For the past 30 years (with the exception of the past 8 months) I have served as a pastor. First of all as a pastor to students at the University of South Carolina and after that pastor at 3 churches: 1 in Virginia, 1 in South Carolina and 1 in Tennessee. Prior to that I worked in the nuclear power industry. I graduated from Clemson University with a BS in Chemical Engineering and at that time (1975) the nuclear power industry was in a growth stage. Many nuclear engineering companies and utility companies were looking for Chem E’s to staff their plants or their design teams.
I was the engineer responsible for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste (not the high-level stuff they are battling with now in Japan). I knew nothing about electrical engineering or about civil engineering and did not try and tell those guys how to design their portion of the plant. But likewise they did not tell me how to deal with the chemical realities of low-level radioactive waste. They trusted me to know my field and to design well.
After 2 years in the nuclear industry, I heard (I believe) God’s call to the ministry, the call to be a pastor. Debbie and I packed our house, moved to Jackson, MS and I enrolled in the MDiv program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Four years later I graduated (it was a three year program but I had no background in the humanities and for 2 1/2 years I worked as an engineer) and answered (again) God’s call to be a pastor. This time it was back to my home town, Columbia, to be pastor to students for the PCA at the University of South Carolina.
It was a wonderful time that resulted in friendships that last until today. The campus work in the Presbyterian Church in America was so new that about the only ones who sought to give me advise on how to do my work were either fellow campus ministers (a small number at the time) or my mentor Mark Lowery who really knew what he was talking about.
In 1998, for a variety of reasons, I decided to leave campus ministry and become the pastor of a local church (my friend and my former RUF intern at USC, Tom Cannon, has been quoted as saying: “RUF, what do we say about RUF? It is wonderful, we never leave the ministry of RUF”). This first call to a local pastorate was to Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Woodbridge, VA. This was a congregation which was very patient with a pastor who was still trying to figure out what it meant to be a pastor. After that I was pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC for almost 11 years and after that pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Murfeesboro, TN for 8 and 1/2 years.
All of these calls were wonderful experiences that had both blessings and difficulties. But one of the things that I noticed about the work of a pastor at a local church that was different from being the pastor to students was that everyone thought they had a better understanding of the work of a pastor than I did. I alway thought about how different this was from being in the nuclear industry. When I was responsible for designing systems for low-level radioactive waste disposal the rest of the engineers thought I knew what what I was talking about (or that I could learn what I needed to know by conferring with my colleagues in the field) but would never tell me how to “do my job”.
When I entered the ministry as the pastor of a local church, I found that everyone thought they knew what a “pastor” should be or do better than I did. For a long time I found myself thinking that I was unusual in thinking that this was an unusual experience, an odd situation. Lately, however, I have been reading the memoirs of Eugene Peterson (one of my favorite authors) entitled The Pastor and I have found out that my perceptions were not only mine but that of many who have served as pastors in the past 50 years in America.
So I have decided to keep a running tab of my favorite quotes from Peterson’s book. Here is my first entry.
1. “North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor. Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistant…I love being an American. I love this place in which I have been placed – it’s language, its history, its energy. But I don’t love ‘the American way’, its culture and values. I don’t love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don’t love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women, and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don’t love the competitive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies”.
2. “We also realized that we envied the authority that Dr. Hansen carried as a psychiatrist. We would have loved to experience that, but it didn’t seem likely. People in general, even when they don’t know what a psychiatrist does in detail, assume that he knows. Pastors have no comparable identity recognition. Virtually nobody knows what we do – not our congregations, not the community, very often not the professors who taught us, not even (and this is the most unsettling) the bishops and executives and superintendents who provide overall direction and council for our work.”
3. “We are tired of letting people who were not pastors tell us what we should be doing or not doing as pastors. The sociologists and academics, the psychologists and business executives, the talk-show gurus and religious entrepreneurs had all had their say about us long enough”.
4. “How do I keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is give me a job description? How do I keep the calling, the vocation, of pastor from being drowned out by job descriptions, gussied up in glossy challenges and visions and strategies, clamoring incessantly for my attention”.
Well I am a little over half way through the book and these are some (of many!) outstanding quotes. I will post more as I make my way through this exceptional book.