047 Peterson on Pastoring

My friend and fellow-bibliophile Larry Powell gave me Under the Unpredictable Plant: And Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1992), the latest of Eugene H. Peterson’s reflections on the pastoral ministry. Of the various models for now clamoring for emulation, I think Peterson’s most worthy. In part this is because he pastored, for 29 years, a medium-sized Presbyterian church in Maryland, so he writes with his feet firmly rooted in the realities of parish ministry.

American pastors are, in many ways, like cars running out of gas. Some are still speeding along, others are slipping to the roadside, and others have been abandoned. Amidst all their “work,” pastors have failed to stay spiritually filled, capable of ignition. “In our eagerness to be sympathetic to others and meet their needs, to equip them with a spirituality adequate to their discipleship, we must not fail to take with full seriousness our straits, lest when we have saved others we ourselves should be castaways” (p. 4).

To save ourselves, Peterson refers us to the prophet Jonah. Called of God, Jonah obeyed the call to go, but he chose his own destination, Tarshish, determined to prophesy safely removed from God’s presence. In following their call, too many pastors substitute worldly definitions of ministerial success for the “modest, daily, assigned work” (p. 16) required. Like Jonah, we prefer to avoid parish ministry, which rather resembles farming. Instead we tolerate it as a step on the staircase of broader influence and “ministry.”

Yet, Peterson says, “What pastors do, or at least are called to do, is really quite simple. We say the word God accurately, so that congregations of Christians can stay in touch with the basic realities of their existence, so that they know what is going on. And we say the Name personally, alongside our parishioners in the actual circumstances of their lives, so they will recognize and respond to the God who is both on our side and at our side when it doesn’t seem like and we don’t feel like it” (p. 172).

In truth, the local “congregation is the pastor’s place for developing vocational holiness” (p. 21). Holiness grows, like an oak tree, rooted in place. Pastoring, preeminently, means becoming a holy person, allowing God to shape one in accord with His will. That’s really what God called us for: to be holy. “That is why I was a pastor, that is why I had come to this place: to live in the presence of God, to live with passion–and to gather others into the presence of God” (p. 45). Yet our culture, and our congregation as its local adjunct, conspire to turn us into something else: religious adventurers, mini-messiahs, flamboyantly shipping out to Tarshish–helping people feel good about themselves, tempting them to put their faith in us as guides and gurus. As he began pastoring, Peterson found that “Narcissus, instead of being used to warn, was being held up as patron. Human potential was all the rage in the parish; spiritual confessionals were best-sellers in the bookstores. Self was front and center” (p. 57). He was confused until he read Dostoevsky who “unconfused” him by showing him the difference between self and soul, that “the Self was a demonic distortion of Soul” (p. 57). And as pastor, he was called to the ancient art of “cure of souls.”

To do this, like Jonah in the belly of the fish, pastors must submit to askesis, the discipline of prayer which sanctifies one’s soul. We’re called to preach and pray, to preach as a result of praying. Herbert Butterfield, the Oxford historian, believed that “what Christians do in prayer is the most significant factor in shaping history–more significant than war and diplomacy, more significant than technology and art. He also is convinced that what pastors do vocationally is a major component in that praying” (p. 98).

To do so, pastors must lead the way in restoring the Psalms to their rightful place as the prayerbook of the Church. “Prayer is the most deeply human action in which we can engage” (p. 111). Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, pastors must live by prayer, seeing and pointing out God’s workings in our world, cultivating one’s parish like topsoil, nurturing the growth–the cure–of souls.

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After reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, I re-read Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Dallas: Word Publishing, c. 1989), which is I think my favorite of this genre. He begins by insisting on some “redefinitions,” which reflect the Christian tradition rather than cultural conventions. Here he says the right title for him is “Pastor,” a noun rich in meaning, which include being “unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic” (p. 24).

First, pastors should be unbusy. “Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him” (p. 27). We stay busy because we want to be thought important, But if pastors must study and pray in order to preach, they must devote large chunks of time to study and prayer, staying still long enough to hear the Word they need to proclaim. Here he compares pastors with harpooners portrayed in Moby Dick: “‘To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil'” (p. 33).

Second, pastors should be subversive. Folks have been sucked into an unreal world, a temporal world of commerce and fashion and sin. They need to be brought into the real world, God’s grace-based eternal kingdom. Our weapon in this spiritual struggle is truth, the truth which infiltrates folks’ minds like Jesus’ parables. Thus “Words are the real work of the world–prayer words with God, parable words with men and women” (p. 45).

