July 12, 2020

IM Book Review–The Pastor: A Memoir

By Chaplain Mike

“The way is made by walking” (Antonio Machado)

Eugene Peterson’s career as a pastor has been a living tortoise and hare fable.

In an age of emphasis on church growth, Peterson was “the contemplative pastor.” As the calling of minister morphed into the job of CEO, whose main task is to “run the church,” he renounced that role and sought to maintain the pastor’s singular vocation as one who gives attention to what God is doing and witnesses to that through face to face relationships in a local faith community. While the church ran to and fro, chasing the shifting winds of “relevance,” Eugene Peterson kept walking the old paths of worship, prayer, and conversation. When the church said, “fast,” Peterson went slow. When the church said, “big,” he insisted on small. When the church prescribed activism, he encouraged the time-honored practice of Sabbath.

Countercultural, against the grain — now that’s my kind of pastor.

Many Christians know the name “Eugene Peterson” because of The Message, a translation of the Bible into “American.” This work is a revelation of his love for language and his conviction that the Bible’s original text speaks in a vivid, earthy, “non-religious” kind of language that we have lost in translation.

However, for many of us who have tried to make our way as pastors of local churches, it was Peterson’s books on the pastoral vocation that have had the most influence. Like a prophet standing alone, decrying idolatry that has infiltrated the Temple itself, he set forth a path of ministry than ran directly counter to the American way of doing church.

In the secularizing times in which I am living, God is not taken seriously. God is peripheral. God is nice (or maybe not so nice) but not at the center. When people want help with their parents or children or emotions, they do not ordinarily see themselves as wanting help with God. But if I am going to stay true to my vocation as a pastor, I can’t let the “market” determine what I do. I will find ways to pray with and for people and teach them to pray, usually quietly and often subversively when they don’t know I am doing it. But I am not going to wait to be asked. I am a pastor. (p.142)

In The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson tells how he became a pastor and how he fought to maintain that identity in the context of an American suburban congregation for thirty years.

I would use three words to describe Eugene Peterson and his story of becoming a pastor, developing his own pastoral identity by walking with a congregation for thirty years, and then continuing his ministry through writing and giving pastoral counsel to other ministers like me: grounded, attentive, craftsmanlike.

Grounded. Eugene Peterson grew up in a small town in Montana. His mother, a Pentecostal evangelist, took him with her as she held Sunday evening services for miners and lumberjacks in isolated settlements in the northern Rockies. From her, he learned to love the songs and stories of faith. Father was a butcher, a working man who labored hard and dealt with people every day. Watching him as a boy, Eugene learned the value of daily diligence and attention to detail as well as the quirky characters that make up a “congregation.” Raised in a Pentecostal church culture that honored “preachers” but was short on “pastors,” Peterson’s pastoral identity was formed more by the everyday examples of home and community than by life in the church.

Through circuitous circumstances, he ended up in seminary in New York City. His love for the Bible deepened, he became ordained as a Presbyterian, and enrolled in doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where he pursued study in languages and prepared to be a professor. Then Eugene met his wife Jan, an attractive and likewise grounded woman whose dream in life was to be a pastor’s wife. Within a few years, she was.

There is a saying in affairs of state: “All politics are local.” People may have heated arguments over big ideas and far-away situations, but when they vote, it is about the life they live where they live. I believe, and Eugene Peterson affirms, that pastors are called to be grounded not only in God, but also in a specific time and place, in a locality, paying attention to reality on the street, in the neighborhoods, kitchens and living rooms, gardens, offices, schools and basketball courts where one lives among neighbors.

We were used to neighborhood, families living in houses next to one another who were, well, neighbors, not just “the people next door from Ohio.” Jan grew up in Alabama, a Southern culture in which neighbors not only knew one another’s names but the names of their uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents along with the stories that went with them. I grew up in a small western town where if you didn’t know people personally you at least knew about them. There is little anonymity in a small town. This is not always a good thing. But it is probably preferable to this cultivated isolationism that we were experiencing in our suburban nonneighborhood. (p.188f)

The Petersons lived this “grounded” life out in several ways. First, they put down roots. Eugene Peterson only pastored one church, Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, MD, and he did so for thirty years. Second, his wife Jan exercised a vital ministry of hospitality in their home where they held countless conversations over meals of food grown in their garden and prepared in love. Third, he emphasized the Sunday morning worship service as the time for the people of God to strengthen their roots in God, formed by corporate worship: word, table, prayer. Fourth, he worked hard to understand and practice a pastoral life “between Sundays,” learning what it means to walk with congregation members in the “mess” of daily life outside the orderliness of the sanctuary.

