Pastors are a very unique species. They are not only called to bridge two worlds in their preaching, as the John Stott title famously put it, but to live in two worlds. They bear the demanding burden of feeding and leading the flock of God, while at the same time being members of the flock (1 Pt. 5:1-4). They must find a way daily to manage the expectations of those they serve, while living with the fact that those expectations still exist, and vary from member to member. They must avoid trying to be everyone’s savior (despite the temptation to be this), and focus the church’s attention on the one true Savior. These are just some of the many challenges and tensions in pastoral ministry. Zack Eswine is a voice I have come to find helpful in navigating these challenges and tensions.
Dr. Eswine is the pastor of Riverside Church, an evangelical Presbyterian church in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He also serves as Director of the homiletics program at Covenant Theological Seminary. As important as these ministries are, his role as an author brought him to my attention. Eswine has authored five books, including his most recent work, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Crossway, 2015). This work won a Christianity Today Book-of-the-Year award in the Church/Pastoral Leadership category, and rightfully so. Having read the book and discussed it with Eswine in his home recently, I was moved and challenged. Below is a partial transcript and audio recording of our conversation from June 1.
You can listen to the audio here:
Jackson Watts (“JW”): I’m here with Dr. Eswine today. Zack, thanks for making time today to discuss your book with me.
Zack Eswine (“ZE”): (0.5.-0.7)
JW: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do presently for the benefit of those who will read this or listen to this who may have never heard your name before?
ZE: (0.18 – 0.43)
JW: (0.44 – 1:14) Part of what drew your name to my attention was this book, The Imperfect Pastor. It’s been received very positively. In fact, it was an award-winner with Christianity Today in the church life/pastoral leadership. Has the positive reception of this book surprised you?
ZE: (1:15 – 2:03)
JW: I have to go ahead and insert this in at this point. The book was a bit difficult to read for precisely the two reasons you named. It’s written in a different manner than most ecclesiology or pastoral leadership books. It demands a bit more from the reader, I think, which isn’t bad. I think we probably need more of that! It’s also actually a strength of the book, ironically. But as you said, it touches on some important assumptions and challenges, many in fact. And so in that way the book was very difficult to read, and yet I am gratified, as I am sure you are, that it has been received as well as it has.
ZE: (2:49 – 3:16)
JW: As we think about influences that contributed to this book, as well as other things in your life, you mention in the book a pastor friend who, several years ago, took his life. That had a great ripple effect on many of your peers, colleagues, friends, and yourself as well. Can you say a word about how that played into the vision behind this book and perhaps other things you’ve written?
ZE: (3:46 – 6:14)
JW: And you know the subtitle to the book is so apt. Let me share that: It’s “Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus.” I pay a lot of attention to subtitles—I’m not sure if the average person does. But it’s so apt, and in fact I think you summarize what you mean by this on page 35. For the benefit of the listener I’ll share that. You say, “I believe that Christian life and ministry are an apprenticeship with Jesus toward recovering our humanity and, through his Spirit, helping our neighbors do the same.” We’ll talk in a moment more about this idea of limits, but say a word or two about this language of ‘apprenticeship with Jesus.’ It’s in the subtitle of the book, and I’ve heard you use it in other contexts I think as well. Say a word about this phrase in the context of church leadership literature especially.
ZE: (7:19 – 9:29)
JW: We’ll come back to that a little more in a moment because all of these themes that we’re discussing seem to dovetail as I read the book. One of the big themes, the basic theme in my view, was ambition, or what one might even call ‘significance.’ I’m actually preparing to preach this Sunday on one of the passages on when the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest, and so this has been on my mind a lot. I want to read two small excerpts from the book which illustrate this, and then have you comment.
You say on page 145, “I have prayers to say for persons you’ve never heard of.” Then later on page 158, you say this about pastoral work: “I didn’t realize then that a pastor’s vocation of prayer and word and care is many times invisible, tucked away with Jesus, in one-on-one or small-group moments hidden from the eyes of our congregation, attempting to behold God in the individual providences of an ordinary human being.” Then later on page 213, I think this sums up this thread. You say, “After all, you are an unknown person in an unknown place who will seem irrelevant to most people in the world today, not to mention those who will read about your life centuries from now. And yet God gathers up every detail of your days with love and interest.”
