book review: the pastor

the pastorIn this meandering memoir, Eugene Peterson invites us to take the long view. In a world of instant gratification, individualized priorities, and getting things done, this prolific writer tells the story of how he developed a pastoral imagination rooted in the art (and skill) of slowing down and paying attention.

From the early days learning the trade in his father’s Montana butcher shop, Peterson writes of the many ways he realized his life’s work, to attend more “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” (45).

Peterson takes us from his childhood following his mother on her preaching circuit to his days as a PhD student to his suburban church plant, filling the space after and in between with gentle (and sometimes repeated) narrative.

The stories are easily read, always authentic, and often entertaining. My personal favorite was the tale about a mischievous boy spiking the punch and getting Peterson’s teetotaling Pentecostal preacher drunk at a Mennonite wedding. As life would have it, Peterson meets that boy later, while he’s leading a retreat for Mennonite pastors!

Some of Peterson’s greatest growth comes through the “Company of Pastors,” a group that met each week, learning and living the pastoral life together. One particular member hadn’t been there long when he took his leave for a larger church, following a call toward more challenge and opportunity. In a direct letter, Peterson expresses his concern that his colleague is being guided by impersonal, functional, competitive values. Here and throughout this book he invites today’s pastor to be suspicious of the seductive appeal to public recognition, larger churches, bigger positions.

There are areas where the writer gives hints but not the full story: how he balanced pastoring and parenting; how he lived into and through congregational conflict; how he endured ministry in one place for nearly three decades, a feat that seems oh-so-rare. Other areas he leaves out all together: was justice work a part of his ministry? How did his family manage financially when his wife’s vocation was to be pastor’s wife? Yet while these may be my questions today in 2014, these were not the questions in this 1960s-80s story. It was not all that long ago and yet it was a wildly different era for the institutional church.

Peterson’s pastoral career began and blossomed toward the heights of the protestant church in the United States, or at least before we realized how dramatic and serious the decline would become. In that regard, we are missing important contextual distinctions that might make this rich memoir easily translatable for today’s youngish pastor. In some ways his work and the development of his pastoral imagination seems almost easy.

For instance, the Petersons are blessed immeasurably by a congregation that allows them to rest, read, write, be “unbusy.” At one particularly poignant church meeting, Eugene expresses his frustration with the administrative tasks that consume his pastoral time and the church leaders respond by saying, “Why don’t you let us run the church?” (279). He does, and they do in ways that I suspect would astonish many clergy whose lives remain filled to the brim with meetings and tasks. Furthermore, he pastored in an era when people were coming to church, not leaving it.

On the other hand, Peterson does wrestle with some strife in the congregation and some restlessness, leaving in their reflective wake pearls of wisdom for the taking. He reminds us that congregations “not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered” (137) and that sometimes we must submit “to the boredom, the refining fire of nonperformance” (220).

I am convinced by Eugene Peterson and mentors of my own that the pastoral life still requires the level of intentionality, the slowing down and paying attention that is demonstrated in a hundred ways in this worthwhile read.