If “the way is made by walking,” then Eugene Peterson cut a well-worn path in the earth there in that suburban wilderness.

Attentive. A book Peterson wrote that I treasure is called, The Contemplative Pastor. He admits he was not always so. He had to shift from being a competitive pastor to a contemplative one. He had to learn to pay attention to God.

One of the most helpful practices he and his wife Jan developed to cultivate this spirit was a weekly “Sabbath,” when they hiked the Maryland hills. They transformed “taking a day off” into “keeping Sabbath” by following a simple ritual of being alone with God for periods of silence and together for reflection and conversation.

Pastor Peterson wrote a letter to his congregation, asking for their help in maintaining this practice. In the letter he said,

We need your help if we are going to keep a Monday Sabbath. This is a day to recenter our lives on God and God’s work and God’s presence. We spend our workweek telling you about God, serving you in the name of God, leading you in the ways of God. But we need a protected day to simply pay attention to God ourselves, to not be in charge, to let God be God for us, to develop habits of being present to God at all times and circumstances. (p.221)

In addition to this fundamental “paying attention,” I have always been struck by Peterson’s attention to keeping the main thing the main thing, his attention to detail, his encouragement to pay attention to other people by learning to listen well, the attention he has given to continual evaluation and improvement of his craft, the way he pays careful attention to language, individual words, stories, and the place of imagination. Spurred on by his butcher father’s contempt of “hackers” who do not pay attention and “listen” to the meat when cutting and presenting it for customers, over the years he has kept his knife sharp and his focus on “respectfully and reverently entering into the reality of the material.” (p.36)

Craftsmanlike. A true artisan or craftsman is not someone who “does something for a living.” A craftsman’s identity is bound up with devotion to his or her work. The craft grows out of one’s very being. One may do carpentry, or be a carpenter. It is no mistake that this book is entitled, “The Pastor.”

This book is the story of my formation as a pastor and how the vocation of pastor formed me. I had never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never “knew what I was going to be when I grew up.” And then — at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly — there is was: Pastor.

I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly — a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor. (p.2)

One wise thing Eugene Peterson did to guard his craft and develop it was to gather regularly with a group of other pastors and religious leaders. They met on Tuesdays for twenty-six years during Peterson’s ministry in Maryland to “recover, as best we could, what pastor-in-congregation meant personally and locally for each of us in our churches, synagogue, and county.” (p.146) They called themselves “The Company of Pastors,” and I was heartened to read in the book that they are still meeting, now forty-two years later.

At one point, the lone Jewish rabbi in the group helped them make a connection between the weekly day of worship and the other days of the week by teaching from five books in the Hebrew Bible known as Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). Out of this, Peterson wrote a wonderful book on ministry called, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work.

The “way” Eugene Peterson made with his family, congregation, friends and colleagues was a firm, good path, forged by the spirit of groundedness and attentiveness that is characteristic of a fine craftsman.

There is so much more I would love to say about this book and this story. Like all Peterson’s books, it is dense with vivid narratives, insights, quotable quotes, and passages that require reading and re-reading. The contemplative pastor writes in a way that invites contemplation. It will have an honored place on my “best books” shelf, and I know I will return to it time and again. And you can be sure you will be reading future posts based on passages from it.

If I have one disappointment, it would be this: I would like to have heard more about Eugene Peterson’s failures and trials.

He does allude to his limitations, and at one point writes, “As I look back on a lifetime in the pastoral vocation what I remember most is a kind of messiness: a lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again. It is amazing that anything came of it.” (p.314f) What we get in the book, however, keeps us at arm’s length from the messy details. He has never been a “confessional” style writer; he writes with the personal reserve and analytical acumen of a fine Presbyterian (with, however, Pentecostal roots! — he calls himself, “Prebycostal”). When he writes about the “badlands” — a period of several years when he was trying to find his way — he tells more about how he made his way through them than what they actually felt like for one lost. I would have liked a bit more of a look at that messy world inside at various points.

Actually, I have one more disappointment. In one of life’s vagaries, I missed a personal opportunity to be a member of Peterson’s congregation and have him as my pastor. In 1973, my family moved to Bel Air, MD, and settled in across town from his church. That was one of the most important years of my life, spiritually, and now I look back and wonder how my pilgrimage might have been altered if I had visited Christ Our King Presbyterian Church at the time my life was turning and I myself began down the road toward becoming a pastor.

I will never know. But Eugene Peterson has been one of the preeminent “book mentors” and pastors to me in my life over the years. He has helped me “make my way by walking” as well. I heartily commend his story to you.

Comments

  1. I thank Jesus for this man and his ministry.

    CM, thanks for the fine review of yet another gem from this man’s pen.

