A year or so ago, I came across a description of the pastoral life that rang as true for me as any I have read or heard. It comes from Garret Keizer’s A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, an engaging memoir of the early years of his ministry in Island Pond, Vermont:

Often my sense of my own ministry is nothing more than an awareness of missed opportunities, of gains that might have been won but for my being too blind, timid, forgetful, or otherwise employed to seize the moment. In spite of all the friends I’ve made here, I often wish that I had never come to Island Pond. The thought that I shall one day be called to account for what I have done in this place often seizes me like the realization that I’ve failed to turn off an iron or stove, and that it was hours and miles ago. I can smell the smoke.1

After 15 years of pastoral ministry in three settings, I could smell the smoke, and it was getting to me. Was I not a good fit for ministry and its demands? Or was it that the places and people of my ministry did not provide a setting in which I could flourish? I vacillated between those two interpretations, often believing both simultaneously. On most days I could not imagine myself doing anything else. At the same time, I yearned for a life in which I could have a less tenuous sense of how I was doing.

A little over three years ago the opportunity came along that would get me out from under the burden of the pastoral life. It was not a move to abandon the pastoral life—but to engage it from a distance, from within a seminary community, as an administrator of grant programs focused on the practice of pastoral leadership. At age 41, for the first time in my adult life, I would be in the pastoral world but not of the pastoral life. Away with night meetings. No longer would I be constantly tethered to a particular place and people and the cumulative and weighty burdens of locality. It was time for relief from the demands of needy people, reluctant volunteers, relentless sermon preparation, underfunded budgets, and subprofessional wages. I had stood in the pulpit long enough—it was time to sit in the pew with my family and have a job that fit more squarely into the template of this late modern time.

A Rekindled Capacity to Choose
Professionally, this life beyond the parish ministry has been a rich and rewarding experience. And yet, as I approach my 45th birthday, the life to which I am inexorably drawn is the pastoral life. When I stepped out of the pastorate and into this work, I was not at all sure that I would return. Now, as I plot my movement from here, there is nowhere else I can imagine going. This time apart from the pastoral life has rekindled my capacity to choose it. At the same time, my appreciation of life lived beyond the pastoral life has never been greater.

I now understand the perspective of the family that comes to a new city in search of a church home. I now know the difficulties families face in juggling demands of work, home, and family to participate regularly in congregational life. Now I can see, in a way I couldn’t before, why folks so often come to church meetings tired and hassled, and why those meetings need to be occasions that minister communion and not just administer a community. I understand why people spend little or no time in prayer or with the Scriptures when their day-to-day world expects so little of them in this regard. I now know why so many in the pew consider the lives of pastors alien to their own. The pastor’s life is in fact very different from the lives of most of those to whom he or she preaches every Sunday. This distinction ought to be cause for gratitude and not for defensiveness.

The pastoral life is mediated by a set of practices that connect one to time, place, people, and a spiritual tradition in a way that is distinctly premodern. The dividing lines between work and family, private and public, the personal and the social have become pronounced in late-modern life, yet they remain highly ambiguous in the pastoral life. Many of us pastors kick against the goad of the premodern shape of our lives by proving that we can be just as hassled, harried, and busy—and in the same ways—as the next person. We readily complain of the unique demands we face. It is all too rare to hear a pastor speaking of his or her way of life as one that is intrinsically good. I do not underestimate the demanding character of the pastoral life. However, my time apart from it has cultivated in me a recognition of the goods that are part of that way of life.

The Fragmented Life of Privacy
I had never realized how private and fragmented life could be in American society. Prior to my life as an administrator, people coming and going had animated our home—receptions, Bible studies, meetings, and dinner parties from season to season. Our children loved the connections they made with a whole string of adults and not a few children as well. Now we had our home to ourselves. The phone rarely rang. We had very few people in, and we were invited into very few homes. The whole engagement with a wider network of shared friends and acquaintances that was so much a part of the pastoral life was largely gone. We were now the typical American family whose life is lived in relatively uninterrupted privacy. Now our lives reflected the common divides separating work, school, home, and church. I would leave for the office every morning and reappear late in the afternoon, with my kids knowing or understanding very little of what I did all day. Weekends were no longer the culmination of the week, but the time when we stepped back even further from the daily routines of work and school and retreated into the private realm for rest and leisure. We attended church—but that experience had now become a relatively brief engagement on Sunday morning before we retreated once again to the haven of our private world.

