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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Pastoral Attentiveness to God

Eugene H. Peterson and M. Craig Barnes provide a powerful challenge to contemporary pastors: your calling is not rooted in what you do, but who you are in Christ. Congregants expect certain behaviors from their pastors to meet their own spiritual needs. Barnes writes: "[Pastors] learn to be strong but sensitive, profound but playful, prophetic but consensus-building, always available with an open door but always in touch with the sacred - whatever is necessary to engender approval, no matter how inherently inconsistent, all for the elusive prize of being liked" [1]. Peterson reminds us that our task is not keeping up appearances or running a church. “The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God” [2]. I heard a similar statement delivered to my mentor, Vito, a commissioned pastor in the RCA, as he was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. The preaching pastor said, “It is easy to think being a pastor is mastering Google Docs once and for all, running around to meetings in coffee shops, managing a building, and responding to Planning Center Requests. But being a pastor is about showing people Jesus.”

Congregations play a unique role in pastors' misunderstandings of themselves. Congregants do not hold pastors accountable to maintain the quiet disciplines that form them in their life with God. “In the clamorous world of pastoral work nobody yells at us to engage in these acts. It is possible to do pastoral work to the satisfaction of the people who judge our competence and pay our salaries without being either diligent or skilled in them” [3]. On the other hand, congregants have demands, whether those are the ministries they want to be prioritized, how much attention they should receive from the pastor, and how much they like the worship music. "Every day the North American pastor encounters parishioners who have discovered no higher aspiration than to be good consumers with a right to get what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. So when they come to church, they assume that the pastor has no calling other than to create satisfied customers, or they can always take their tithe dollars to the place down the street" [4].

I have seen these demands wear on my beloved uncle. When he talks about ministry with our family, it often includes his nervousness about an upcoming uncomfortable meeting, the many requests he receives in a given day, and the number of complaints he has to vet over the course of the week. The pastorate is fraught with others’ demands on the little time pastors feel they have to care for themselves.

The pastoral calling is not rooted in the satisfaction of well-meaning congregants. “When pastors are trying to evaluate the success of their life’s work, they dare not allow the limited and weak body known as church to be their measure. For that, they can only turn back to the Christ they have ‘put on’ in their baptisms” [5]. Peterson points out that pastoral identity is rooted in prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction [6], the places pastors are most attentive to God, both in their own lives, in their congregations, and in their communities.

One of my primary tasks during seminary as I train for the pastorate is to find ways to root myself in times of prayer throughout the day. My Anglican tradition provides rich resources for doing so in the Book of Common Prayer. Included in it is a Daily Office. It is arranged according to Morning, Noon, Early Evening, and Close of Day. It provides set prayers drawn from the Psalms to use at each time of the day, a two-year cycle of Scripture readings, and time to pray freely. The liturgy itself only requires a few minutes, but it can take longer depending on how much I have to pray for. I have found these Offices help punctuate my day and provide an opportunity to be more attentive to God in between each Office. Yet I still find myself rushing through them, feeling the pressure of other tasks invading my time in prayer. While I have found the Daily Office helpful, I want my attentiveness to God to continue growing. Occasionally, I use the Jesus Prayer during the day, but not as consistently as the Daily Office. I specifically want to grow in this area and see if there are other prayer practices that can deepen my attentiveness to God throughout the day.

[1] Barnes, M. Craig. The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009, p. 11.

[2] Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 2.

[3] Ibid. p. 3.

[4] Barnes, p. 4.

[5] Ibid. p. 12.

[6] Peterson, p. 3.

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