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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.

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.

Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, Alban Institute, 2010, 139 pp.

This is the follow-up volume to Merritt’s Tribal Church. Tribal Church mapped out the contours of the next generation, describing with insightful detail the cultural promise and pressures facing Generations X and Y. I finished Tribal Church frustrated that it did not offer as much wisdom as I had hoped about how to be engaged in ministry within this new cultural reality. Reframing Hope picked up where Tribal Church left off, and started to paint a picture of ministry in a new era.

Merritt’s gift is not a program or a plan of action for ministry. Instead, she is able to draw a portrait, an evocative image of what ministry can look like with a new generation. Instead of spelling out “do this, don’t do that,” she carefully draws out the places that hope is found and Christianity is alive anew. In broad strokes, she points out areas that need attention and reformation: authority, community, means of communication, the way the Gospel is told, activism, connection to creation and spirituality. The picture as a whole is still blurry, because we are still figuring out what this new Christianity looks like, but Merritt provides concrete anecdotes that are hi-res clear.

Merritt does an excellent job of distilling and naming subtle changes in understanding for our generation. She gives voice to things that seem vague and unnamed. One compelling example is her description of power and authority:

In a new generation, reliable information does not radiate from a central power; rather it moves underground, through networks, streets, relationships and friends.

Someone recently asked me where I look for information, insight and new ideas about ministry. I realized that there are very few authors or leaders that I turn to as authorities. Instead, I most admire my young colleagues in ministry, whom I connect with through the 2030 Clergy Network. They are my most reliable source, and they are available to me via social media.

Merritt also offers wise words about the impulse toward community.

We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions, yet we are weary from radical individualism. … A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action.

Amen and amen. We realize that we cannot make it on our own, that we need one another, and that life together is richer and more full. Yet we do not turn to institutions to provide ready-made community. We are looking through institutions to build community that is authentic, intense, small and demanding.

Merritt’s book maps out the ways the historic church can be meaningful, relevant and life-giving for a new generation.  Her reflections are deep and beautifully written, demanding contemplation rather than programming. It asks the church to orient itself in ways that are spiritual but not radical, so it can be a place of welcome and filled with hope.

The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.

This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.

The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.

In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.

 

In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.

That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.

None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!

Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.

Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.

This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:

  1. To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
  2. To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
  3. To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
  4. To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
  5. To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
  6. To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
  7. To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
  8. To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
  9. To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
  10. To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
  11. To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
  12. To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
  13. To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
  14. To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
  15. To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
  16. To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
  17. To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
  18. To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
  19. To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
  20. To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
  21. To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
  22. To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
  23. To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
  24. To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
  25. To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
  26. To undertake too much. Oh dear.
  27. To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
  28. To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
  29. To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
  30. To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
  31. To be proud. No explanation necessary.
  32. To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
  33. To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
  34. To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
  35. To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
  36. To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
  37. “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
  38. To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
  39.  To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
  40. To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God

James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.

The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain.  Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.


Yesterday, I met with a friend-of-a-friend seeking spiritual care, discerning a way out of a dark night of the soul. My friend thought I might be able to help her with a spiritual roadblock, and I was happy to offer my time, to hear her struggle, to offer perspective and prayer and theological conversation. We talked for a couple of hours, and then prayed together. However, throughout the meeting I felt a sense of awkwardness about my role that I have not felt in a long time. As I contemplated this later, I think it has something to do with the source of pastoral authority that was lacking in my relationship with her.

As a pastor, my authority comes from the context of the church. My ability to offer spiritual care and insight comes from a complex, multi-layered relationship. My connection with those in my church community (regardless of membership or active status) involves preaching, teaching, prayer, fellowship, leadership, presence in a crisis, working side by side in service, and more. All of these aspects of ministry take place in a shared community grounded in history, story and the lived reality of regular interaction. Our relationship includes not just times of profound spiritual conversation, but washing dishes together after a shared meal and working out the details of chaperoning a Sunday School class and playing kickball at the annual picnic. We are co-workers in the common mission of God for our church.

This is very different from the helping professions. Therapists get their authority from their listening skills, their ability to ask discerning questions and their expertise in family dynamics and emotional healing. Doctors get their authority from their superior knowledge of the body and its myriad possibilities for brokenness and healing. Massage therapists and alternative healers get their authority from their knowledge and physical skills at working through mind and body toward wholeness. There is always work to establish genuine trust between the healer and the patient or client, but the relationship remains transactional—one person has knowledge or treatment to offer the other, and that person is always the expert.

