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This anecdote from Eugene Peterson in Under the Unpredictable Plant is a classic (or at least it should be). I promise you’ll be amused (maybe appalled) by this story. It’s a picture of institutionalism and bureaucracy at its worst. It’s also a reminder to read the reports of those who report to us.

One of the duties I had as the organizing pastor of a new church was to prepare a monthly report on my work and send it to a denominational executive in New York City. It was not a difficult task, but it did take a day’s work. The first page was statistical: how many calls I made, how many people attended worship, a financial report of offerings, progress on building plans, committee activities. This was followed by several pages of reflectional on my pastoral ministry: what I understood of God’s presence in my work, theological ruminations on the church, my understanding of mission, areas of inadequacy that were showing up in my ministry, strengths and skills that seemed to be emerging. After a few months of doing this, I got the impression that my superiors were not reading the second part. I thought I would test out my impression and have a little fun on the side.

So the next month, after dutifully compiling the statistical data, I turned to page two and described as best I could an imagined long, slow slide into depression. I wrote that I had difficulty sleeping. I couldn’t pray. I was getting the work done at a maintenance level but it was a robotic kind of thing with no spirit, no zest. Having feelings and thoughts like this I was seriously questioning whether I should be a pastor at all. Could they recommend a counselor for me?

Getting no response, I upped the ante. The next month I developed a drinking problem which became evident one Sunday in the pulpit. Everybody was very nice about it, but one of the Elders had to complete the sermon. I felt that I was at the point where I needed treatment. How should I go about getting it?

Still no response. I got bolder. The next month I cooked up an affair. It started out innocently enough as I was attempting to comfort a woman through an abusive marriage, but something happened in the middle of it, and we ended up in bed together, only it wasn’t a bed but one of the pews in the church where we were discovered when the ladies arranging flowers for Sunday worship walked in on us. I thought it was all over for my ministry at that point, but it turned out that in this community swingers are very much admired, and on the next day, Sunday, attendance doubled.

This was turning into a gala event one day each month in our house. I would go to my study and write these wonderful fictions and then bring them out and read them to my wife. We would laugh and laugh, collaborating by embellishing details.

Next I reported some innovations I was making in the liturgy. This was the sixties, an era of liturgical reform and experimentation. Our worship, I wrote to my supervisors, was about as dull as it could get. I had read some scholarly guesses about a mushroom cult in Palestine in the first century in which Jesus must have been involved. I thought it was worth a try. I arranged for the purchase of some mushroom caps, peyote it was, and introduced them at our next celebration of the eucharist. It was the most terrific experience anybody had ever had in worship, absolutely dazzling. But I didn’t want to do anything that was in violation of our church constitution, and finding nothing in our Book of Order on this, could they please advise me on whether I was permitted to proceed along these lines.

These report-writing days were getting to be a lot of fun. Month after month I sent the stories to the men and women who were overseeing the health of my spirituality and the integrity of my ministry. Never did I get a response.

At the end of the three years I was released from their supervision. As pastor and congregation, we were now more or less on our own—developed, organized, and on our way. I went for a debriefing to the denominational office in New York City under which I had worked. They asked me to evaluate their supervision through the three years. I told them I appreciated their help. The checks arrived on time each month. I was treated courteously at all times. But there was one minor area of disappointment: they had never read past that first page of statistical reporting that I had sent in each month. “Oh, but we did,” they said. “We read those reports carefully; we take them very seriously.” “How can that be,” I said. “That time I asked for help with my drinking problem and you didn’t respond. That time I got involved in a sexual adventure and you didn’t intervene. That craziness I reported when I was using peyote in the eucharist and you did nothing.” Their faces were blank, and then confused—followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making. It was a wonderful moment. I had them dead to rights. I replay the scene in my imagination a couple of times a year, the way some people watch old Abbot and Costello movies.

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14 thoughts on “Do You Actually Read Your Reports?”

  1. jcubed says:

    As a middle manager in the IT industry for many years I had to right reports for senior managers and executives that I knew were never read. It was frustrating and disheartening. However, this is disturbing!

  2. Ben says:

    These treasures need to be found and displayed on your blog!

  3. Bill says:

    Years ago I wrote a report offering a steak dinner to the first one who contacted me after reading it. I’m still waiting!

  4. Nate says:

    I had the same issue in Seminary. We were to read and give a detailed response of the reading we had been assigned that semester. After the first paper was returned, with a red check mark on the first page, but no crease on the staple, I was skeptical. After the second one, I started putting phrases such as “Circle this, if you are reading” as I wrote, hoping to get a response. Never did! I didn’t say anything to the professor, but I probably should have. I was upset that I was doing busy-work for no reason, but ultimately realized I was doing it for the Lord, but it still bothered me…

  5. I loved that story!!! I think he retells it in his autobiography, The Pastor, as classic in my opinion. Peterson just has a way of cutting through crud and exposing our hearts, this time, with a Catch-22-like scene of managerial silliness. Lord help me that I never get to the point of that kind of carelessness!

  6. James says:

    Maybe he should have reported that as he had no compulsion at all about filling a page with lies once a month and sending it to ordained men in Christ’s church, he was concerned that he was not a holy man called to holy ministry, but rather just one more professional church man among many. If he loved God’s law, how could he have kept up the lies? And if he loved Christ’s church, how could he not have confronted them earlier? We need a revival of ministering first and foremost before the face of God and out of love to Him and to His people.

  7. I remember being assigned this reading when I was in seminary. It is no doubt amusing but I also made me very sad. I was (and am) a non-denom pastor in an independent church. I often long for institutional support from a denomination. BUt perhaps the grass ain’t greener.

  8. Melody says:

    When I was in college all my professors decided it would be great to assign journaling along with our reading assignments. In the middle of my entries there were sometimes amusing stories or funny pictures. Most of the professors never commented. Some professors wrote their own remarks along side.

  9. Shayne McAllister says:


    It’s not lying if you are not intending to deceive, but rather make a point. It would have been clear to anyone reading that this obviously didn’t happen, but was satire.

  10. Paul says:

    It’s amusing in that it makes a good point about managerial ineptitude. However, I’m not sure how crazy I would be about my own pastor concocting outlandish stories about an extramarital affair in a church pew or using psychedelic drugs in the Eucharist, and admitting that such storytelling was a fun and laugh-inducing part of his week.

    Or maybe I just need to lighten up. :)

  11. Paul says:

    @ James:
    Lighten up, fella. You can’t see that it was being done with a sense of humor?

  12. Alan Wilkerson says:

    It may not matter even if they do read the report. I recall Hohn Maxwell telling how one time he reported to the denomination some number of calls which would have meant he’d called on 10 people everyday of the year. The result was he got national recognition. The next year he said he made no calls and no one commented anything at all…

    Love the story
    Alan Wilkerson
    Portland OR

  13. Don Hartness says:

    The best part was when he was released from their “supervision”. If only the rest of us could be released from the chains of meaningless and trivial bureaucracy! Of course, if that were to happen, many would not have the opportunity to put on a coat and tie while receiving a paycheck…

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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