I couldn’t understand why ministry was so hard. I’d spent years in seminary. I thought of myself as mildly competent—at least competent enough to start some Bible studies, organize a prayer service, and sit with the lonely. Yet my plans for forming disciples in the faith—logical, intricate, even beautiful plans—felt thwarted at every turn. I began blaming the people to whom I was ministering.
Shepherding would be a joy if it weren’t for the sheep, I thought. Why couldn’t people just get behind my plans?
This pity party lasted until the day I picked up what has become an unlikely guide to my pastoral ministry: Jane Jacobs’s 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Critique of City Planners
The point of the book is simple: cities should be organized not from an ivory tower or a state capital, but in and by the cities.
The villains of the book are those city planners who impose a vision of city life upon particular neighborhoods. They are the people who build parks that go unused—then blame the residents for not using them. They are the people who have complex, albeit rational, ideas of city organization: large roads to connect the business district with the upper-class housing divisions, with the restaurants, with the shopping area. Each space has its neat and tidy area. For all of their logic and efficiency, though, these city planners bring disorder and dislocation to the cities—choking the life out of them.
As I read Jacobs’s critique of city planners, I saw in these bureaucrats my self, my pride. After reading the book, I immediately crucified my ministry plans and rose to walk in newness of life. Jacobs’s vision of the city, which would inform my vision of ministry, ran in the opposite direction of the planners.
Rather than imposing the will of a logical, dispassionate stranger upon a city, Jacobs wanted to study the city as it actually existed—its intricate connection of districts and streets. She took a deferential stance when it came to the city, assuming the small businesses, neighbors, and schools understood the complexity of their economy better than a bureaucratic expert. Rather than tell a city where a park should go, Jacobs wanted to see which lots kids were already playing in, and put grass and slides and swings there.
The book shows a reverence for the sort of spontaneity that marks any flourishing society. This order is not the result of a plan given from on high; it appears organically amid the intricate web of institutions as they interact on the ground.
For Jacobs, if one wants to make a city better, the first task is to find what’s already working and support that. It’s a humble posture that’s uncomfortable for those who’ve spent their life in degree programs becoming experts. By the middle of Jacobs’s book, I stood above the city planners ready to damn them; by the end, I heard the voice of the Spirit whispering, “You are the man!” (cf. 2 Sam. 12:7).
How Pastors Make the Same Mistake
I hold my ministry plans loosely now. I don’t assume my evangelistic program is the end-all-be-all, or my scheme for catechesis the only right one. Instead, I look for the ministry that’s already occurring and thriving in the church, and build programmatic structures around it. I realized ministry is in the first instance something I recognize, not something I do.
Eugene Peterson once said that early on in his ministry he saw his job as bringing God into a situation—a hospital room, a jail cell, a marriage dispute. He learned, however, that his job was more modest than that. His job was to be sensitive to the ways in which God was already at work.
Ministry is in the first instance something I recognize, not something I do.
Before pastoral visits, he began quoting to himself this passage from Mark 16: “He has risen . . . he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.” He would do this to remind himself that ministry is always already occurring. His job is to recognize and buttress that ministry. Says Peterson:
Every time I show up, I have been anticipated; the risen Christ got there ahead of me. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on? I enter a room now not wondering what I am going to do or say, but what the risen Christ has already done, already said. I come in on a story that is in progress, something that is resurrection, already going on. Sometimes I can clarify a word, sharpen a feeling, help recover an essential piece of memory, but always dealing with what the risen Christ has already set in motion, already brought into being.
Peterson’s work did to my pastoral ministry what Jacobs’s work must have done to the careers of overly self-assured city planners. He gave me a lower view of my plans and a higher view of the work already being done by the Spirit. Peterson respected the pulsating, teaming, vibrant life naturally present among God’s people. He had eyes to see that vitality, and thus avoided the common temptation of imposing an agenda that will squelch that life.
If I could go back a decade and say something to my discouraged pastoral self, it’d be this: Your job isn’t just to bring God to these people. Your job is to recognize how God is already moving among them. The ministry doesn’t need your plans as much as it needs your attentiveness and your support. I’d tell myself to remember that because Christ goes before me into every situation, I should look for him. I should be sensitive to the grace already present and working in the congregation, and then find ways to cheerlead and highlight that grace.
In short, I’d tell myself to beware the sin of city planners and pastors!