning can, at times, depart from the call of congregational faithfulness and move toward the achievement of personal ambition, particularly for that of the senior leader.
Senior leaders, or pastors, of large congregations can fall prey to the temptation to establish themselves in a pastoral career, rather than within a pastoral vocation. Looking forward to the next generation of pastoral leaders, I have expressed this very concern at Resurrection, albeit quietly, when considering the name of our pastoral discernment program for students, "MAC Track", or "Ministry as Career". Here is Stevens on the subtle nuance between vocation and career, and the discreet way the latter can overwhelm the former:
The truth is there is no blue-print for being a pastor. The circumstances and call of each pastor and their ministry are as unique as the person themselves. Nevertheless, those who are called to lead the church are called to be shepherds of God’s people. My concern is with how the pastoral vocation is conceived of, developed and understood. It is easy for most of us to give lip service to what it means to be a faithful parson when in reality what we do and what we are taught to do is pursue careers. We plan, we build we call people to follow us and our vision for God’s church. I just don’t think this is what it means to be faithful. It maybe how the world defines faithfulness to a c[a]reer but I don’t see it as faithful pastoral practice.
Being a pastor is not a career, it is a calling. And on this occasion, I would contend "but it is both!" will not do.
Being a pastor is a response to the voice of God to serve in a role that is unique within the community of those who believe in and call upon Jesus Christ as Lord. The role of that person is to cultivate an environment where the Word of God can be heard in the proclamation and reading of Holy Scripture, where the voice of God can be heard in the stillness, and where the Spirit of God can blow where it wills, propelling the sails of the great ark of salvation in whatsoever direction it deems faithful and best. All the while, the pastor prays for his people and teaches them to pray. The pastor listens to the people and helps the people listen to God. And the pastor witnesses to Jesus and points the people towards Christ.
Churches do not need more religious employees, those making a career out of regulating the machinations of spiritual gizmos. The church needs more pastors, those who have gotten in to the life of God, and by their very lives compel us likewise to get in to it and get in on it, to get a glimpse of the glory and to chase it forever, because there is nothing more beautiful, nothing more satisfying.
Like Stevens (please read his post), I do not think that the megachurch is devoid of value within the Kingdom. But I do think that it is a place filled with its own unique temptations and blind spots, and considering it is a rather recent phenomenon in world Christianity, I doubt we have yet discerned the extent of spiritual maladies that lurk within our midst. Careful discernment, and careful application of Christian wisdom is advised, as it would be in any small parish. And to discern and apply best, we will need pastors willing to shepherd the souls entrusted to their care, to pray, to immerse themselves in Scripture, and to offer us spiritual direction that helps us to better follow after Jesus.