The words which give pastors an edge are profoundly poetic, so there’s a sense in which pastors should be poets. “Is it not significant,” he asks, “that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets” (p. 162)? Perhaps that’s because good poets revere language and try to use it wisely. “Poets are caretakers of language, the shepherds of words, keeping them from harm, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something; they are something, each with a sound and rhythm all its own” (p. 161). Then pastors should be apocalyptic. Preachers need to reveal God through the truth of their proclamation. Like St John, pastors learn through prayer and speak through poems. Unfortunately, today’s “pastoral work actually erodes prayer” (p. 52) because the academically-inspired models for preaching are too analytical and abstract.

Having redefined “pastor,” Peterson then reflects on the “Beatitudes,” and their meaning for ministry. First of all, pastors must devote themselves to an ancient craft: the cure of souls. Mainly this means staying attentive to God’s mysterious workings in the human heart, dropping hints and illustrating how to be a believer.

We need to read creation as God’s handiwork, following the lead of Annie Dillard, whose Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Peterson finds must instructive. Dillard studies the mysteries of creeks and mountains. The same care Dillard gives her world pastors must devote to theirs: doing exegesis. Doing exegesis is much like working in a butcher shop, which Peterson did as a youth. Good butchers use sharp knives–they “get to know” them to use them well. They further learn to respect the carcass, to cut with rather than against the “texture and grain” of the meat. “Real work always includes a respect for the material at hand” (p. 107).

As skilled craftsmen, pastors must diligently study and exegete Scripture, creation and life, enabling their people to see God’s truth, leading them in the kind of worship which brings them into His Presence, teaching them how to pray so as to hear Him. As George Buttrick said: “‘Pastors think peoxperiences and longings. We must remind them that they are, by nature, sinners, alienated from the God they deeply need but incessantly avoid. By telling the truth that “people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are” (p. 126). By believing this truth, the pastor frees himself of any fantasies of creating a perfect congregation where all is peace and joy! He also frees himself from the bondage of trying to please everyone all the time!

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Somewhat similar themes were enunciated in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1987). Peterson begins this treatise by expressing his concern that America’s pastors have slipped into a “company of shopkeepers” anxiously marketing their wares, cultivating steady customers, making sure the bottom line balance satisfies their accountants.

Lost in the busyness of shopkeeping, Peterson fears, are holy lives and knowledge of God. Here he notes that while the “visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration” (p. 3) the “essential acts” are the angles holding the triangle together: prayer; scripture; and spiritual direction. “Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw the lines. But if we are careless or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry” (p. 4).

Working the angles means recovering an ascetical approach to spirituality, devoting oneself as an athlete to the activities which strengthen one’s faith. Before venturing onto the playing field, one must get in shape, develop the muscles necessary to perform. This means becoming a person who prays. Unlike the activistic secular world, pastors must recover the biblical perspective–most adequately expressed in the Psalms–which declares that “the inner action of prayer takes precedence over the outer action of proclamation” (p. 28). Unfortunately, pastors do most everything but pray! Our culture hardly applauds such immaterial activity. Perhaps a few poets, such as W.H. Auden, see clearly the dangers we run as a people when we lose the ability to either laugh or pray. But few parishioners demand their pastor spend time in prayer, few boards include “praying” in the job description they compile. Yet if God’s real and we can know Him, the most important thing pastors do is to pray and teach their people how to pray.

In addition to praying, pastors must learn turn “eyes into ears” and learn to listen to Scripture. Reading the text is fine, but it’s not the same as listening to the LORD who speaks to those who have ears to hear. Accustomed as we are to reading and discarding newspapers, to reading-so-as-to-regurgitate school texts, one of the most difficult tasks we face is to learn to listen to the Word. Doing so leads us to engage in what Peterson calls “contemplative exegesis.” Musing on the written word until one hears its inner voice, waiting on God until He reveals His truth, enables one to authentically proclaim God’s Word.

Thirdly, the pastor serves as a spiritual director. This is not the same as “counseling” in the psychological sense. A spiritual director, on the basis of his knowledge of the spiritual landscape, develops the skills to help others negotiate their journey to God. Confident that God’s always at work in people’s lives, knowing how saints of the past have learned to respond to His promptings, freed from the temptation to lock unique persons into neat little categories, spiritual directors learn to listen and pray and facilitate the growth of those entrusted to their care.

Peterson agrees with the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, who said: “‘In a certain sense, every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history with its empires, its wars and revolutions, its blossoming and fading civilizations'” (p. 110). Consequently, the role of spiritual directors must be revered as one the most transcendently significant available to man. Pastoral work is eternally consequential. So, C.S. Lewis describes clergy as “‘those particular people with in the whole church who have been especially set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever'” (p. 111).