My kids had grown up knowing my professional life in a way I soon came to realize was extremely rare in the “real world.” They knew the staff I worked with, and my staff knew them by name. They visited me often in my place of work and, on their own terms, came to know intimately the context and content of my work. We shared in that work together. A unique, almost pre-modern, coherence prevailed, linking work, family, and leisure in a way that I had never really noticed before—or worse, had complained and railed against.

My twin sons have just entered middle school, and my daughter has begun her first year of high school. As we approach this stage in our family life, my wife and I are settled in our conviction that we want our life together as a family to be centered in and by our vocation as a pastoral family. For me, this desire is a revelation of sorts. Granted, this revelation has come at a relatively safe distance from the complex dynamics of congregational life. However, experiencing the pastoral life as a pathway that is paved with goodness depends not so much upon a particular form of congregational life so much as upon a pastor’s capacity to perceive and to embrace that way of life as good. Such recognition by pastors is essential if congregational life is to be shaped in a way that encourages the flourishing of pastors and their families. I will no longer hold a congregation responsible for my failure to experience the goodness of the pastoral life—a rich texture that I consistently failed to comprehend in the first place. I do not imagine that the experience of the goodness inherent in the pastoral life is inevitable. It is as much achievement as gift. It is a disciplined undertaking. For me and for my family, it is the life to which we are called and to which we are suited.

New Perceptions
I anticipate that many of my pastoral peers will have concluded by now that my capacity to articulate a positive reading of the pastoral life is
directly proportional to my distance from the parish. They must think that when once again I wade into the muddy waters of congregational life, I will then recall with clarity the water in which pastors swim, and I will recover a more realistic appraisal of the slow-burning downsides of the pastoral life. Perhaps. However, to my skeptical pastoral colleagues, I would say this: I will accept that my reading sees too much goodness if you will confess the possibility that your reading sees too little. In relation to this life we share, let us heed the apostle Paul’s admonition: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). At least in my own case, I feel that my inability to recognize, let alone realize, the good things intrinsic to the pastoral life was due in no small part to a failure of the imagination.

I recently read an account by the essayist and poet Wendell Berry of a significant turning episode in his life. As a young graduate of Stanford University, he had settled into the literary community of New York. His writing career was off to a strong and promising start. Then he upped and moved to Port Royal, Kentucky, where he had been born and raised, and where he still lives today. In his essay “A Native Hill”2 Berry tells of the dire warnings he received from his Manhattan literary peers: his work and career would wither in the culturally and intellectually barren wasteland of backwoods Kentucky. To his delight and surprise, Berry discovered an engagement with time, place, and people that would empower him as a writer in a way that Manhattan never did. Upon his return to Port Royal, Berry found a new awareness of his surroundings opening up inside him. He goes on to describe his new engagement with that familiar place: “I walked over it, looking, listening, smelling, touching, alive to it as never before. I listened to the talk of my kinsmen and neighbors as I had never done, alert to their knowledge of the place, and to the qualities and energies of their speech.” Describing this movement in his life, he writes, “Before it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.”

The pastoral life is now mine by choice—again, for the first time. My senses are tuned by new perceptions of enduring realities.

Let me end where I began: with Garret Keizer’s narrative. His account probes the uniquely demanding and rewarding engagement with time, people, place, and faith that ministry requires of us. His narrative reminded me that at the center of a well-lived pastoral life is the capacity to live and interpret the gospel over time, with real people, in a particular place. Further down the page from the quotation with which I opened this article, Keizer writes, “The best that most of us manage is a lopsided vacillation in favor of belief—but oh, in those moments of belief, one knows what it is to fly, to positively scream for joy in the ecstasy of ‘the love that moves the sun and other stars.’”3 

1. Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (New York: Viking, 1991), 66-67.
2. Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill,” in Recollected Essays: 1965-1980. (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), 79.
3. Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, 67.