09 August 2011

review: the pastor

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

"I had only the vaguest of ideas of why I was there and certainly nothing that I would recognize as a pastoral vocation. I didn't know it at the time, but what I absorbed in my subconscious, which eventually surfaced years later, was a developing conviction that the most effective strategy for change, for revolution - at least on the large scale that the kingdom of God involves - comes form a minority working from the margins" (16).

This description, early on in the book, speaks to Eugene Peterson's life experience while a young man in a New York seminary. As far as pastors go, this isn't quite the vocational focus and drive that describes many of those in-training. But that captures the ethos of Peterson's journey, as he discovered - step by step - that his vocation was pastor.

Memoirs are interesting so far as they convey a rather intriguing life by someone of note, or they contain the wise reflections of someone whose life is similar to your own. Eugene Peterson has indeed lived an interesting life worth reading about (he begins his story as a child and speaks to his lifelong development and spiritual journey from there), but also he has a particular insight given to the pastoral calling that comes from years worth of work, adaptation, seeking-counsel, and facing head-on the challenges of church leadership. As a pastor who is also learning to grapple with all of these layers of life and leadership, I commend this read to all church leaders, both clergy and laity, for godly guidance.

One of the defining (and desired) marks of Peterson's perspective of the pastoral vocation is that it seeks to strike the appropriate balance of in-and-not-of that the Christian life demands. He does not get lost in overly spiritualized cliches of religious dogmatism, keeping such a holy view of pastoring that it has no tangible earthy significance. But neither does he present church leadership as something that is to absorb culture so as to lose its own otherness, instead holding to the demands of Christ that followers be distinct from the world. One particular passage illustrates this:

"I am quite sure now that the way I as a pastor came to understand congregation had its beginnings in the 'congregational' atmosphere of our butcher shop. Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place wehre a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place wehre a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus's name. A place where dignity is conferred. I first learned that under my father's priesthood in his butcher shop" (40).

In the end, he found that the most important work was in the mess of ministry. This helped define his "long obedience in the same direction" which gave context to his vocation. Perhaps it is out-of-line to say something like this about a person's own memoirs, but if one reads through only for the purpose of being able to read Chapter 35 in its proper context then you will discover an incredible set of lessons on what it means to live with the pastoral calling. That chapter alone is worth the purchase and reading of the entire work.

A great summary of what the book seeks to convey comes from a student of Peterson's, Irene:
"I don't want to be so impatient with the mess that I am not around to see the miracle being formed. I don't want to conceive of my life as pastor so functionally that the mystery gets squeezed out of both me and the congregation" (285).

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