Eugene Peterson is Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from Seattle Pacific University, a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from New York Theological Seminary, a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins and holds an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Seattle Pacific University. In 1962 he founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for 29 years. Peterson is a prolific author who is probably best known for The Message, his translation of the Bible.
Summary of Contents
Peterson organizes his text into three major sections. Under the heading “Redefinitions,” he provides four chapters in which he outlines his understanding of the character attributes of the pastor. Peterson argues that the noun “pastor” has become unintelligible to a modern audience and supplies a chapter on each of his three modifying adjectives (unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic). The middle section, “Between Sundays,” is an eight chapter discussion of the pastor's work throughout the week and how crucial it is for pastors to intimately know the congregations they serve. This section concludes with an account of Peterson’s sabbatical year in Montana. The third section, “The Word Made Fresh,” is a collection of fourteen poems Peterson composed on the topic of the Incarnation.
In The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Eugene Peterson provides the reader with a spectacular vision of what pastoral ministry might look like for a local parish that is willing to embrace the implications of having a “contemplative” pastor. Clergy who enter parish ministry directly from seminary run the risk of experiencing immediate conflict between the pastoral model they were formed in and the realities of contemporary parish life. What is expected of the pastor is often quite different than what the candidate was expecting or trained to perform. Peterson proposes to rescue the pastoral role from what it has become in modern, western society to what he feels it was intended to be.
The author notes that the word “pastor,” while at one time being a word which needed no further adjectival modification, is today a word which has been stripped of its historic freight and transformed into something quite different from what it was meant to be. “I find I have to exercise this adjectival rehabilitation constantly, redefining by refusing the definitions of pastor that the culture hands me, and reformulating my life with the insights and images of Scripture” (16). Peterson feels compelled to do this is because he believes that modern people have marginalized the truly import clerical mission and insisted that pastor’s become “an encourager of the culture’s good will, the priest who will sprinkle holy water on the culture’s good intentions” (16). To accept these terms, in Peterson’s mind, is to be “rendered harmless” (16). In response, the author proposes to modify the noun “pastor” by attaching three adjectives: unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic.
Peterson proposes that connecting the words “busy” and “pastor” ought to cause offense to our ears, much like using “adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront” (17). Yet in most parishes, include the one in which this writer serves, “busy” is equated with “effective” and “pastoral.” Peterson suggests that pastors become busy because of vanity or laziness. “I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice—that I am important” (18). On the other hand, “I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself” (18).
Peterson proposes three major things which truly define the pastoral role: prayer, preaching, and listening. He notes that one cannot be busy and pray at the same time because “busy-ness” is an inward state of disarray which undermines one’s ability to be present to God and others. To preach well, Peterson notes that one needs to be drenched in the Biblical story, to have spent considerable time immersed in the Scripture, and to do this requires time. Listening also requires “unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time” (21).
The author believes the title “apocalyptic” is an apt descriptor for true pastors because they are “the persons in the church communities who repeat and insist on kingdom realities against the world appearances” (41). Peterson then openly ponders the implications: “How can I keep from settling into the salary and benefits of a checkout clerk in a store for religious consumers? How can I avoid a metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales” (41)?
The answer, Peterson postulates, is “the vocational reformation of our own time (if it turns out to be that) is a rediscovery of the pastoral work of the cure of souls” (56). He defines this work as “the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons single or in groups, in settings sacred and profane” (57). In days gone by, this was du jour for the parish pas-tor, who spent his days mingling with the people, having conversations, applying Word and Sacrament as needed. Peterson laments that “the between Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is running a church” (57). He then explains three major areas of contrast be-tween these two approaches: initiative, language, and problems.
Initiative is simply that—who is driving this bus? Running a church posits the pastor as taking the initiative where as in the cure of souls, God has already seized the initiative, been at work in the thoughts, words, and happenings of people, and has been waiting for the pastor to respond with his part in the dialog. Everything is a response to God’s primary, initiating action. Secondly, running a church involves “language that is descriptive and motivational” (62). The goal is to get people up and moving and doing! In the cure of souls, the language is personal, conversational, spontaneous. “. . .our primary language is to be. The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore is conversation and prayer. . .it is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited” (63).
Finally, running a church involves conflict resolution and problem solving. Peterson points out that modern society looks to experts who can “explain and solve. The vast technological apparatus around us gives the impression that there is a tool for everything if we can only afford it. Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else” (64).
