It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.

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6 thoughts on “It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

  1. Are you watching Wolf Hall on PBS? Aside from certain historical inaccuracies, the drama powerfully sets forth the questions that cleaved the English church, pitting king against pope and Cromwell against More. These were questions of theological substance, not merely of worship preference or leadership style or even social vision. The church we serve today refuses to acknowledge the substantive quality of the questions that divide her, mocking their significance as if they were mere trifles and intramural squabbles. In doing so the church despises her Lord and his mission. Does parliament have the power to make a king head of the church? Does a General Conference have the authority to alter the order of creation with respect to marriage? Thomas More knew what was at stake and behaved accordingly. So should Hamilton and Slaughter, if only they understood what is at issue.

  2. I find myself pulled in both directions. I tend to to think of myself as an evangelical Lutheran…One foot in the bedrock foundations of church life and practice, with another foot in practical ministry.

    I generally do not trust the Hamilton’s of the world to stand firm on anything, but I’m also somewhat skeptical of approaches that would too quickly jettison practical approaches. I think that’s why the LCMC works well for me. We are anchored to the Scriptural, liturgical, and confessional writings of Lutheranism, but we are also open to exploring new and practical ministry practices.

    In the UMC I couldn’t personally trust the practical ministry folks because it seemed to me there was very little commitment to the Peterson-like depth. At the same time, I think I would have been unhappy in a body like…say…the LCMS, where practical and evangelical efforts and reforms are generally met with skepticism.

    For me it has to be a healthy balance of both. I like a lot of Peterson and a bit of Hamilton. If I had to choose one though, I would lean Peterson. 🙂

  3. I spent a lot of time “doing church” without a clue as to who God is when I woke up on Monday morning. In the aftermath of a pastor who was determined to “get ‘er done”, I found myself more lost, broken and confused than I had ever been. A Presbyterian pastor, M. Craig Barnes, met me where I was and took me to a deeper understanding of who God is and who I am. I ended up reading three books by him: “Body & Soul”, “When God Interrupts”, and “Sacred Thirst”. In all three he is very honest about the current state of the American Church: more often than not, it is an institution more concerned with its own survival than with the people within it. From his book “Body & Soul”:

    “…it is necessary to pause and confess that religion has actually contributed to our anxiety…even if you find the Christian way compelling, the next irresistible question is, Which Christian way? We simply have too many choices. Most North American churches work hard to develop attractive worship services and programs. That’s because, though they rarely admit it, they are competing with the other churches down the street. This does little to relieve anxiety. Instead, it makes people wonder if they’re at the right church.”

    Elsewhere, and I couldn’t find the exact quote he said something along the lines of often times church can become just another drug to dull the pain of life. People who are nice when they come to church become nice Christians; people who are jerks when they come to church are Christian jerks.

    I have listened enough to Adam Hamilton that I think, whether he realizes it or not, he has developed quite a leaning towards institutional preservation.

    As I have experienced, and as Wesley discovered, the true battleground of Christianity is not in better programming or buildings, but in individuals waking up each morning and deciding whose immortal they are going to be: God’s or the world’s. Christianity is something to be lived into 24/7.

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