The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson, HarperOne, 2011, 320 pp.
This was a rich and rewarding read for me. Peterson, now famous as a writer, teacher and creator of the popular The Message translation of the Bible, was first a pastor. For most of his career, his calling was like mine–leading worship every week, preaching in season and out, handling the details of congregational life, attending to people’s needs for pastoral care, nourishing the church. Ours is a unique way of life, simultaneously a challenge and a privilege. Not everyone “gets it” about this life, including some who spend years in the profession. Peterson does, and this book captures his insights about the pastoral life.
Peterson’s perspective on ministry is that it is not primarily a series of tasks to be performed, but a way of life to be lived–a way of being in relationship with a particular community, local, personal and prayerful.
I saw myself assigned to give witness to the sheer livability of the Christian life, that everything in scripture and Jesus was here to be lived. In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage that lived quality of the gospel–patiently, locally and personally. Patiently: I would stay with these people; there are no quick or easy ways to do this. Locally: I would embrace the conditions of this place… so that there would be nothing abstract or piously idealized about what I was doing. Personally: I would know them, know their names, know their homes, know their families, know their work—but I would not pry, I would not treat them as a cause or a project, I would treat them with dignity. (247)
Much of being a pastor is about being a local theologian and spiritual leader. Peterson describes the theological task (in preaching and in pastoral care: “A congregation as a gathering of people that requires a context as large as the Bible itself if we are to deal with the ambiguities in the actual circumstances in which people live them.” (59) We are charged with interpreting the Gospel and pointing out the presence of God in a particular time and place.
Peterson’s high ecclesiology matches my own. He sees the local congregation as the unlikely bearer of grace in the world, in spite of its humble composition. The life of the congregation and its members is a mess most of the time, but it is a beautiful, holy mess, if you can see it. In describing the various founding members of his congregation, he talks about the brokenness and ordinariness of their lives, and marvels that God is able to build a church upon such humble leaders. Using as an example the story of David at Ziklag, he describes the congregation as “people whose lives were characterized by debt, distress and discontent–a congregation of runaways and renegades.” (106) That’s the truth of every church I’ve ever considered home.
What makes the church so powerful is the relationships we create between those broken people. Peterson describes the pastor’s unique place. We do not see people as problems to be solved, but as children of God. We are not there to fix people or problems, but to walk with people together and name the Spirit’s presence in us all. (136-137) That sense of unique, local representation of God’s community is the authentic church. He describes it further:
Churches are not franchises to be reproduced as exactly as possible wherever and whenever… If we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves–participants in the unique place and time adn weather of where we live and worship–we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church. (119)
This memoir is not perfect. He has a very conservative understanding of the role of the pastor’s spouse, and he presumes a full-time parish setting as the norm for ministry. Peterson’s ministry and his church took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. While that was not quite the heyday of the 1950s, it was still a boon time, when every subdivision was growing its own congregation. His freedom and flexibility in ministry seems like a luxury that may belong to days gone by.
However, I was able to read past those outdated assumptions because I believe that his basic understanding of the role of the pastor as local theologian and observer should withstand the cultural changes in the church. Indeed, I believe that such a holy-yet-ordinary understanding of the clergy is the one thing that must persist, no matter the pay scale. He summarizes that role in the opening pages:
The pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done,” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God. (5)
That is indeed the most important thing about this pastoral life, but it is so hard to articulate. I am grateful for Peterson’s ability to describe this pastoral life to me as I live it, and perhaps even to those outside it.