I got the news yesterday evening that you graduated to glory. Since I didn’t know your health was failing, I was surprised by the news. Although we never met in person, I always felt we were kindred spirits. To my loss, I didn’t discover your books until I entered pastoral ministry fulltime, but early on in my first pastorate, I read Under the Predictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness—an arresting title to say the least. From your opening words—“The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal”—I was hooked. I sensed a friendship brewing.
As I thought about your influence on my life, three things came to mind.
You taught me the sacred dimensions of pastoral ministry. To say your body of work bucks the regnant paradigm for ministry is to state the obvious, which is why it calmed me greatly. Rather than providing me with a laundry list of different techniques to try and grow the church, you taught me that pastoral life was “that aspect of the Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary” (The Contemplative Pastor, 112). Whereas we live in a world that so often defines success in ministry as doing big things, quickly, with lots of notoriety, pastoral ministry requires me to do small, mostly overlooked things, for an extended period of time (as your mentee Zack Eswine says). Your books gave me fair warning: Most of what I do will go unnoticed. I’m still learning to cope with this.
Nevertheless, as a weak, sinful, flawed individual, who is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, you made me feel comfortable with simply being a pastor who can preach, pray, read the Bible, and visit with friends. You encouraged me to stubbornly refuse to do the easy work that the age asks of me (Working the Angles, 5).
You taught me to resist pastoral celebrity. I think you’re right: While God calls ministers to do community life with their sheep, some today are simply using the church to build their own platform. Local church life is not high on the priority list of many today, apparently. “Building your brand” is the name of the game. Supposedly, this generates a buzz, which draws crowds. Ever the gadfly of the church growth mavens, you advised me differently. Although I couldn’t find where you said it, I believe you wrote somewhere that we pastors should be wary of growing a church so large that we no longer know everyone’s name. We don’t need servile flatterers who only know us from afar, but people who truly know us, aren’t impressed by us, and are aware of our sins, boldly calling us to repentance when we go astray.
You enfleshed the pastor theologian model of ministry. First off, I must admit my elation upon seeing your blurb right smack-dab on the front of Owen Strachan and Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Pastor as Public Theologian. I don’t know why I was surprised. As you said in Working the Angles, in the pastor people find a friend in a theological context (82). And you were right that the pastor is essentially the theologian-in-residence for his congregation. You invited me through your books to get away for prolonged periods of time in order to consume the doctors of the church—Augustine, Athanasius, Bernard, Calvin, or Edwards. And the footnotes in your books give evidence that you filled your mind with these great theological leaders that make up the communion of saints.
“The desperate need today,” said Richard Foster, so many years ago, “is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” You, my friend, you were deep. In a world enmeshed in trivialities, you kept us attentive to God.
I’m sure when this whole thing is said and done, there’ll be a lot pastors waiting to shake your hand and give you a hug. Look for me . . . because I’ll be one of those in line.