People enter pastoral ministry in response to a call from God that manifests itself in a desire to make a difference in people’s lives for the sake of the gospel, but this desire is easily hijacked so that pastors measure their achievements by the standards of the world (size, fame, etc.). In The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine, lead pastor of Riverside Church (Webster Groves, MO) and Director of Homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary, explores this temptation and how to reshape pastoral ministry by focusing on how our limitations point us to Jesus. This volume explores many of the same themes as Eswine’s Sensing Jesus, as it is a rewrite that is shorter (about half the size) but includes some new material (about one-third of the book).
The four sections of the book move from identifying problems to offering helpful practices. The first section (“The Calling We Pursue”) discusses issues related to the call to ministry, including the desire to do great things as well as the fact that pastors remain humans (noting that even Jonathan Edwards passed gas! [p. 34]) with certain family backgrounds that teach us things, “not all of [which] agree with Jesus” (p. 46), that pop up in our lives. Eswine highlights how pastors must be “fame-shy” like Jesus (p. 60) and embrace their humanity in a particular location (pp. 36–39), knowing that “obscurity and greatness are not opposites” (p. 29) and that Jesus sees us even when we seem “invisible” to the world (p. 68). The second section focuses on temptations pastors face to be everywhere, fix everything, know everything, and do it all quickly. Eswine instructs pastors not to repent of their failure to be or do these things but rather to repent because they have tried (pp. 74, 96, 104). Instead of viewing pastoral ministry as a chance to do great things, one must view it as a slow work, with pastors “long-distance grace runners” (p. 124) who are patient and work in particular context. One should stay where one is ministering for a long time because shepherds “are the returning ones” who “remain when the apostle, the prophet, and the evangelist arrive and then move on” (p. 75).
The third section focuses on “Reshaping Our Inner Life,” calling for pastors to have a new ambition of a “God-centered life” (p. 138) that speaks less and listens more (“Wise pastors are listening pastors,” p. 141), embraces the boundaries of the particular calling that God has given you (p. 144), views smaller as better than bigger (p. 146), and beholds God’s presence throughout the day, week, and year (pp. 172–82). Eswine says that in order to help people behold God in their lives, pastors must behold him in their own lives (p. 155); Eswine therefore seeks to help pastors re-learn what it looks like to behold God. The last section is about “Reshaping Pastoral Ministry” and praises the importance of caring for the sick (ch. 12) and sinners (ch. 13) in a local context (ch. 14) and offers some reflections on how to lead in the church (ch. 15) in light of Eswine’s particular experiences. The chapter on “local knowledge” contains many insights into how to research a pastor’s community and congregation; this is a special gem in a volume full of them. The final chapter has a call for “romantic realism,” noting that “heroic moments are not the normal way that God daily visits his people” but that “we still believe that God is doing something larger than we can presently see” (p. 248), which happens through the Spirit using the Word and Sacrament as delivered by humans.
This books stands in a recent stream of works that move pastors away from visions of greatness in terms of size and fame to that of steadiness and faithfulness to a particular flock. There is always a danger in these books, as they can inadvertently reinforce the “celebrity pastor” culture as a gifted pastor writes a book that may say “don’t seek this ministry” but can lead other pastors to desire a larger platform or feel inferior because no one is reading their book! This book, however, largely avoids this danger through Eswine’s humility that has been refined in his experiences described throughout the book. He boasts in his weaknesses and discusses the joys of everyday pastoral ministries. A potential problem that could arise in implementing the vision Eswine presents on the local level is that congregants and leaders in the church might not have this sort of vision for the pastor; one will need to introduce these ideas into the local church in order to counter the pressures that Eswine so skillfully notes. While this book is more accessible than Sensing Jesus, I am not sure if lay leaders would be as drawn and captivated by the book as pastors, so perhaps there is room for another book designed to help pastors educate congregants on what to expect of a pastor.
I recommend this book to every pastor and think it would be especially valuable for a seasoned pastor to read alongside of a newer pastor, as the seasoned pastor can echo Eswine’s concerns to the new pastor and may help him think through how to follow Eswine’s lead in his particular setting. One must resist the urge to read through this book quickly, as Eswine’s comments need to be digested slowly and integrated into our lives. In fact, reading through the book quickly to get to the next book reflects many of the temptations Eswine addresses, as one wants to do things fast and know all things to be able to fix all things! This awareness comes from seeking to integrate the insights of this book and may point out the fact that the apprenticeship that Eswine describes is a constant wrestling with the temptations and challenges that he analyzes.