While ministry burnout is nothing new, the past few years of pandemic and political turmoil have exacerbated burnout to alarming levels. Both pastors and lay leaders are exhausted from leading confused congregations through the crucible of the past few years. Tired, tattered, and torn, there is a great temptation to step away from the heavy work of shepherding souls. Though I myself am not a pastor, I know this from decades of personal experience as a deeply-involved wife of a campus ministry director who is now a pastor.
In order to walk the tightrope line of the gospel in such a polemical age, pastors need long balancing sticks. In his lesser-known book Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson offers such a timeless yet timely balancing rod. Written a mere five years into his pastoral vocation, this book results from Peterson’s personal wrestling to stay the course when circumstances and flesh tempted him to flee from a high and holy (and considerably difficult) calling. Among many other helpful and honest bits of soul-shaping advice, Peterson speaks of the need to hold geography and eschatology in tension. The balancing rod between these two has served as a frequent help for me since I learned of it nearly a decade ago.
The Tension Between Geography and Eschatology
While it seems obvious that the work of shepherding souls is theological, Peterson reminds us that it is also geographical and eschatological. In an internet-flattened age that brings global realities to the palms of our hands, we tend to think of geography as the study of far-off places or the knowledge of maps; however, Peterson uses the term to remind us of the particular love for the local that is implied in pastoral vocations.
“It is the nature of pastoral work to walk into an alien world, put our feet on the pavement, and embrace the locale…Pastors don’t send memos, don’t send generic messages, don’t work from a distance: locale is part of it. It is the nature of pastoral work to be on site, working things out in the particular soil of a particular parish.”
Yet, at the same time as they are called to a particular focal point, pastors are called to remember (and remind their people concerning) a global, eschatological hope. The present focus must be a specific, nuanced, particular flock of souls, yet the scope must always include the shared eschatological hope of every Christian.
When Peterson speaks of our eschatological hope, he’s using both meanings of the word: end as terminus or finish and end as purpose or goal. As we cultivate our love for the specific people, places, and cultures to which God has appointed us, we must be careful not to lose sight of our (and their) ultimate end: glorious union with Christ in the presence of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue (Rev. 7:9). One eye on the here and now and our particular plot; one eye on the future and our glorious, global end.
A Love for the Local
When our eyes can scan news of the world and notice the beauty of hitherto far-off places, they can easily lose their focus on the places God has actually set us. As believers in Christ, we have a theology of place. We believe that God has providentially placed us in a certain lot with a certain portion (Ps. 16:5–6). Since our God is not a God of partiality, what he spoke concerning kings is true of us: he changes times and seasons, he removes kings and sets up kings (Dan. 2:21). Just as God specifically appointed the various tribes of ancient Israel to specific lots (and made sure that such allotment was recorded in Holy Writ), he does the same for us today (Num. 13–19). His sovereign hand has placed us on our streets, in our cubicles, and among particular neighbors, friends, and coworkers.
Place matters to God largely because people matter to God, and people are always found in and shaped by the context of a particular place. In an age of wanderlust and with hearts prone to look for greener pastures and easier congregations, it takes great intentionality to foster a God-honoring love for the local. When God sent his people into exile, he gave them an instruction that sounds strange upon first hearing.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I send you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:4–6,7).
It would seem natural for a people to hate the place of their exile and the people who took them into exile; however, God asks them to cultivate a love for both. He had good purposes for both his own people and the people who exiled them. God could have chosen countless ways to spread the good news of his gospel, but he chose to proclaim his love from lips to ear, from person to person (Rom. 10:14–17). He loves his creation and invites us to join him in his nuanced, particular love.
When I talk about love for the local, I don’t mean a blind love for the people, places, and particular cultures to which God has assigned you. God-honoring love for the local is an eyes-wide-open love that sees both the nuanced beauty and particular brokenness of that place. God-honoring love for the local is constantly asking, “What can we accept?” “What must we reject?” and “What can we come alongside Jesus in seeking to redeem?”
An Eschatological Hope
Love for the local, left unchecked, can turn idolatrous and disastrous. Just ask the prophet Jonah who was blinded by his love for his particular people and place. His love for God’s people of Israel left him deeply prejudiced against the people of Nineveh. In fact, when God called him to warn the people of Nineveh of coming destruction, Jonah blatantly, sinfully, and quite literally ran the other way (Jon. 1). Jonah’s entrenched love for the local left no space in his heart for God’s global plans to show mercy towards even the Ninevites (Jon. 4).
It is all-too-easy to get so embedded in the local (its needs, its battles, its beauty) that we lose sight of why God placed us in our particular circumstances and cities: he is gathering his sons and daughters from the north, the south, the east, and the west that they might receive his grace and declare his glory (Isa. 43:6–7). As pastors and ministry leaders, we can get so lost in the necessary, weekly rhythms of staff meetings, elder meetings, and city-wide initiatives that we forget that we are called to stir our peoples’ hearts from a settled love to an expectant hope.
On the other hand, eschatological hope without a love for the local tends to turn into ivory-tower discussions, papers, and sermons that don’t meet our people where they are in order to call them towards their ultimate end.
The One Who Embodies Both
Thankfully, as pastors, we are invited to participate in the life of One who embodied both of these realities perfectly. While we will become easily imbalanced and swayed too strongly in one direction and then the other, Christ always held these two in perfect balance.
Christ’s very incarnation shows the scandal of the particular. The God who spoke galaxies into existence made himself human and had an actual address in Galilee (Phil. 2:6–9). Our God, eternal in his scope, became material and stepped into time and space. In a scene very similar to that which concludes the short book of Jonah, Jesus stands on a hill overlooking Jerusalem and weeps for his people (Matt. 23:37–39).
Yet, Jesus, as the better Jonah, declared hope for both Gentile and Jew. He constantly stirred up his local people to see and move toward their eternal end. He descended to a particular time and place that he might be lifted up and so draw all people to himself (John 12:32). Our only hope in holding the tension between geography and eschatology is our Christology. As we behold Christ, we will become more like him until the day when we, along with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation are with him.
Aimee Joseph has spent many years directing women’s discipleship and ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and in Campus Outreach San Diego. She is the wife to G’Joe who has recently planted Center City Church, and mother to three growing boys. Her first book, Demystifying Decision Making released with Crossway in January 2022. You can read more of her writing at aimeejoseph.blog.
 Eugene Peterson. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992. 122–123.
 Ibid, 141.