Updated: Feb 21, 2020
The Contemplative Pastor
by Eugene Peterson
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1989)
More than twenty years of pastoring left Eugene Peterson with the sense that the word “pastor” was deathly diseased and in need of resuscitation. In his introduction he writes:
The culture treats me so amiably! It encourages me to maintain my orthodox creed; it commends me for my evangelical practice; it praises me for my singular devotion. All it asks is that I accept its definition of my work as an encourager of the culture’s good will, as the priest who will sprinkle holy water on the culture’s good intentions.
And therein lies problem. In the first section of his book, Peterson offers three adjectives to help breath new life into the word “pastor” more in keeping with the actual biblical calling. In his next section, he explores the work of pastors between Sundays. In the final section, he commends words as a key tool for pastoral work, and offers some of his own poetry to demonstrate the reverent use of words.
In the first section, Peterson explores the work of pastoring through the adjectives: unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. He begins by observing that pastors generally become busy for two reasons: because they are vain or because they are lazy. In their vanity they crowd their schedules with things that will make them appear important. In their laziness they fail to properly plan their own agenda and thus allow other people to plan it for them.
Pastors must instead learn to organize their schedules around three biblical priorities of their calling: prayer, preaching and listening to God’s people. I find this counsel helpful. I am one of those pastors who is very tempted to be sidetracked by activities that I enter into in order to appear important. Peterson helpfully reminds me of the true priorities of my calling. He advocates actually scheduling these priorities into one’s calendar so that they do not become crowded out. That is advice I hope to put into practice.
Pastors must also understand they are subversive. The methods that have made America strong are: economic, military, technological, and informational. These are not the methods of the kingdom. Pastors must learn kingdom methods: truth-telling, loving, prayer and parable. Learning to rely on these methods is not easy. They have the appearance of weakness and ineffectiveness. Likewise they are employed against stubborn human nature. Human nature dictates that the goals I have for myself must also be the goals that God has for me. We imagine God to be “a vague extrapolation of our own desires” and then we hire a priest to manage the affairs between ourselves and the extrapolation.
The pastor’s calling is to refuse to have anything to do with managing affairs between the self and the extrapolation. Peterson explains, “The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory. Post-Eden Adams and Eves are willing to pay their respects to God, but they don’t want him invading their turf.” To pursue his calling faithfully, the pastor must understand that the status quo is wrong and that it must be overthrown if the world is going to be livable. He must be subversive, and prayer and parable are the weapons of this gorilla warfare.
The model for the apocalyptic pastor is the apostle John. The defining posture of the apocalyptic pastor is prayer. Peterson insightfully nails down the temptation that entices me away from prayer:
And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God.
This temptation to substitute the work of God for the work of man in ministry is an important thread running throughout the book. We want change to happen more quickly than it often does in the kingdom of God; we foolishly take matters into our own hands in order to try to make things happen according to our timetable. A crucial aspect of the pastoral calling is learning to wait patiently upon God in our own lives and the lives of others. When we are taken up with prayer, we have begun to learn the lesson of patiently waiting upon God.
Peterson is convinced that pastors must recover the forgotten art of curing souls. He clearly articulates what he sees as the work of pastoring between Sundays when he writes:
Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays. The context changed: instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons or alone in study and prayer. The manner changed: instead of proclamation, there was conversation. But the work was the same: discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.
That, in nutshell, is the art of curing souls. The pastor is not a spiritual guru who provides magical formulas that properly employed will yield the life of our dreams. Nor is he the man who will build the organization with his tremendous charisma and leadership skill. Neither is he a therapist who doles out comfort and techniques for self-improvement; nor an ear-tickling motivational speaker who is guaranteed to gather a big crowd. He is simply a minister of word, sacrament and prayer from Sunday through Saturday. He must believe that his only usefulness in the kingdom is thus employed.
As the pastor does his work, he must use language for something more than information and motivation. To be sure, these will find their place in his communication. But pastors must understand that their primary task is to cultivate the language of intimacy and relationship in themselves and the people of God. What Peterson means is best illustrated through what he says about prayer: “It is not language about God or faith; it is not language in the service of God and the faith; it is language to and with God in faith.” I wholeheartedly agree with him in this regard, but it is helpful to be reminded. The Triune God is the goal of our salvation and not the means to something else.
This book is overflowing with other useful insights regarding the proper practice of pastoral ministry. Pastors must be convinced of the biblical fact of sin. Otherwise their ministry will go badly wrong. But they must equally believe that God in his grace initiates his people into a participatory life of faith. “We learn to live with praying-willing involvement in an action that we did not originate. We become subjects in an action in which we are personally involved.” God and grace are all-important. But we are not merely passive spectators as His people. God’s grace fully activates us into a life of faith in this present world.
Perhaps the best way for me to commend this book is to close with a final quotation. I think it summarizes well the overall thrust of the book.
Two facts: the general environment of wreckage provides daily and powerful stimuli to make us want to repair and fix what is wrong; the secular mindset, in which God/kingdom/gospel are not counted as primary, living realities, is constantly seeping into our imaginations. The combination–ruined world, secular mind–makes for a steady, unrelenting pressure to readjust our conviction of what pastoral work is. We’re tempted to respond to the appalling conditions around us in terms that make sense to those who are appalled.
But instead we must lash ourselves to the mast of our biblical calling: the ministry of word, sacrament and prayer.