Pastoral authority does not come from knowledge or expertise, and I do not simply have spiritual insight to transact. I am not a guru who has reached greater spiritual depths or discovered deep wisdom to pass along. I know the Bible better than most, but there have been people in every church I’ve served who know more about it than I do. I try to live a faithful Christian life, to walk with God and listen to the Spirit, but I am no more spiritual than anyone else. There are a great many people in my church whose faith is stronger and deeper and wiser than mine.

When someone comes to me facing a dark night of the soul, my authority comes from repeating the same good news of God’s love that we share every week in worship. My wisdom is shared wisdom, of the community, of the ages, told and retold until it soaks deep. My care for them is an extension of the community’s care for one another. My words about God’s grace echo the ways we try to practice grace and forgiveness with one another in our life together. The prayers we speak are part of a longer, deeper, wider conversation with God that we carry on week in and week out.

My authority comes from the community itself, and from our ongoing relationship. That is not to say that there is no expertise in ministry, or that God has not placed in me the unique gifts, or that knowledge and wisdom have no bearing. Those things matter a great deal in the community’s willingness to grant authority to a pastor, but the source of the authority is not those things. The source of pastoral authority is always the community itself.  The community trusts me to tell their story, to speak the truth in love, to pray as though it matters, to challenge and provoke in the name of faithfulness, to enter a crisis to bear witness to God’s presence there, to hold the light of hope when all seems dark. I claim that authority from them, with them, in every act of ministry. I claim it not for myself, but for us—for the Gospel.

To speak “as one with authority” (Matthew 7:29) in ministry requires the presence and participation of the community of God. With it, I am a pastor, with an abundance of authority and wisdom to share in relationship. Without it, I am just the friend-of-a-friend.

It’s been around awhile, but I just saw Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski and Emily Blunt as her sister Norah. In the movie, the two sisters start a business cleaning up after crime scenes, attempting to make better money than cleaning ordinary homes. Much to my surprise, I kept stumbling upon scenes that were strongly reminiscent of pastoral ministry.

In the first one, captured in the video below, they show up to clean up after a death. All we know when they pull up to the home is that the death was a suicide, and the man was in his 70s.

Rose instinctively moves to comfort the grieving widow. Notice the awkwardness in her face, her posture. She does not know what to say or to do, because there are no words that can be said and nothing she can do to change the grim situation. She just sits by her side and holds her hand so the bereaved woman is not alone.

So much of the pastoral care we clergy offer looks just like this. “Would you like me to sit with you for awhile?” I have asked that question hundreds of times, in hospital rooms, funeral homes, living rooms and courtrooms. Like Rose Lorkowski, I sit awkwardly, silently and uncomfortably with the grieving one for awhile. Like Sunshine Cleaning, there is a service that we clergy perform, with funerals and information and planning. But much of what we offer is simply our presence, holding hands and lingering, unhurried.

Later in the movie, Rose goes to a baby shower for one of her high school friends. Surrounded by married, successful friends from her high school days, she proudly begins to describe what she does for her business. It’s more than cleaning, she says: “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound, sad… and… we help.” You can catch the line in the trailer below, starting at 2:02, although the visuals are not from that part of the film.

For many people who are not churchgoers, clergy play a similar role. We show up when someone dies, or when their churchgoing parent is ill and hospitalized, and we help. Or at least we hope that we do. Sometimes we just sit and hold their hands, sometimes we offer information, sometimes we sing hymns or wash dishes or plan services. Hopefully, always, we pray.

One other connection, from that same scene: Rose’s description of her life’s work is full of pride and excitement. However, her baby shower audience responds with an awkward pause and blank stares that belie a mix of horror and intrigue. The scene made me laugh out loud. I know those looks. Being a pastor, especially as a woman, frequently makes people uncomfortable in social settings, and sometimes people don’t know what to say about your work. Rose’s description of her work just serves to prove to her that she won’t ever be “one of the gang” again with her high school friends. There is an aspect of that in ministry as well, as we always carry our pastoral persona with us, like it or not.

Sunshine Cleaning was an unlikely source of wisdom and imagery about pastoral ministry, but I take it wherever I find 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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