We Need Contemplative Pastors


We Need Contemplative Pastors
Brian Zahnd

I became a pastor when I was twenty-two. (In reality I had been doing the work of a pastor since I was seventeen, but by the time I was twenty-two I had been ordained and embarked upon the fulltime vocation of being a pastor.) As I look back upon this, it does appear somewhat ridiculous. A twenty-two-year-old founding pastor! Do I regret it? Yes and no. I admit that it’s probably not the best way to go about planting a church and making disciples, but it’s what happened. It was part of the phenomenon of the Jesus Movement. Young would-be followers of Jesus were looking to me for leadership. It’s the cards that were dealt me. So I did my best. I learned on the job. And the Lord was with us.

But by the time we began to have the success of numerical church growth in the 1990s, we were fully locked into the charismatic evangelicalism that too often appears committed to an elementary level of faith. Later I would discover just how difficult it can be to lead a large church beyond a quasi-fundamentalist and largely reactive Christianity. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. And always painful.

Framing Christianity within a dualistic “us versus them” paradigm can be a successful way of achieving numerical growth. The nefarious “them” serve as a foil to assert our own rightness. Sunday after Sunday we are made to feel good about belonging to those who are on the right side of all things religious and political. This is the problem we have when churches are led by religious entrepreneurs instead of contemplative pastors.

The other problem is that by the time a pastor is spiritually mature enough to actually be contemplative and capable of leading others into healthy spiritual formation, the institution is fully committed to a reactive kind of Christianity. If we are stuck in a reactive form of Christianity, any move toward a contemplative form of Christianity is viewed as a kind of betrayal. It’s often condemned as “falling away from the faith.” But that’s not what it is. It’s leaving behind childish things and growing up into the fullness of Christ.

The problem of the American evangelical church being led primarily by those who are committed to a reactive form of Christianity is widespread. It’s why so few of our best known pastors look anything like contemplative mystics. Yet contemplative mystics are precisely the kind of women and men that need to be leading our churches. More so now than ever.

We’re in a situation where it is often very difficult, if not impossible, for a pastor to make spiritual progress while being a pastor. I know, because I talk to these pastors all the time. Being familiar with my story, they seek me out. Many of them feel they have to make a choice between their own spiritual growth and their pastoral vocation. Something needs to change.

As long as our churches are led by those who view being a Christian primarily as a kind of conferred status instead of a lifelong journey, and view faith as a form of static certitude instead of an ongoing orientation of the soul toward God, I see little hope that we can build the kind of churches that can produce mature believers in any significant numbers.

The American entrepreneurial model of church growth has created a situation where the pastoral vocation has been rendered nearly impossible. On one hand the pastor must satisfy the demands of a consumer-oriented constituency (which is more properly the work of a politician or businessman), while on the other hand seeking to produce real spiritual formation in the lives of the congregation. These two objectives — satisfying a contingency and spiritual formation — work against one another most of the time. It seems impossible. But Jesus calls us to do the impossible.

So we press on…in faith. Our hearts are not weary. We still say, “come with me.” We still seek to lead people into the fullness of Christ. Because it is Jesus who calls us and it is Jesus who is building his church. There are those who are longing to walk the road to Cana and find the place where water is turned into wine.

Water To Wine, pp. 179–181

(The artwork is Jacob’s Dream by Marc Chagall)

  • Floris

    Loved this section in your book! Could you tell us what you mean with ‘reactive Christianity’ and ‘contemplative Christianity’. And what would be the biggest difference in leading between a ‘reactive’ pastor and a ‘contemplative’ pastor?

  • Wow. Spot on Brian—the more I read from your book, the more I am so glad I have finished with the mindset that infatuated my life for the first 20 years of my faith journey: the revivalism, charismaticism, successism, with a healthy dose of elitism, pharisaism, and nationalism thrown in…

  • Len Hjalmarson

    Totally agree. I’m currently writing a book on leadership that makes the same argument. Beyond the technocratic model that is the legacy of the Enlightenment and church growth movement.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Sounds like a variant of “Introverts vs Extroverts” applied specifically to the Pastors’ positions.

  • ccmosaic

    Love this.

  • doug sayers

    Thanks Brian. I think I get your meaning even without a lot of particulars/examples.

    Somewhere I read where the contemporary Pope said of John Calvin, “The strength of that heretic is that money means nothing to him.” We may never be able to verify that claim but the Pope was on to something there. The money does tend to muck things up. I am often encouraged (as a Gideon) by some of the churches I visit where money is not the driving force and real ministry and koinonia is going on. (Yes, most of them are smaller, often with “lay pastors.”)

  • 4thegloryofgod

    I agree with most of this post but my one pushback, beyond the overstatement of “impossible”, is that I think the Scripture does not support an either/or but a both/and. Truly, Christianity as a “conferred status” is needlessly narrow and misguided as a definition of the whole and just as clearly, Christianity as a “life-long” journey is a welcome and biblical counter balance. But why must these two be put in opposition? Why can we not celebrate the glorious truth of being “made children of God” (John 1 and too many Scriptures to quote) with the life-long pursuit of Christ in an ever deepening (C.S. Lewis, used the phrase “further in and further up”) journey toward and with Christ in the fellowship of the saints?

  • Randall L. Robinson

    This is a breath of fresh air for one who feels the need to slip away to a monastery on occasion in order to find God and allow my soul the freedom to breathe deeply by practicing silence, solitude, prayer, and contemplation/reflection. Thank you for a good word and powerful reminder that pleasing the crowd may not be, in the final analysis, authentic pastoral ministry.