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The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.

Contemplative PastorI read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.

Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.

Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.

Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)

Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”

What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)

One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:

Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)

Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.

My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)

Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene H. Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, 197 pp.

Under-the-unpredictable-plant1This book was just what I needed at this moment in my personal and professional spiritual life. Eugene Peterson always challenges me as a pastor and a person, even though I do not always agree with his assessments. Under the Unpredictable Plant posed just the questions I have been asking about my own vocation in ministry, and offered a rich depth of responses. Many of the ideas reappear in The Pastor, but this is a different arc on the theme.

The structure of the book follows the book of Jonah, and the image of the prophet who declines to follow God’s command, then finds himself confined in the belly of the fish, then makes his way reluctantly to Ninevah, only to find himself upset by both success and failure. Peterson begins in the introduction to discuss the gap between “personal faith and pastoral vocation.” It is a chasm I know as well–when it seems like following God will upset “successful” ministry, or when “successful” ministry seems to cost personal spirituality. I awakened to it most dramatically during my sabbatical last year, when I again found the time and space to be a Christian first, pastor second. However, the truth remains that my spiritual relationship with God is always lived out in my pastoral vocation.

I always appreciate his wisdom on the mundane nature of most pastoral tasks, and the beauty that lies therein.

The pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation… Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds… There is much that is glorious on pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Ninevah-like place: a place for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. (16)

Peterson offers a scathing critique of contemporary pastoral ministry, especially its emphasis on programs, numbers, and efficiency. He gives a graceful description of what the pastoral vocation should instead be: the task of bearing witness to Christ in the daily tasks of people’s lives:

We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). … We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is already there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (86-87)

While I found his critique true in many ways, and I want to honor that central pastoral task, I question whether the vocation he describes is possible in today’s congregations. While his interpretation of the pastor is spiritually and biblically sound, it is not necessarily financially sound in today’s shrinking ecclesiastical reality. Or, while we probably should be spending all our time and energy in biblical reflection and spiritual direction, we will not likely be able to earn a full-time salary doing so. Which may or may not be a positive thing–because the biblical prophets and pastors were fairly bi-vocational themselves, rarely paid for doing the Lord’s work, and never expected to run programs, grow churches or “service” a congregation. Perhaps a return to what really matters in this pastoral work–preaching and prayer–will not fund our pensions, but will revive the meaning of the vocation. Yet that is a tough choice for those of us already enmeshed in full-time ministerial work.

I imagine I will return to Peterson’s work again in the future, as a reminder of the struggles and purpose of my vocation. It is too easy to lose my way, and Peterson helps me find it again.

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson, HarperOne, 2011, 320 pp.

PastorThis 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.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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