The Attentive Pastor’s Heart

The late Dallas Willard impacted the lives of thousands of people, including many pastors of whom I am one. I never had the pleasure of meeting Dallas Willard, but John Ortberg did. Ortberg has been greatly influenced by Dallas Willard and considers his own writings to be “Dallas for Dummies.” John Ortberg writes that whenever he was in conversation with Dallas he had the man’s full attention. Even in a room full of people, John observed, if Dallas was in conversation with you that it seemed you were the only one in the room with him.

Another one of my favorite authors is the late Eugene Peterson. After his recent passing someone who knew him personally eulogized that when you were in Peterson’s presence you knew he was fully attentive to you.

There have been times when I have gotten up the nerve to go up to a famous speaker after they’ve spoken in order to ask a question or to enter into what I knew could only be a brief conversation. There have been times when the speaker, who was warm and engaging before the crowd, seemed distracted and anxious to move on to someone else or to catch a plane to the next big event. There have been other times, fortunately, when I have found the famous scholar, preacher, or writer whom I’ve gotten up the nerve to approach to be fully attentive to me.

I want to be like Dallas, Eugene, and those who have given me their undivided attention! With some embarrassment I must admit there have been times that when in conversation with someone I’ve communicated through body language and darting eyes that I had other places to go and people to see, likely only feet away in the same room.

I know that this blog, A PASTOR’S HEART, focuses on the heart of the pastor and not so much on the mechanics and principles of pastoring. However, it seems to me that the reason Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and some I’ve known personally are fully attentive and present in a conversation is because they have a settled, focused, and Christ-centered heart.

Brother Lawrence famously promoted the idea of “practicing the presence” of the Lord. It occurred to me that when we seek to be fully in the presence of the Lord in the moment we will more likely be fully present with others when we are with them. When our own heart is far from being settled and focused we’ll find it difficult to be settled and focused around others. We may be standing before a person in conversation, but it may seem to that person that we are running in place, running away from them!

Our work to become a more fully focused person in a conversation with someone begins, then, as a work on our own heart as pastors. It’s the work of seeking to have a heart that’s at peace, settled, and focused on the Lord. It’s an inward to outward process.

But it’s also an outward to inward process! We can determine in our next conversation with someone, and the next conversation after that, and the one following that, to be intentional about giving the person our undivided attention even though we don’t come by it naturally. It may not be a behavior we default to, but it is a behavior we can determine to put into practice, and over time find it happens more naturally and is coming more and more from the heart, a new habit of the heart.

Having a pastor’s heart has many facets to it. Certainly one of those facets that reflects the light of Christ brightly into the hearts of those we pastor is to have an attentive heart!

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Lessons from Eugene Peterson

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Eugene Peterson recently journeyed to his permanent sabbatical to Heaven.  He was the author of the Bible paraphrase THE MESSAGE, pastor of a church for many years, professor, poet, author of a host of books for pastors, mentor to pastors and much more.  Eugene Peterson helped me and countless other pastors understand what pastoring is meant to be.  He truly had a pastor’s heart.  In the following link CT PASTORS asked 8 church leaders to share how Eugene Peterson impacted their lives and ministries.  Click HERE to read.

A Resume or a Eulogy?

In our work as pastors are we striving to build a resume or providing material for our own eulogy? Richard Kannwischer, pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, recently referenced David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, in his sermon. In one of his columns Brooks wrote, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” The Moral Bucket List, NEW YORK TIMES web site, April 11, 2015.

Pastor Kannwischer said in his message that he’s been to many funerals, and the saddest ones are those where the deceased’s accomplishments are itemized but little if anything is said of lives the person touched. I agree. I’ve conducted probably some 500 funerals and the great funerals were those where family and friends reflected on how the person had impacted their lives, a real eulogy. The darker funerals were those where the best that could be said was where the person lived, worked, what sports they loved, and what they achieved, more like a resume.

We pastors can buy into the CEO model, a business approach, an achievement mindset, or a goal oriented work. Certainly there are good aspects to all of these, but they tend to fit into a resume more than into a eulogy.

I’ve shared something of this before, but I feel the need to reiterate the idea: When I retired in my 40th year of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio, my wife and I were given a retirement party/celebration that was, in our opinion, over the top. What was interesting in people’s personal reflections of our ministry together was the lack of focus on any achievements that were, at the time, so important to me. What the reflections focused on were the times we went through things together, often tough times, but many good times as well. They remembered words I said in an attempt to be comforting or encouraging, most of the conversations of which I had no recollection. It was very little of the resume type stuff and a lot of what might be said at my funeral, except I was present to enjoy it!

Maybe a good way to sum this all up is to say that a pastor would do well to focus less on resume building in ministry and more on living among the people in such a way that they would have ample material for a eulogy for the pastor. Morbid? I don’t think so. It’s just that, as David Brooks wrote, it’s better to aim for eulogy virtues than resume virtues.