Do you think pastors have a greatness complex, an ambition complex that we’ve got to confront head on?
ZE: (11:22 – 12:18)
JW: You’ve alluded to it already, but this is very much tied into this theme of our humanity in the book. You say that greatness, even in ministry, cannot escape humanity. And I really appreciated when you shared that insight about when you were examined for ordination being asked about the days in Genesis, but not really being asked how that actually impacted your ministry as an embodied human being. And I believe that kind of paves the way for some of the things you say in the book about the need to slow down, and have patience. Do you think technology, in its modern forms, is at the root of all of this or is there something else going on that’s fostered this kind of problem that we’re having?
ZE: (13:14 – 15:10)
JW: That’s true. You give several references to patience in the New Testament, in the pastoral epistles as I recall. And it’s amazing how many references there are there about doing our work “with all patience,” as the phrase goes in most English Bibles. This again coalesces with another theme in the book about the importance of our attentiveness to our place. We’re here in Webster Groves; this is your place, and it means something for you to know this place, desire this place, to see it as part of God’s care for you in having placed you here and not somewhere else. I don’t want to beat up on anyone out there, but do you think our evangelical conference culture in the way it democratizes everything and puts everything out there for anyone to see and hear—do you think this kind of militates against us being embedded in our place where God has called us to serve and focusing on our little towns and little communities?
ZE: (16:23 – 20:06)
JW: In an agrarian society, in other words, it becomes more natural to pay attention to the particularities of a place—not just the natural world, as it were, although that’s part of it. But just the individual, ordinary people that we serve, no one will ever hear about them, they’ll never be the feature of a magazine news story or anything like that. Is this kind of where this goes practically?
ZE: (20:34 – 22:23)
JW: And of course you say a lot about the shepherd in the book as well, which is not glamorous, and very particular . . .
ZE: (22:32 – 23:35)
JW: There’re a few things you mention near the end of the book that I think bear mentioning here as well. You talk about three different “omni-temptations” that we have. One is the posture of the “expert”: the pastor as “knowing it all.” Another is the ‘fixer,’ to power to solve everything. Then there is the issue of accessibility—being everywhere for everyone at all times. I was thinking about those, and certainly we probably all experience those in different times. Do you think those are driven more by church context and church history, or do you think this is more about our personal history? So if I have a history of feeling like I’m always rescuing things, that might shape my inclination to fall prey to that temptation. But of course, the church’s heritage and their expectations play into that, too. Do you think it is a combination of these two that cause us to fall to these temptations, or more the church context or our personal history driving things?
ZE: (24:44 – 26:37)
JW: As we think toward a practical horizon, in the book you allude to Jeremiah and the exile and how the promises extended to these people of a future return from exile, this was something perhaps none of them, given life expectancies under the circumstances, would not realize or see. That made me think of how this is true of most things in the Scriptures. The promise of the Hebrews coming out of Egyptian bondage, it took so much time for that to actually happen, to be a part of that generation that came out. And indeed there are all of the prophets who looked for the Messiah; they waited, they looked. Our Messiah has come, but we still wait his second coming.
You further illustrate all of this on the bottom of page 97, and I’ll share this as a way of concluding. You say, “There is nothing we can do in ministry that does not require God to act, if true fruit is to be produced (John 15:5). Everything pastors hope will take place in a person’s life with God remains outside the pastor’s own power.” So as we wrap things up and think about looking forward and learning to play the long game, what are two or three key things we need to keep in mind if we’re going to have patience even in our limitations and have this long-term vision? What comes to your mind?
ZE: (28:21 – 32:44)
JW: Right, because there is going to be a great fluctuation over time, moment to moment, in fact . . .
ZE: (32:50 – 34:14)
JW: Well I am honored to have had the time with you today, both over lunch and here in your home, during the normal rhythms of life. I appreciate you sharing that with me, and with our many readers and listeners who will benefit greatly from this interview, and I’m sure your book as well. We’ll put that up for people.
ZE: (34:32 – 34:33)
 Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 271 pp., $16.99