I am working through Eugene Peterson’s Under the Undpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) as quickly as I can given all the interruptions Pastors can face. In the section I am in he is addressing issues of geography and eschatology as it relates to pastoral work. He argues that all theology is rooted in geography, that is, the place where you pastor, and that true and authentic pastoral work is eschatological to the core in that it helps the congregation know and understand the goal and purpose of the Christian life, that it is, well, eschatological!
Sandwiched in this conversation he makes a comment about “religion,” and its connection to pastoral work that I want to share with you all:
I am saying two things here that are often separated and may appear contradictory. One, that pastor must stand in respectful awe before the congregation, the holy ground. Two, the pastor must be in discerning opposition to the congregation’s religion, for awed appreciation does not exclude critical discernment. Without diligent, clear-sighted watchfulness, congregations relapse into golden-calf idolatries, much as cultivated fields without care relapse into weeds and brambles. Religion is the emeny of the gospel. This is why pastoral work is hard work and never finihsed: religion is always present. It is the atmosphere in which we work. There is no use trying to get rid of it, striving after the “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer fantasized (140).
If you caught on at the end, like me, you thought “ouch.” But he is right – part of our pastoral vocation is not to stamp out religion and pursue religionless Christianity so much as it is to simply love the people and nuture them the best we can to maturity in Jesus Christ. I take it, that it is the Lord’s job to work on the religion issue, not ours. Ours is simply to love and respect our congregations and maintain focus on our vocational holiness and let the Lord do the rest. This is where the themes of geography and eschatology come in. Much like a farmer tends the fields to keep it healthy, so to pastors are to tend their congregations to keep them from getting weeded over while also helping them to know and understand the end goal and purpose of our faith: maturity in Jesus Christ.
This is one reason why pastoral ministry is hard work.