“I’m tired of running this damn church.”
If you’re a pastor who desperately wants to get the attention of your elders, try using a turn of phrase they aren’t expecting.
That’s what Eugene Peterson did about 10 years into his efforts to launch a new congregation in suburban Baltimore. They had survived their first few difficult years. Pastor and people had worked together to build a brand-new building. Along the way, however, Peterson had become exhausted. His heart for God was flat-lined. “I tried to slow down,” he later reflected. “I tried to relax, but I was afraid of failing. I couldn’t help myself.”
Things came to a head after dinner one evening when his five-year-old daughter Karen said, “Daddy, read me a story.” “I’m sorry, Karen,” he replied, “but I have a meeting this evening.”
“This is the 27th night in a row in which you’ve had a meeting,” she said. She had been counting.
It just so happened that evening’s meeting was a gathering of the church’s elders. Peterson was distraught. He set aside everything on the docket except for one subject – his own sense of failure as a father and church leader. “I’ve tried to work so hard,” he began, “but I can’t do it. I resign.”
His frustrations spilled out. “I haven’t been a pastor to this congregation for six months. I pray in fits and starts. I feel like I’m in a hurry all the time… My sermons are thrown together. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family.”
Peterson, stumbling on, declared that he wanted to be someone who actually prays. Who reads. Who reflects. Who listens to God. He knew he couldn’t do that on the run. Then he sighed, “I want to be an unbusy pastor.” He had never said that before. It seemed to surprise him and everyone at the meeting. And then, “I’m tired of running this damn church.”
After a long silence one of the elders, a retired colonel, said, “Why don’t you just do it? What’s stopping you? Why don’t you let us run the church?”
Before that meeting came to a close, Peterson had taken back his resignation. He and his elders revamped the organizational structure of Belair Presbyterian Church. He stopped attending every meeting. He stayed home more often to spend time with Jan and their three children.
As Winn Collier reports in his 2021 Peterson biography, A Burning in My Bones, the man who would go on to write almost three dozen books – including The Message, his unique translation of both Old and New Testaments – would take a long time to become an unbusy pastor. Deeply ingrained habits did not die easily. But he finally began to experience something of the joy of becoming himself.
It’s an uphill battle for all of us. American culture applauds over-functioning. Doctors, teachers, accountants, homemakers, lawyers, and landscapers are supposed to do it all – or wrestle with the specter of failure.
Most pastors are tormented by the feeling that they have 100 jobs to do, and “a real leader” should be able to muster the time and the gifts to tackle every one of them. It’s impossible, of course. Most of those 100 jobs will be done haphazardly, if at all.
But what if a healthy church could be defined as a place where 100 people – all of them gifted differently – each accepted the responsibility, in an unhurried way, to do just one of those jobs with care and love?
Hurry is the great enemy of our souls. Hurry is what hinders us from doing the two things that Jesus valued above everything else: loving God and loving each other.
Eugene Peterson gradually found the grace to slow down – to become an unhurried version of himself.
If you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to resign from your frantic life, ask God to help you go forward in a new way:
Instead of resigning, re-enlist.
Ask for the grace to become a less hurried version of you.