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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The Comparison Game

Pastor and best-selling author Max Lucado was interviewed in the Summer 2011 issue of Leadership Journal. Because I feel called to both pastor and write, like Max Lucado, it’s a great temptation to give in to the sin of envy when I think of Max. I suspect his grocery list would sell well. Yes, I have wished I could write like Max Lucado.

In the interview Max said, “Some pastors, like Tim Keller or John Piper, are different than I am, and they excel at reaching those deeper thinkers. I listen to their sermons, and they’re just at a different level. And I think that’s phenomenal. I’m so grateful for people like that. I speak to folks who don’t dwell at that altitude.” (p. 26) Max Lucado is no Tim Keller or John Piper, and he’s OK with that.

Come to think of it, I’ve been tempted to envy the speaking, writing, and pastoral ministries of both Tim Keller and John Piper (both of whom I regularly read) as well as that of Max Lucado! I confess that I can be quite a mess at times.

In the same issue of Leadership Journal Eugene Peterson, another favorite pastor/author of mine, was interviewed. The article includes an excerpt from his book, The Pastor (which I’ve read – excellent!) In the excerpt Peterson writes, “Along the way, I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in an actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.” (p. 53)

When I’m tempted to play the comparison game I have to remind myself that it’s a game the Lord never calls me to play. When I do I never win in the long run! I’ve struggled with this enough that I did a sermon series on the topic, then self-published the material in a book called, interestingly enough, The Comparison Game.

One of my favorite scriptures to use as an antidote against the sin of envy in the ministry is found in a statement Jesus made to Peter. It occurred after Jesus’ resurrection, when He was walking with Peter and had hinted at how Peter’s life would go in his final days. Peter then asks Jesus about John, who was walking behind them. What would happen to him? Jesus said to Peter,“What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

When I start comparing my writing ministry and/or pastoral ministry to someone else I remember Jesus’ words to Peter, and own them for myself. “What is that to you? You must follow me.”

The Busy Pastor

A neighbor of our daughter and her family
in Mexico shepherding his flock

I have had to learn again and again that to be about my Heavenly Father’s business means I must not be too busy. My busyness and His business are often not the same work!

Eugene Peterson writes, “A sense of hurry in pastoral work disqualifies one for the work of conversation and prayer that develops relationships that meet personal needs. There are heavy demands put upon pastoral work, true; there is difficult work to be engaged in, yes. But the pastor must not be ‘busy.’… there must be a wide margin of leisure.”

Peterson then quotes Henri Nouwen. “Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson, pp. 61-62, Eerdmans, 1980)

I have had the opportunity on various occasions to watch a shepherd tend his flock of sheep. I don’t ever recall seeing shepherds rush about. They tend to walk slowly; mostly they just stand. Why, as the shepherd of God’s flock of people, do I feel prompted to always be rushing, giving the impression I must be somewhere else other than where I am? Lord, wherever you have me be today, help me to be all there for as long as you want.