In chapter 7, Peterson explains that the great practioners of contemplative prayer understood God’s primary language to be silence—existing and communicating directly with the soul, beyond words, thoughts, ideas, and concepts. This is Peterson’s invitation for the reader to explore God’s presence in and through the created world. Whereas many Christians tend toward a Gnostic dualism (spirit = good; matter = bad), Peterson points to the incarnational spirituality taught in the Scriptures as a valid and extremely “pastoral” way of entering into communion with God.
Peterson next takes up an interesting discussion of human and divine “will” and how this relates to spiritual growth and formation. Recalling the church of his youth, Peterson remembers “a lot of emphasis in our church on ‘making a decision for the Lord,’ and exercising my will-power in saying no to the temptations that surrounded me” (96). Peterson notes that between the two emphases of “breaking” his will and “exercising” his will, it never occurred to him to see these in contradiction or serving to cancel each other out until in adulthood he became puzzled by the paradox and set off in search of resolution of the tension. Peterson rightly notes that “the moment I begin exercising my will, I find that I have put a fox in charge of the chicken coop” (98). The reason is that while “my will is my glory; it is also what gives me the most trouble” (98).
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Erasmus debate the role and function of the human will in the economy of salvation and Luther argues for a “bondage of the will” in regard to matters of “choosing God” or “making a decision.” For Luther, this can only be a choice against God and for self until the self is converted by God’s action alone. Peterson plumbs the depths of this interaction of human and divine wills, saying “the question at the heart of the intersection of God’s will and human wills is apparently at the heart of everything. . .it is the question. The way we answer it shapes our humanity in every dimension” (99).
Peterson uses the image of a butcher who is deeply attuned to his knife as an extension of himself and through which the butcher artfully and almost effortlessly carves a quarter of beef. He contrasts this with the image of a skill-less “hacker” who forcefully imposes his will upon a section of meat and produces carnage. Peterson proposes that “real workers, skilled workers, practice negative capability—the suppression of self so that the work can take place on its own” (101). This is much along the lines of Michelangelo approach to simply “liberating” the sculpture already encased in the block of marble.
In chapter 10 Peterson writes, “Pastoral work, I learned later, is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary. It is the nature of pastoral life to be attentive to, immersed in, and appreciative of the everyday texture of people’s lives. . .” (112). This aspect of pastoral work is not necessarily emphasized in seminary training, other than for the seminarian to be urged to “get to know” their people. Some pastors thrive in the “small talk” environment, while others are uncomfortable with that level of intimacy with such a large number of individuals. Some clergy have such large administrative burdens that freeing up 20 minutes to be truly present and attentive to someone who wants chat about lawn fertilizer or cracked engine blocks or missed appointments with the hairdresser is virtually impossible.
Mega-church pastor Rick Warren teaches that effective, life changing preaching must address people in the relevant areas of their lives and the only way to do that, is to know what is going on at that level with the people of the parish. Peterson knows this is hard to do. “Given a choice between heated discussion on theories of the Atonement and casual banter over the prospects of the coming little league season, I didn’t hesitate. It was the Atonement every time” (113). The problem is that, “most people’s lives are not spent in crisis, not lived at the cutting edge of crucial issues. Most of us, most of the time, are engaged in simple, routine tasks, and small talk is the natural language” (115).
The solution Peterson proposes is that small talk is an art and that learning it requires and develops pastoral humility. Essentially, it is allowing someone else to control the agenda and the pastor is no longer “trying to make something happen but to be a part of what is happening—without being in control of it and without it being up to the dignity of our office” (115).
Peterson points out that “being a pastor who satisfies a congregation is one of the easiest jobs on the face of the earth—if we are satisfied with satisfying congregations” (131). “Insofar as we deal with their primary concern—the counseling, instructing, encouraging—they give us good marks in our jobs as pastors. Whether we deal with God or not, they don’t care over much” (133).
Keeping clear on the distinction between being “hired to do a job” and being “called to pastor” is crucial. The implications for parish clergy are wonderfully explicated by Peterson (137-139) and his description would go well on call documents issued by congregations to candidates. This reviewer recommends this text to anyone moving into pastoral work and suggests it would be helpful reading for search committees prior to conducting candidate interviews.
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Steve Stutz, M.Div., is a former mainline denominational pastor and certified Transformational Life Coach. As a spiritual director and coach, he specializes in helping busy people find their way through the challenges and obstacles that keep them from fulfilling their potential–in business, in relationships, spiritually and temporally! He works with individuals and congregations ecumenically and around the world. You can contact him via email at email@example.com