A Vacation Can Be Good for the Pastor’s Heart

I recall asking our church board for some vacation time.  They always granted it (so I guess I should have felt blessed), but not without comments such as “Again?” or “I wish I could take some time off,” or “How many weeks have you taken this year already?”

We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we don’t take any time off the extra effort will reap positive results in the church.  The opposite is usually true. The old proverb says, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  All work and no play for the pastor will likely make for a dull preacher, and an exhausted one as well.

I was fortunate that my church gave me four weeks of vacation a year.  In over 39 years at the church I took all four weeks every year and have never regretted doing so!

The following link is a great article on the subject by Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell. Enjoy, and begin planning that next vacation!

A Parable for Pastors

Once upon a time there were two carpenters in a village nestled in a valley. Each had a thriving business of providing furniture, wooden tools, buckets, and yokes for the farmers.

Father Langston, the long-time priest of the village church, knew both carpenters and their families well for they were a part of his church. Seeking to treat each family the same, his own humble home was furnished with an equal number of items from each man. He made regular pastoral calls to the carpentry shop of each, conversing with them on both mundane and spiritual subjects as they measured, sawed, nailed, and sanded their projects.

Father Langston noted a difference, however, between the two. Though both made and sold many items to the villagers, Brother Thomas sold more than Brother James and was able to provide his wife and family with luxuries that Brother James could not.

Brother James’ lower productivity was due to his habit of making a fine piece of furniture every year for his wife. His loving and careful crafting of the yearly gift left less time for him to make that which he might sell.

Father Langston noted one other difference, and this was in Brother James’ favor. Though Brother Thomas’ wife had luxuries Brother James’ wife did not, it was Brother James’ wife who clung close to her husband at church, glanced up at him with loving eyes, and seemed to be clothed with peace and contentment. Brother Thomas’ wife rarely glanced at her husband or held him close, being much distracted and busied with straightening her rich clothes and fondling her sparkling jewelery. Both men, he noted, felt a satisfaction that they were providing well for their wives.

One Sunday afternoon, after having visited both men at their carpentry shops the past week and having greeted each man and his wife after church that morning, he made an observation while he rested, drinking a cup of tea. Brother Thomas sold all he made to the villagers while Brother James had less to sell to the villagers because he spent much time and effort creating something as a gift for his wife, and yet it was Brother James and his wife who seemed happiest with each other.

What Father Langston took to heart from his Sunday afternoon observation was that he was a crafter of words as the two men were crafters of wood. Like the carpenters he was glad that people received gladly what he crafted, for he was, indeed, a great student of the Scriptures and an accomplished orator of the message he had prepared. But in spite of his great efforts as God’s pastor he felt distant from the God whom he served. His relationship with God, he now came to see, was more like the cool but respectful marriage of Brother Thomas and his wife. In the marriage of Brother James and his wife he saw a warmth, devotion, and closeness he yearned to have with God.

What Father Langston went on to ponder was how all of his praying, studying, reflecting, and crafting of God’s Word was for the benefit of the villagers. Like Brother Thomas, he never took any of it home. Little, if any of it, was simply a delightful gift to God who dwelt with him. He determined from that day forward that He would follow Brother James’ example.

Doing Pastoral Ministry in Stealth Mode

Some of the ministry we do should be kept a secret; it’s good for our soul! I didn’t always do this when I was pastoring. A call by a hospital chaplain awakened me from sleep in the middle of the night with the request that I come to see a parishioner of mine who was doing poorly. I dutifully got out of bed and made the visit to the hospitalized parishioner. The next day I would find myself working my nocturnal pastoral call into conversation with other parishioners. Then there were the times I felt I was going the extra mile to reach out to help someone, and, again, I would find a way to share the journey of the extra mile with others.

It’s a temptation to be our own pastoral public relationships department. During my ministry I now realize that I should have allowed myself to be reminded more often of these words of Jesus: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1) So much of what we do as pastors, by necessity, is done before others that we should work at lowering the percentage whenever we can.

In reflecting on this subject before putting fingers to keyboard I thought of suggesting that secrecy should be a spiritual discipline (and I believe that in some lists it is), but then I realized that secrecy is an inherent part of several of the spiritual disciplines. For instance, fasting is a spiritual discipline to which Jesus reminded us not to make a public display. Jesus also taught that the same goes for prayer and also in giving to the needy. These teachings by Jesus are also found in the previously referenced passage of Matthew 6, as you probably already knew.

It’s a difficult balancing act we face as pastors. On the one hand we’re to be an example to our flock, and how can we do so without them observing us? On the other hand we’re not to show off our spirituality.

Analyzing our motives is certainly one of the best tools to finding the right balance. Is the public knowledge of my action going to bring glory to me for what I’ve done or encouragement to others for what they can do?

We teach and preach that what we do should be done primarily because we love the Lord and want to serve and please Him. Sometimes the best way to bring home that message to ourselves as the teacher or preacher is to intentionally do some of our ministry in secret, to minister in stealth mode.