Written by Preston Pouteaux
I was in my early 20’s when I got my first job working for a church. As part of the preparation, the church invited me to the Global Leadership Summit, the go-to event for aspiring church leaders. Hundreds gathered at our local mega-church to wait for the satellite feed to snap on. We were ready to receive from the best of the best and the crowd came to a hush as screen went ‘live.’ On each side of me sat church board elders taking notes from Bill Hybels, the guru of church leadership. They handed me a Bill Hybels book as a gift, gave me a knowing nod, and I received the message loud and clear: watch from Hybels, learn from Hybels, and go-and-do-like-Hybels.
The disconnect for me was very real. Hybels and the Global Leadership Summit was never part of my seminary training. I was formed in the rhythms of prayer, slow reading, and the gentle practice of listening to others. I was shaped by the wisdom of pastors who cared well for people and places. It was the poetic language and practice of spiritual formation among God’s people that shaped me, not the five best business practices being outlined on the big screen before me. But I suppose this was the real world. The church needs Hybels and IBM CEOs not St. Francis of Assisi.
I never did read that Hybels book, nor any others. I went another way. I walked slowly with neighbours, carried my brokenness on my sleeve, sat long with parishioners, and practiced prayer in the quiet of my office space. I read and preached and wrote with patience and attentiveness. I came to see that my soul and the souls of others in my church are not machines, but we’re more like gardens. Gardens take time and care.
I learned all of this by watching; not Bill Hybels, but my childhood pastor, Rob Peterson. Rob listened to me when I was young and naive. He did not speak down to me, but saw Jesus at work in me. He lived rhythms of the spiritual life that I found beautiful. Not flashy or showy, but faithful and present to the work of God.
I know now that my pastor Rob Peterson also faced the pressures to perform, to lead by creating a spectacular that would attract crowds and reflect some kind of success. Today I also know those pressures. I know the pressure to mimic the successful CEO and church leader gurus. But these voices are failing. Simply Google ‘Bill Hybels’ and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
In January 2017 I was at our big denominational conference. The Super-Star Bill Hybels was the guest speaker and I found myself in the front row. Once again, the crowd was hushed. His success and largess filled the stage. Dream big. Lead big. Push. Build. Fix. Drive. Do. Do. Do. It was the kind of mantra I heard years before, one that gets people excited, but fails in subtle and very real ways.
Off in a side room, was another gathering. There, in a smaller space, was my pastor Rob Peterson, giving a short ten minute talk. In light of the fall of the Bill Hybels agenda, Rob’s words have come back to me. They are prophetic and timely, and worth revisiting. Rob likely did not know that Bill was going to share before him, but his talk could not have better summarized the deep crevasse separating these two approaches to pastoral ministry. His talk was simply called, “Soul Care in a Culture of Performance.”
Rob Peterson shared that spiritual leaders face the temptation to perform spiritual wisdom, which is different from the actual vocation of living with holy integrity. He said,
“Spiritual leaders are called to embody, to enflesh in their heart and life and their activity, the Lord’s ministry. We don’t have a ministry, none of us do, we only reveal the one and only ministry of Jesus Christ by being ministers of the gospel. But the great challenge is to know the very subtle difference between performing our calling in the name of Jesus or being tempted to offer a performance in our own name…Pastors can arrive at a place where Christ’s resources of joy and gratitude and strength evaporate, and we can go through the motions for months, we can go through the motions even for years, and when we find ourselves in such arid places with depleted energies the temptation to go through the motions, what I call the temptation to offer performance, it’s there for the taking. Like Jesus facing the temptation to do something spectacular for the world to see, we can feel the pull to make something spectacular happen in the Kingdom or in our church on our own strength, it’s very hard to navigate this inner world we have… [Many] churches and cultures with a love affair with performance, they love a good performance, they love the thrill of leaders who inspire with wisdom and vision and clarity, some congregations subversively reward over-achievers, they applaud long hours, they are infatuated with great new initiatives. This is the context in which we must attend to our souls.”
How do we attend to our souls in this driven context? Rob Peterson said that in solitude and silence, we discover Jesus again at work in us. But this was never part of the vision of the leadership gurus. For them, retreats were for leading and getting prestigious speaking gigs, not listening for the heart of Jesus themselves. But Peterson was offering a vision of pastors who go deeper in silence by simply letting Jesus interact with them, know them, and lead them beside still waters and into green pastures. He said, “It is in the crucible of solitude and silence we are brought to our knees, we are brought face to face with our own false selves and our shadows and by sheer grace if we abide with Christ in silence and solitude he will lead us to our true identities.”
I’m thankful for Rob Peterson because he modelled for me a way of living as a pastor that was about the beautiful freedom of living in Jesus. He gave me the freedom to be Preston, to be called a son. I am not a mechanical leader leading a mechanical organization. I do not hide my sin and sorrow behind the ‘I-got-it-all-together’ mask. I do not need to use and abuse others in some manipulated climb to success. I can love gently and patiently without having to point to some spectacle as the fruit of my labour.
As Rob Peterson says, “When we enter into the poor and powerless place of silence where Christ seeks our company, and not our performance, our soul has a chance to reawaken to the presence of God.”
May we rediscover the joy of leading and serving in Jesus, with Jesus, and like Jesus. It is the better way, I’ve seen it for myself.