  2. Eugene Peterson’s book, “Run With the Horses” changed the direction in which I was walking and prevented me from self-destructing. I have heard him refered to as a “wordsmith”. Your post today rightly emphasizes Peterson’s refusal to take the popular and seemingly successful pastoral route. His insistence on doing it his way is now revealing his wisdom as mega churches are in chaos and so many of us are returning to liturgical churches. Peterson kept the faith truly and was true to his own calling. I am so grateful to him for that ,as his was a calm, clear voice in the midst of the ten steps to victorious christian living church culture of the past 30 years. His Bible, “Conversations” is delicious – by that I mean the excerpts from his books included amidst the Scriputre are nourishing, flavorful and worth chewing on. I thank the Lord for bringing Pastor Peterson’s writings into my life. Thanks so much for this post.

  3. Great quote!

    More pastors ought read, and heed that one.

    Thanks!

  4. “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is another classic. So much of his work prior to “The Message” seem to have been forgotten.

  5. David Cornwell says

    A few days ago, in my car, I picked up the last few minutes of an interview at NPR of Eugene Peterson. I plan on hearing it in entirety today. He is such a refreshing voice in today’s confusion. Here is a link:

    http://www.npr.org/2011/03/06/134233358/eugene-petersons-chronicles-memories-in-pastor

  6. Clay Knick says

    Yes, Mike, this one goes on the “best books shelf” and will be read again and again. Great review! I loved this book!

  7. ‘If I have one disappointment, it would be this: I would like to have heard more about Eugene Peterson’s failures and trials.’

    I can’t speak to the Presbyterian tradition. In the Pentecostal tradition leadership does not discuss the failures and trials very much. There seems to be an ethos that a leader is to be strong.

    Just my observation as one who was involved in it and has relatives who pastor in it.

  8. Mike (the other chaplain) says

    Chaplain Mike, I only know EP from his writings, never heard him speak and I have no idea what he would be like if he were my pastor– but I love his books and I’ve been shaped as a pastor by his works. I wonder if you had stumbled upon him back then if you would have just kept looking. My impression of him is that there is no razzle dazzle in his approach to ministry and for someone to have really benefited from sitting at his feet would have required a great deal of patience in getting to know him and actually benefitting from his ministry. I’m really just speculating here. Maybe his best mentoring is through his writings and not up close and personal. Just trying to inject a little divine perspective here, indirectly. The fact that his approach to ministry is so unique and humble and intentionally NOT aimed at turning his congregation into a mega-church or himself into a mega-church pastor, makes me wonder if, in the shallowness of my youth, I would have kept looking after my initial impression of him—being distracted by shiny objects and all.

    • Mike (the other chaplain) says

      This is meant more as a compliment to the man (EB) and his approach to ministry, I hope it was taken as such! Like Isaiah saying there was nothing the the mere appearance of Jesus that was attractive, worldly speaking.

  9. My favorite book of his is a little gem called “The Wisdom of Each Other” . It’s a series of pastoral letters to a fictional friend, and encompasses such themes as youth “ministry” (yuk), reading good theology, and being pressured to serve in the church to meet the pastor’s agenda. Love his stuff! Thanks for the review!

  10. Eugene Peterson has mentored many pilgrims along the way in the vocation of living as a follower of Christ at a time when the church as lost its way in the world. I know he speaks especially for pastors in many of his books but if anyone can even slightly transcribe what he says into whatever your vocation in life may be you will be blessed as I have.

  11. If I properly understand “the way is made by walking” it could be translated as “I am making this up as I go”. Working without a script. Obviously the scripture is our script but with each child of God it is played out anew with an ever expanding knowledge of the Godhead as a result. We are not replicating those who have gone before as much as emulating their courage and grace to live out our unique experience. I think this is a critical and crucial distinction. Acting like my teachers, saying what they say and doing what they do is the monkey see monkey do of childhood. To grow up is to do what the Holy Spirit is telling me, personally, to do. That may be very dissimilar from my mentors. If uninspired it is simply a rebellious affect but if inspired , it is the “way” and I alone can “walk” it. I think every good pastor gaurds against the shallow replication of himself and seeks to inspire each member of the body to find his or her unique function.

    • The sense of the quote as I intended it is— “The way will only take shape as we walk (act).” This emphasizes that “pastor,” like all vocations, is a craft that one must learn through practice, not simply talk or theory. And that the practice consists of the simple act of walking, feet to the earth.

  12. I resonated with your “disappointment” … just as I was encouraged by the Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference. I wanted to have one in my town, since I can’t get to Pennsylvania!

    Perhaps failure discussions are better had IRL … just one more thing we love to remember about Michael Spencer, eh?