Eugene Peterson is a deeply important theologian for the evangelical world today primarily because he has wrestled against cultural stereotypes of ministry and pastoral work for decades. This makes some of what he writes esoteric, but more often than not it is simply prophetic. My calling to be a pastor was saved by one of his less known books, Under the Unpredictable Plant. In this Out of Ur post, Brandon O’Brien uses one of his more recent works to discuss the difference between jobs and callings, careers and vocations.
Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is “an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated.” Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it “is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly.” This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is “a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation.”
Jobs are quantifiable. We may be better or worse at them qualitatively, but they are primarily about quantifying the outcomes of job descriptions. Vocations are entirely different. They are what we are called to do, and they are rarely quantifiable in neat and tidy ways. The calling of the pastor is very much this way. Is a pastor’s vocation about numbers on Sunday mornings? If so, I can tell of the personal anxiety and havoc they inflict. Is a pastor’s vocation measurable by budgets? If so, what makes him any different from a corporate middle manager?
Instead, the pastor’s calling is about things like souls, spiritual formation, Gospel communication, reconciliation, truth, and so forth. Try keeping track of that in Excel. The result is a conflict of pressures: the standard cultural model wants to put quantifiable categories on “pastor,” but the call and the actual week-to-week work resist at every turn. So, to which do we acquiesce?
According to O’Brien, Peterson notes:
And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to “keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description.”
What do we expect of our pastors from week to week?