Listening and the Spirit of Unhurried Leisure


“Get busy.”

That’s the mantra of many a boss.

“Look busy.”

That’s what coworkers say when the boss is coming.

Busyness isn’t always a synonym for work. In fact, busyness can get in the way of productivity.

Eugene Peterson, best known for his translation of the Bible, The Message, also served as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, for 30 years. One of the consistent themes in his teaching and writing is that pastors should not fall into the seductive trap of busyness. Instead, as he writes in “The Unbusy Pastor,” his goal in his role as a church leader was to do three things, things that are too easily pushed aside by a busy life: to pray, to preach, and to listen.

Listening, he says, needs “unhurried leisure.” This leisure is the opposite of busyness. And just as busyness does not equal work, neither is leisure the same thing as laziness. Instead, leisure is having time at one’s disposal, and when one chooses to use that time for listening to what someone else has to say, it is a very valuable gift.

The passage below was written by Peterson in 1981. It is about and for pastors, but it can help any of us listen better, unless, of course, listening is something else we’ve ceded over to the professionals.

I want to be a pastor who listens. A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what is going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so when they are through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.

Listening is in short supply in the world today; people aren’t used to being listened to. I know how easy it is to avoid the tough, intense work of listening by being busy (letting the hospital patient know there are ten more persons I have to see). Have to? But I’m not indispensable to any of them, and I am here with this one. Too much of pastoral visitation is punching the clock, assuring people we’re on the job, being busy, earning our pay.

Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s for only five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambience of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to people. The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?” The number of persons listened to must necessarily be less than the number spoken to. Listening to a story always takes more time than delivering a message, so I must discard my compulsion to count, to compile the statistics that will justify my existence.

(Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” Leadership, Summer, 1981, also in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, reprint edition, Eerdmans, 1993)

[photo: “Railway Chit Chat,” by Brett Davies, used under a Creative Commons license]


Fear of Heights: Pastors, Missionaries, and the Dangers of Pedestals

The statures of thirteen saints adorn the roof of Montreal’s Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, Simeon Stylites was the first “pillar hermit,” spending much of his life perched atop a column (stylos is Greek for pillar). Simeon began this practice to escape the constant crowds of pilgrims who sought his prayers, disrupting his personal devotions. His original pedestal held him around nine feet off the ground, but over time it was replaced by ever-taller versions, until it was some 50 feet high. Simeon remained on his pillar for 36 years, until his death.

While Simeon seems to have thrived living above the masses, most church leaders today find life atop a pedestal difficult at best. But that doesn’t stop many Christians from elevating them to greater and greater heights, and sometimes those leaders get quite comfortable with the view from above.

This is one of the topics addressed in this month’s issue of Christianity Today. The headline on the front cover is “New Life after the Fall,” referring to the seven-year recovery of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church following the scandals and resignation of its founder and pastor, Ted Haggard.

In a companion article, “Letting Pastors Be Real,” Mark Galli interviews Dale Pyne, president of Peacemakers Ministries, on how churches can help keep their leaders from falling. While Pyne’s advice is focused on pastors, I believe that it applies to missionaries, as well—not only concerning their pastoral role overseas, but also in their relationships with sending churches and supporters. Here is some of what he has to say:

  • Putting pastors up on pedestals, says Pyne, creates “minigods in our minds and hearts.”
  • We don’t hold pastors or missionaries accountable when we think we don’t know enough to address their adherence to “fundamental issues.” Pyne says he’s lost track of how many times he’s heard elders say, ‘I wanted to say something, but I thought, Who am I?'” If a pastor wants to “address or confess [a sin], his place on the pedestal sometimes facilitates pride and fear of man. So they die in silence and pain.”
  • When it comes to attendance, there is pressure on church leaders to “inflate or puff the numbers.” But Pyne says that “if we start managing shepherding by the numbers, we’re going to lose shepherding, and we’re going to focus on the numbers.”
  • “Jesus was perfect,” says Pyne, “pastors are not.” This is, of course, true for missionaries, as well. If either aren’t humble and honest, they “create distance and discourage connection.”
  • Pastors—and missionaries—need “a high-integrity accountability relationship with one or several spiritually mature individuals” to address personal issues. “And they must trust that the relationship is a confidential one.”

Pyne ends with a call for transparency. Here again, as in most of his responses in the article, pastor can be replaced with missionary. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned by everyone in Christian leadership and service:

If we’re too busy denying and protecting and putting on a church face, then the congregation perceives that the pastor has it all together. We say to ourselves, Wow, I am so far from that pastor. I am unworthy. Why isn’t God working in me the way God’s working in him? The people start to elevate them. It’s not all about the pastor, but that transparency releases the congregation. It helps the pastor be real. And releases the congregant to accept who they are and pursue hope in Christ.

(“St. Simeon Stylites the Elder,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917 edition, New Advent; Mark Galli, “Letting Pastors Be Real,” Christianity Today, December 2013)

[photo: “Don’t Jump!!” by Sue Richards, used under a Creative Commons license]