Book Review: The Imperfect Pastor, by Zack Eswine
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus. Crossway, 2015. 272 pps, $14.99.
Two years ago I read (most of) Sensing Jesus by Zack Eswine with Shai Linne, who was our associate pastor at the time. As we discussed the book, we agreed that Zack had a unique gift that caused us to reflect deeply and face deep-seated struggles we felt as pastors.
While the content of Sensing Jesus was excellent, the title was bad, the cover was bad, and the chapters were way too long. We hoped Zack would rework the book because the content was rich, but not as accessible as it could have been. The Imperfect Pastor is Zack’s faithful attempt to update and abbreviate a wonderful resource for pastors.
Because I was so challenged by his first book, I asked two pastor friends, Shawn Branscum (Pillar Church of DC) and Garrett Conner (La Plata Baptist), to join me in reading and reviewing Zack’s remix.
The Imperfect Pastor contains 16 lengthy chapters arranged in 4 parts.
Part 1 – The Calling We Pursue (Ch.1-4)
Most pastors feel the desire to do great things for God. While this can be a godly ambition, far too often we are tempted to define greatness in ways Jesus does not. We want to make an “epic difference for God” (21) but can easily overlook the “ordinary people” in “mundane places” that he has placed right in front of us (40).
We can become bored with what God considers greatness because we easily forget that we are merely humans who “read the Bible with glasses, kneel to pray for people with coffee breath . . . and go to the bathroom after we preach sermons” (33). We are merely humans whom Jesus uses in ordinary tasks to accomplish great things for his glory.
We need this reminder because “Jesus’ way is not the celebrity way” (64). Jesus welcomes us to follow him into the invisible arena of fameless faithfulness. Zack presses this home with one of the best questions of the book: “Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked?” (61) Fixating on how God uses other pastors or authors or conference speakers can fan the flame of unhealthy ambition. Zack serves us by calling us to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, which most often is a place of ordinary obscurity.
Part 2 – The Temptations We Face (Ch. 5-8)
There are some ways a pastor must be like God. But there are some ways he cannot be like God. This section masterfully shows how empty and discouraged we become when we wrongly attempt to be what only God can be.
Eswine reminds us that we cannot be an omnipresent pastor, who tries to be everywhere for everyone (ch. 5). Instead, we must be doing the long, small work in whatever unknown place God calls us to. Neither should we try to be an omnipotent pastor who tries to fix everything for everyone (ch. 6). Rather, we are called to rest, knowing that there are things we can neither control nor fix. And we cannot be an omniscient pastor who thinks he needs to have all the answers (ch. 7). Instead, we must understand there are limits to our knowledge, which requires us to patiently lean on God who knows what we don’t know.
This misunderstanding of our pastoral capacity can tempt us toward an “impatient mindset of trying to do large things famously and immediately” that produces weariness in us and pain in others (120). This feeling is only exasperated when we compare ourselves to others and feel the pressure to be or do what God has given to others (pg. 147).
These reminders were the most helpful part of the book for us. We resonated with the feeling of being an “unpastored” pastor who battles loneliness and the insecurity of not knowing what to do in many instances (77-78).
This was crystalized in a story Zack told in Chapter 6 about a time he and another elder found themselves standing on the front porch of a house with a runaway girl curled up in front of them, her mother sobbing at the door, and her father angrily yelling inside. In the story (which is worth the price of the book), he brings us to see that everyone on that porch needed help, but that only Jesus could give it. As pastors we constantly feel like we need to be the hero, but Zack reminds us that only Jesus can give be that.
Part 3 – Reshaping Our Inner Life (Ch. 9-11)
Zack pastors his readers by showing us how to cultivate a quiet heart that listens to God (not in a spooky way), so that he will open our eyes to the grace he lays before us each day, and to embrace a pace of life that does not empty us of the peace of Christ.
Part 4 – Reshaping the Work We Do (Ch. 12-16)
In the final section of the book, we are challenged to imitate Jesus in the ways we use our time and energy. As Jesus sought and served the sick, so should we (ch. 12). As Jesus loved and entered the brokenness of sinners, so ought we (ch. 13). As Jesus loved faithfully in the place his Father called him, so must we (ch. 14). By following this pattern, we exhibit Christ-like leadership that honors God and most helps those around us (ch.15).
Zack serves his readers by inviting you to walk with him through his family tragedies and pastoral ministry struggles in a way that leaves you nodding your head with understanding. His confessions about “wanting to be somebody who did something amazing for God” but continually failing at it will resonate with most pastors.
2) Sober Warnings
There are numerous places throughout the book that I wished young pastors or seminarians could read. But I fear many of them might not be desperate enough yet to appreciate the wisdom gained through brokenness. I am not sure I would have listened to Zack’s counsel in my early days of pastoring. I felt that I was somehow immune to the struggles of normal men. But that’s what led to my own dark days and why I wish I would have heard and heeded this kind of wisdom early in my ministry before I hurt myself and so many others around me. He who has ears, let him hear.
3) Ordinary Faithfulness
There are not many authors or pastors today that emphasize ordinary faithfulness. Most people prize and aspire to extraordinary things. Zack’s call to “mattering things” was helpful, believable, and biblical. He reminds us that “almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time.” We need more voices like Zack’s calling us to be faithful with whatever God puts before us, no matter how mundane it may appear.
4) A Unique Voice
Zack’s writing style will prove difficult for some, but I found it refreshing. He is a gifted illustrator and storyteller, and though the read may be a slow one, Eswine makes the journey enjoyable. He has a way of helping his readers consider issues from a perspective that other authors seem unable to do.
5) He Pastors the Reader.
“Pause here. Read that last sentence again if you need to. Prayerfully slow down for this” (30). Those sorts of instructions are found throughout the book because Zack is shepherding his audience as they read. I felt loved by him as I read. I felt like I could have coffee with this guy and he’d understand my struggle as a man, husband, father, and pastor. He makes the reader trust him, and I think God uses that minister to them in a profound way.
1) Lack of Gospel Clarity
In one sense, the gospel was all over the pages of this book. Zack brought us to see Jesus and understand how much we need his grace. He also helped us see our own tendencies toward sinful ambition. But while our need for the gospel was clear, the gospel itself wasn’t very clear. He seems to assume his readers understand the Good News and its implications.
On the one hand, this makes sense since the book is aimed at pastors, who should know the gospel. But on the other, I found myself wishing that Zack had helped me to hear explicitly how the grace of God can bring healing and fresh motivations for faithfulness.
For the trained reader, gospel connections could be made with some prayerful consideration. But for the untrained reader, I fear it may be easy to confuse the nostalgic feelings Zack awakens with the gospel of grace by which Jesus calls us to be transformed. In his next edition, a correction in this area could fix what at times felt like an edifying ride thought a counseling session of abstract grace.
Though Zack made great strides to shorten the book, it could have been trimmed even more. This may be evidence that I need to take his advice to slow down and soak in things more, but I think the first 8 chapters could have been an excellent book by themselves and 9 through 16 a good follow-up.
While the three of us liked the book to varying degrees, we feel it can serve various kinds of readers. Whether you are a young pastor who aspires to do great things for God, a broken pastor who needs a companion to counsel you, a pastor’s wife who wants to get a glimpse into her husband’s heart, or a seasoned pastor who desires to be graciously worked over, we highly recommend this book be added to your must-read list.