I have always loved Eugene Peterson’s books. Books such as Working the Angles, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Five Smooth Stones, and several others have been guide books for me along the way in pastoral ministry. His Message translation of the Bible has also been vital for me in my devotional life. I am deeply appreciative of the voice he has shared over the decades.
But there has been one thing that I have struggled with about Peterson’s writings along the way. I often wondered – was he ever really a pastor in a church? For example, the “angles” of pastoral ministry he writes of in Working the Angles – Prayer, Scripture, and Spiritual Direction – are absolutely things that I would want to have as the primary angles of my ministry. But where do budgets, personnel matters, building decisions, come into those? One of the ongoing struggles I have had in pastoral ministry is knowing that those are the “angles” of pastoral work, but finding it difficult to keep those as the central angles of what I am doing when there are so many other things “out there” that have to “get done.”
What I appreciated most about Peterson’s newest book, Pastor: A Memoir, is the fact that this feels to be the most personal of Peterson’s books I have read. It is all first person, stories, remembrances, etc of his calling, his avoidance of the calling initially, and then his embrace of it, along with his struggles throughout. There were many places in the book where what he writes of speaks to exactly things that I have experienced or felt as a pastor for the last 12 years now.
This book is by no means a “how to” book, but it is, to me, more powerful and more effective than any of the “how to do pastoral work” books out there because it is his story and not just something that is a “you should do it this way.”
The middle third of the book spoke to me the most strongly as he reflected upon his connection with the congregation he was a part of founding in Baltimore. It was encouraging to read that many things have not changed over the decades, especially the call of Christ in our lives.
This is a very important book, I think for pastors serving congregations now, for those looking to enter into this form of ministry, and for members of congregations who want to understand more of what it means to be a pastor, especially for those who may be like the one who Peterson spoke of in his book who said that pastors “pastors [are] invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh.”
Several of the key quotes for me…
In reflecting upon how he was going to begin to understand his calling, he writes…
[it was] necessary to clear the ground for learning that God at work—not I—was the center of the way I was going to be living for the rest of my life. Inappropriate, anxiety-driven, fear-driven work would only interfere with and distract from what God was already doing. My “work” assignment was to pay more attention to what God does than what I do, and then to find, and guide others to find, the daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get this awareness into our bones. Holy Saturday for a start. And then Sabbath keeping. Staying in touch with people in despair, knowing them by name, and waiting for resurrection
As he was discussing the dissonance he felt between American culture and Christian ministry and how the two have intermingled greatly, he wrote:
We wanted to honor that more, to understand and treat our congregations not as a gathering of problems to be fixed but as souls being formed for salvation in a community of worship. Not men and women defined by what we could do for them but by what God was already doing for and in them. We wanted to develop facility in saying God and Jesus as prayer, personal prayer, not as an item of religious information.
He also writes about the proliferation of “programs” in churches:
A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. Church was understood not in terms of personal relationships and a personal God but in terms of “getting things done.
The key point he raised throughout the book over and over is the one seen in that last quote…the church has to be about the people and not about the programs. This is an area that is an ongoing struggle for me in ministry – the pressure (either internal or external or both) to have programs that attract, draw, grow, etc – and how so much energy can go into those programs that relationships seem to be secondary. Peterson’s book provides a healthy corrective to this form of thinking and acting for ministry. Again, a highly recommended read.