Major on the Message, Not the Method

Five years ago I was extremely busy. I’m still extremely busy, actually. But several years ago, in the midst of my busyness, I read a book that both challenged and frustrated me. It was Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. I found the premise of the book to be entirely true, but I also felt it was entirely incomplete. Peterson writes with an undiluted premise—that success in ministry depends largely on three pastoral acts: prayer, reading the Scriptures and giving spiritual direction. I was looking for some yet undiscovered leadership principle to help me in my busyness, and instead I found something familiar and tried. Hoping for some dollop of supernatural wisdom from the same person who created The Message Bible, I was sorely disappointed when I was prescribed a familiar regimen for successful leadership: prayer, reading the Bible and giving spiritual direction.

Last September I completed my first twenty years of vocational youth ministry, and during those years I’ve been very busy. Youth pastors tend to be the cultural gatekeepers of the church. We are usually the first to spot emerging social trends. We integrate those trends when helpful, exegete them when appropriate and admonish when necessary. This keeps us busy. We’re always adjusting our methods, activities and fine tuning our messages to stay culturally relevant. It’s not just youth pastors—all kinds of ministry leaders find ways to be very busy. We have lots to accomplish, and we do a lot of things in order to accomplish it all.

So how could Eugene Peterson tell us that it all boils down to these simple things—prayer, reading the Scriptures and giving spiritual direction? I remember thinking that it wasn’t practical, it was out of touch with modern ministry, and maybe Mr. Peterson needed to spend some time in a youth pastor’s shoes. I was very busy, and I was looking for more than just “prayer, reading the Scriptures and giving spiritual direction.” Looking back, I realize Mr. Peterson was right and I was wrong. Those three activities provided the fundamental integrity of my ministry during that time, and those three activities provide the fundamental integrity of my ministry now.

This crisis has challenged us all. Youth pastors and other ministry leaders have stopped their usual busy routines. We have all had to change methods; becoming pastors from a respectable social distance. This newness has kept many of us busier than ever, with the added toll and stress of our collective cultural situation. In the midst of this new busyness and stress, I’ve found three core behaviors shaping the integrity of my ministry: prayer, reading the Scriptures and giving spiritual direction.

Remember this—no one is watching you or listening to you to hear about your method, they are watching you or listening to you to hear your message. They are coming to you for spiritual direction. The spiritual direction you give better come from a strong prayer life and a depth of understanding in the Scriptures. There are no activities of greater importance for a youth pastor or other ministry leader during a crisis than these.

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