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Peterson’s first work on pastoring is entitled Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1980). Peterson says he finds little “help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation” in the 20th century (p. 2). Though his pulpit-focused education thoroughly equipped him for biblical study and theological proclamation, the materials dispensed for “practical” ministry bore the stamp of “humanism and technology. The pulpit is grounded in the prophetic and kerygmatic traditions but the church office is organized around IBM machines” (p. 4).

To gain a healthier perspective, Peterson dug into five Old Testament books: the Song of Songs; Ruth; Lamentations; Ecclesiastes; and Esther. In the Song of Songs, he learned “the pastoral work of prayer-directing,” nurturing the intimacy lovers need to live in communion. The poetry of the Song of Songs, with its powerful sexual imagery, helps us understand our spiritual hunger and the prayerful ways we satiate it. We’re loved by a Lover who knows us, who calls us by name, who desires us to become one with Him in the intimacy of love.

“We never know how good we can look, how delightful we can feel,” Peterson says, “or how strong we can be until we hear ourselves addressed in love by God or by the one who represents God’s love to us. [In the words of Anders Nygren] ‘That which in itself is without value acquires value by the fact that it is the object of God’s love'” (p. 65).

In the book of Ruth, we find “the pastoral work of story-making.” “Scripture is a vast tapestry of God’s saving ways among his people” (p. 77), and we who live by Scripture forever tell God’s story. Since the Hebrews believed God worked among them, they wrote history. They “were the world’s first historians,” (p. 80). Consequently, “Pastors are historians, not moralists” (p. 85). We who preach must tell stories, stories like Ruth, stories which tell His Story.

In Lamentations we find “the pastoral work of pain-sharing.” The acrostic form of the book–running from a-to-z–enables one to enter into the laments of people in pain, while knowing that there’s an end as well as a beginning to the process of suffering. Biblical laments allow us to express our sorrow without losing our dignity as persons–something the “sickness” analogies of modern psychology disallow.

“The pastoral work of nay-saying” stands clear in the book of Ecclesiastes. To those who think pastors must have tidy solutions for every problem, sweet assurances for every hurting heart, Ecclesiastes provides bracing prescriptions. Not all our wants will be supplied. Life is, inevitably, difficult. Miracles God may very well do, but not at our beck-and-call. Worship and godliness must never be reduced to feel-good experiences, more attuned to the worship of Baal than Jahweh.

Finally, there’s the “pastoral work of community-building” outlined in Esther. We’re called to live in community, so pastors are called to nourish it. Faith communities, like the Jews living in exile, must maintain the ties which bind–ultimately the bond of God’s Spirit. So pastors must focus in on the few essentials which constitute community, leading like Mordecai, who lived modestly, with integrity, and served his people.

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Finally, let me briefly mention the oldest of Peterson’s pastoral works, titled Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1976). Written by a pastor who’s reared teens, for parents longing for direction, this book offers sound and (typical of Peterson) refreshing advice.

First, he helps us relax with the assurance that “there are no well-adjusted adolescents. Adolescence is, by definition, maladjustment” (p. 1). Just ignore much of the nonsense which assures you these troubled waters can be stilled by some conjuring tricks dispensed by media gurus. Accept the necessary goodness of the generation gap, “a design to be preserved” (p. 41) for teens’ well-being and parental sanity.

Second, however much they may try us, parents should “embrace the experience offered to them by their adolescent children as a gift from God, a means of grace for themselves to mature into ‘wisdom and favor with men and God'” (p. 6). Then we work not so much on our kids as on ourselves, which is considerably more do-able. By and large, Christian parents give up “meddling” with their teens, learning from Eli to “refer them to God” (p. 19).

In this process, if we allow God to work in our lives, our children will benefit. After all, they rarely heed our advice, but they constantly scrutinize our character. To be honest, reliable, openly relying on God’s grace, allowing Christ’s imprint to seared on our souls, will help our teens more than anything else. This means we most influence our kids in the small activities of life: listening, smiling, mopping up messes.

In an important section, Peterson shows how parent-child “love” changes during adolescence. A new kind of love is needed since “the old loves are no longer adequate for the new reality” (p. 55). Yet in losing the former kinds of love both parties frequently feel betrayed. The emotional need-loves of childhood, so marvelously satisfying to both parties, must be replaced by a parental love which “wills the fulfillment of the other” (p. 60). Children move through adolescence to adulthood, and parents must facilitate that transition.

That’s done by patiently, consistently doing what’s best for adolescents, knowing they’re liable to rebel and renounce parental pieties, to indulge in rhetorical accusations (“hypocrite” is a favorite teen-toned label). Teens further need, from adults, an unwavering hopefulness regarding their future (something they frequently question). And they need help moving from the needed prohibitions of childhood into the renunciations of maturity.

Designed as a study book for groups, this is one of the wisest books I’ve read on working with adolescents.


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