Shepherd’s Care: The Pastor’s Question

​I have benefited from the insights of Eugene Peterson in many ways, but none more than from what he calls “the pastor’s question.”  He wrote the book, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ to explore the question in detail, but here is the question itself…

“Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [1]

I am sure that if you go back into the archived “Shepherd’s Care” posts, you will find that I wrote about this question previously.  In resuming this series I found Peterson’s question at the forefront of my thinking once again.  So, now as an elder “sitting at the gate,” I offer it to you one more time.  I do this because the question shines as a precious jewel among whatever else I may have to share with you.

Most of all it moves us into a personalized ministry.  An “I”/”Them” relationship.  This takes nothing away from whatever expertise our ministerial education may have given us, it simply makes it all available in a human context, not professional one.  Theologically, it is one expression of the word becoming flesh.

It is also a gift that many do not experience on a regular basis–that is, having someone in their life who treats them like the beloved and unique children of God that they are.  We all need relationships like this in order to thrive.

It is also a question which roots ministry in others, not in us.  Through the question we live into Paul’s vision of ministry, seeing “ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). Institutional ministry clericalizes the church, giving the false impression that laity exist to support “the program”—and pay for it!  The pastor’s question reverses the flow, allowing ministry to arise from and in service to the laity, not the institution.  Of course, this is not an either/or option, but it is a view which restores a better perspective of why we pastors are where we are in the first place.

There’s more to be said about the pastor’s question, and Peterson says more about it in ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ and most of his other books as well.  But putting it all together, to live in the pastor’s question is to move our concept of ministry from impact to investment–what Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” [2]  Incarnating the pastor’s question enables us to unpack our bags and move “into the neighborhood” (e.g. John 1:14 in ‘The Message’), knowing (as Charlie Shedd put it), “I am where I should be.  I have been brought to this place at this moment for this work.” [3]. In that realization there is clear purpose and great peace.

[1] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ (InterVarsity Press, 1980).

[3] Charlie Shedd, ‘Time For All Things’ (Abingdon Press, 1962), 29.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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