Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work
by Eugene H. Peterson
William B. Eerdmans (1992, originally published 1980)
Since we live in a time of rapid change characterized by staggering leaps in knowledge and technology, there is a compelling assumption that what worked for pastors in an earlier age cannot work now. Pastors are thus urged to learn the latest from the behavioral sciences or the marketing masters. These are the experts from whom they can learn a thing or two. With their help the ministers might be able to accomplish something useful.
Eugene Peterson advocates a monumental departure from this way of thinking. It is significant that he wrote this book in 1980. It seems to me he was ahead of his time; there is some hope that this book (along with the others he has written) has begun to have a positive effect.
Peterson recognizes that the approach to pastoring he advocates is unattractive. True pastoral work is, he says, specialization in the ordinary. Perhaps the best way to capture what this book is about is through an analogy that Peterson employs at the end of the book. He writes:
What strikes me so forcibly in that picture is that David was both modest enough and bold enough to reject the suggestion that he do his work inauthentically (by using Saul’s armor); and that he was both modest enough and bold enough to use only that which he had been trained to use in his years as a shepherd (his sling and some stones). And he killed the giant….No one could have guessed that the man picking stones out of the brook was doing the most significant work of the day.
In this manner, Peterson writes this book to encourage pastors to lay aside the shiny armor handed to them by the behavioral sciences and marketing gurus. Instead they need to use the simple stones they will find in the word of God alone. He does not use the word “inauthentic” as we have recently become accustomed to it being used. For him inauthentic is not living in a manner that departs from what I really want to do deep down in my heart. Rather, inauthentic is what is false or an imitation. He wants pastors to be real pastors.
His “five smooth stones” are five pastoral practices drawn from the five books that make up the Megiloth; we know these books as Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. Peterson relies significantly upon insights from form criticism to establish the pastoral usefulness of these books. I do not find this method helpful because I reject the so-called form critical insights from which he draws.
But that does not mean that I do not like this book. On the contrary it is sufficient for me that the one who inspired these five books is the Great Shepherd. He is the true Pastor to whom our pastoral work is increasingly to conform. Because He is the Pastor, we can learn from all the Scriptures how He pastors His people and how He calls His under-shepherds to carry out their work. These five books, then, do contain very helpful lessons for pastors.
Furthermore, I have no doubt that the pastoral work that Peterson highlights does represent the true work of pastors. In the Song of Songs he finds the pastoral work of “prayer-directing.” He rightly sees Song of Songs not merely as a sexual handbook for the people of God (though he affirms that it upholds to goodness of the married sexual relationship), but as a treatise upon the love between Christ and His bride, the church. The pastor is called to direct people in prayer. Prayer is a vital means God has provided for his people to cultivate and realize the intimacy that belongs to the covenant relationship into which they have been brought.
When pastors begin grasp the great love with which God loves His people, their approach to their work will change. Peterson explains:
With the help of the vocabulary learned in the Song we see God’s people (and ourselves) not through the dirty lens of our own muddled feelings, and not through the smudgy window of another’s carping criticism, but in terms of God’s word. We never know how good we can look, how delightful we can feel, 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.
It is the work of the pastor to attend to God’s love for His people in order that He might also be used by God to proclaim to them the great love with which they are loved in Christ. One of the most important things a pastor can do for his people is to be grateful to God, and to give thanks for them (like Paul).
The pastoral work found in the book of Ruth is “story-making.” Ruth is probably the last person anyone would have predicted as being significant in the history of redemption. She was a Moabitess and of seemingly little account in Israel. She becomes the mother of the Messiah. The pastor must realize that every person of God has an unfolding story that fits into the larger story of God’s redemptive work. The pastor’s work in story-making is to help every child of God to recognize that he or she has a vitally important story, and that it fits into the larger story of redemption.
Pursuing the ministry of story-making saves the pastor from two egregious pastoral errors: condescension and moralism. Pastoral moralism fixes on what is wrong. By so fixating on the trouble he alienates the person even further. Pastoral condescension sets in when pastors get bored, frustrated, or irritated with people. Peterson goes on to explain that cultivating this ministry of story-making requires a certain degree of leisure and privacy. Pastors need to make the necessary arrangements to insure that times of counseling and visitation can fill this need for leisure and privacy.
As far as I am concerned Peterson’s most valuable contribution in this book comes in his chapter exploring the pastoral work of pain-sharing from the book 0f Lamentations. Pastoral work engages suffering. Peterson explains, “The biblical revelation neither explains nor eliminates suffering. It shows, rather, God entering into the life of suffering humanity, accepting and sharing the suffering.” Further, he wisely observes that pastors are called to develop a detailed sympathy for those who are suffering, and at the same time insist on a termination. Sorrow and suffering are important in the life of faith; but they are not infinite.
Peterson also insists that biblical suffering requires that feelings are firmly attached to facts. Suffering is never to be allowed to be mere feeling; anguish must not have an independent existence. He clarifies:
When a pastor asks, ‘What happened?’ (after having asked, ‘How do you feel?’) it is not in order to minimize suffering, or to ‘put it into perspective.’ It is, rather, to pin it to the actual and so make it accessible to the grace that operates, as we know from biblical accounts, in the historical.
Not only is suffering historical from a biblical perspective, but it is also deeply personal. Since God is the person ruling over all creation, suffering is never random. It always has to do with God. With this in mind, Peterson says, “Prayer is suffering’s best result.” Pastoral ministry brings a different message concerning suffering. It insists, “Take it personally.” The modern humanist traditions consider suffering a deficiency; it must be eliminated. The pastor understands that to treat suffering as a problem is to demean the person. Pastors are therefore called uphold the dignity of suffering.
From the book of Ecclesiastes Peterson observes the pastoral work of “nay-saying.” His job in this regard is essentially to strip God’s people of the false expectations they have developed concerning God. He explains the difficulty of this work:
Pastors are in the awkward position of refusing to give what a great many people assume it is our assigned job to give. We are in the embarrassing position of disappointing people in what they think they have a perfect right to get from us. We are asked to pray for an appropriate miracle; we are called upon to declare an authoritative answer. But our calling equips us for neither. In fact, it forbids us to engage in either the miracle business or the answer business.
In this chapter Peterson reminds us that pastors are not cheerleaders. We have little to learn and much to fear from the public relations industry. Not everything done or said in the name of the Lord is either right nor good. And everything that happens to believers does not simply turn out well if we put a happy face on it. Pastors must speak the truth in love.
The book of Esther speaks to the pastoral work of “community-building.” All pastoral work, says Peterson, takes place in the context of the church, the community of faith. His calling also enlists him to help build that same community. The pastor does not create the community; but he is called to build the community that God has created. Crucial to this work is that the pastor see himself as a servant of the people of God. He is not to engage in self-assertion or ego-fulfillment. He is to be a man of God serving the church as he has been called to do that biblically.