The Unbusy Pastor

A book that always refreshes and restores my faith in pastors and my own vocational identity is Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor.   If you are in ministry and have never read this book I can’t recommend it enough.    I am happy to be reading it at the beginning of this new year, in hopes it will help me to better live into my calling.  In this brief post I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned so far, trusting that others may benefit from Peterson’s pastoral wisdom.

In the first part of the book, Pastor Peterson redefines the essence of being a pastor by unpacking three adjectives which he (and now I) feels best describe us:  Unbusy, Subversive, and Apocalyptic.   In this post I want to look at the first, Unbusy, with the other two to follow later this week.

The Unbusy Pastor

How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

Peterson reminds me that most of my busyness is from unholy, ignoble reasons.   First, because I am vain.  I want to be busy because I’ve bought into the lie that it makes me look important.   The more I appear to be running around with things to do the more I can justify to myself and to the world that the years I spent in school and the salary you pay me is being put to good use.    Second, because I am lazy.   I allow other people, people who do not understand the true nature of my work, to write the agenda for my day.   It is far easier to go along with the flow, to be just another corporate pastor – a yes man/woman – than it is to go against the grain and  say “no.”


So what should I be doing? What is my proper work?

  • I can be a pastor who prays.   I want my life to be an intimate relationship with the God who loves me, and has called me to love Him and others.   I want others to be wakened to the centrality of prayer, too.   Peterson writes,   

I don’t want to dispense mimeographed hand-outs that describe God’s business; I want to witness it out of my own experience.  I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual lives of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

This means I must dedicate time to cultivating this relationship.  I cannot be busy and pray.  When I am rushed, when I am trying to be another cog in the wheel, overly focused on whether or not I’m living up to the expectations of others, I cannot pray.   Prayer requires that I become unbusy.

  •  I can be a pastor who preaches.   I want to be a pastor who has a word from God to speak each Lord’s Day, not just a guy with some good ideas to help people cope with life.   I want people to leave a worship service knowing that the words they heard came from an authority greater than the one delivering them.    Peterson says the only way to get this done is through “a drenching in Scripture.”

I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture.  That takes far more time than it takes to prepare a sermon.

Peterson reminds me that preaching is meant to move us where God intends, to change our lives, and shape our hearts.  This can’t happen when I’m busy.

  • I can be a pastor who listens.  People approach me all throughout the week to tell me whats going on in their lives.  I want to have the time and energy to truly listen to them rather than think of them as an intrusion on my “busy” day.   When I visit people in their homes or in the hospital or on the street I want to be sure I am engaged and unhurried in my pastoral listening.    “I can’t listen if I’m busy,” says Peterson.  “But if I provide margins to my day, there is ample time to listen.”

Becoming Unbusy 

Peterson’s antidote for our busy-ness is simple:  an appointment book.   Carve out time each day to pray, to study, and to listen.    The appointment book carries with it an unmatched authority, it would seem, and for the pastor who feels he or she cannot say “no” to the demands of this life seeking to make him or her busy then a simple, “I’m sorry, my appointment book won’t allow it” will quell any dispute.

The other advice is heart work.  It is to labor at developing times of solitude and quietness when our egos and our parishioners demand we build kingdoms.    I have found that I need to pray daily for God to kill my pride, and make me love humility.   If it were not for the supernatural work of the Spirit helping me to that end I would be the busiest, and least effective, pastor alive.

Peterson concludes this section with this sobering thought:

Years ago I noticed, as all pastors must, that when a pastor left a neighboring congregation, the congregational life carried on very well, thank you.  A guest preacher was assigned to conduct Sunday worship, and nearby pastors took care of the funerals, weddings, and crisis counseling.  A congregation would go for months, sometimes as long as a year or two, without a regular pastor.  And I thought, All these things I am so busy doing – they aren’t being done in that pastorless congregation, and nobody seems to mind. I asked myself, What if I, without leaving, quit doing them right now?  Would anyone mind?  I did, and they don’t.

What are some practices you have developed which help keep you unbusy?

Stay tuned for Subversive and Apocalyptic later this week. 


3 thoughts on “The Unbusy Pastor

  1. Pingback: The Apocalyptic Pastor | umc holiness

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