Shepherd’s Care: Becoming Unnecessary

The title still stops me in my tracks: ‘The Unnecessary Pastor.’ [1]  It still cuts against the grain of my ego despite my agreement with the focus of the book and its effort to get us clergy off center stage, yielding that place to God. It is a challenging experience to realize one message God speaks to those of us in ordained ministry is, “Get out of the way.”

The message also goes against the grain of at least two prevailing institutional views about clergy leadership. One—we are “professionally trained” and the momentum of that education moves us toward the center and into the spotlight. And two–laity can too easily expect clergy to be central in ministry because “that’s what we pay them to do. Both illusions work against the idea of being unnecessary.

And then I saw it…in pastor Joe at Hillcrest United Methodist Church in Nashville. He was an unnecessary pastor–by choice, though he never described himself as such, nor was he viewed as such by the laity there. But in the Marva Dawn sense, he was unnecessary. And here’s the point: the congregation thrived in that atmosphere.

Except for leading worship and attending to basic pastoral care, nearly everything else was done by the laity–not independent of Joe’s knowledge and input, but apart from his assumed or required participation. He did not expect members to be at the church every time the doors were open, and neither was he. And even when he was there, laity often took the lead in what was going on.

It took time to form the congregation into existing with an unnecessary pastor. And prior to the effort, pastor Joe had to undergo the primary transformation in himself–the surrender of ego. He had to (and did) accept the fact that by getting out of the way, some things would not be done as well as he might have done them–but guess what!–some things were done better.

And what I noticed most was that the pressure to be excellent/perfect went down all around. Pretty good was good enough, and that went for Joe’s sermons, the way meetings were run, and a lot of other things too. The atmosphere was more like a father/family than a boss/employee one. There was a lightheartedness with a lot of laughter and fun thrown into the mix. Having an unnecessary pastor did not make the church perfect, but it did (IMHO) make it better. It made it better in concrete ways, but in the overarching way that there were no imagined “saviors”–only the Savior.

Being unnecessary is the way the church regains its senses about Who is Necessary: God alone. It shifts the question “who do you trust?” from the resident, paid religious professional to the Holy Spirit. And in the spiritual game we call the Christian life, it puts everyone on the field running the plays that Coach God has in mind for us all.

In his book, ‘The Pastor’ Eugene Peterson concludes it with a letter to a young pastor. [2]. It should be a “must read” for every clergyperson and those in lay leadership. It summarizes key attitudes and actions which characterize unnecessariness and opens the way for being and doing church in new ways.

People like Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson exemplify this new way, but do so in an ecclesial environment that too often clericalizes the Church and promotes a “celebrity pastor” mentality. [3]  It makes me wonder what might happen if  pastors were to call their lay leaders together and say, “I want to become an unnecessary pastor. Will you help me?” [4]. It makes me suspect that, in many cases, the answer would be, “Yes.”

[1] Marva J. Dawn & Eugene Peterson, ‘The Unnecessary Pastor’ (Eerdmans, 2000)

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Pastor’ (HarperOne, 2011), 314-317.

[3] Or negatively compares the current pastor to a previous one who “did things right” and/or another pastor in the community who is alleged to do so.

[4] Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I do not mean asking the question apart from prior preparation to show what having an unnecessary pastor would look like in the congregation. Reading the two books cited in this post are a place to start, with three more by Peterson: ‘The Contemplative Pastor’….”Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’…and ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant.’ Marva Dawn’s book, ‘The Sense of the Call’ is another one that gives substance to the idea.

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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