Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors, by David Keck

What’s the hardest thing about being a pastor?” Church members and lay friends ask me this question from time to time, curious about a job that’s not really a job but a way of life. After 15 years of congregational ministry I answer without hesitation: the hardest part of being a pastor is contending with the multiple, contradictory, and competing expectations of the congregation. Classic among these, of course, is: “We want the church to grow, Pastor, but don’t change a thing because we like it the way it is.”

Eugene H. Peterson has encouraged pastors to turn their attention from congregational expectations to vocational holiness. In much of his writing in the 1980s and ’90s he called pastors to resist the temptation of providing religious goods and services to spiritual consumers and challenged them to avoid the lure of careerism. He urged them to tend instead to expectations peculiar to pastoral ministry and necessary for the spiritual vitality of the church. My personal favorite of these books is Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration of Vocational Holi­ness, which grew out of a 1989 seminar. I return repeatedly to recordings of that seminar for guidance.

In a conversation with a group of pastors and seminary professors several years ago, I had heard Peterson say he had given up writing to pastors about vocational holiness. They weren’t getting it, he said. But the problem with addressing issues of vocational holiness only to pastors is that pastors are accountable to congregations and judicatory leaders who have their own expectations, which may or may not line up with the vocational holiness necessary for vital pastoral ministry. Addressing vocational expectations requires tending to the ecosystems in which pastors live and work.