The Contemplative Pastor

A Book Report on

THE CONTEMPLATIVE PASTOR

Eugene H. Peterson

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Reviewed by Brett Best, 7/17/17.

THE BIG IDEA

Based on the subtitle, “Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction,” one might conclude that Peterson attempts to restore spiritual direction to the job description of Christian pastors.  That is undoubtedly the intent of the author.  However, as the greatest portion of the development of his thesis does NOT involve things of the past, one has to wonder, “How is this a return to the art of spiritual direction?”  It may seem picayune to note this, but we are attempting to identify the central idea of the text, and something as obviously stated as a subtitle merits a closer look.  “Reexamining” would, I believe, be a better choice of words and more reflective of Peterson’s methodology.

“Art” is an aptly-chosen word, given Peterson’s obvious affinity for poetry, emotionally expressive prose, and a wordsmith’s fascinations with turns of phrase.  More importantly, it conveys Peterson’s sensitivity to the spirit of a thing and knowledge that expressing the spirit is not a formulistic science, but an art form to which one brings imagination and intuition.

There is a great deal that can be said about “spiritual direction” that has been more aptly stated than I can.  It’s possible that Peterson may not define the term in the same way as those who make a ministry out of spiritual direction.  In his book, spiritual direction is more of a general heading than a specific destination.  That is not to say that it is formless, just that sufficient flexibility is required to fit individuals with the steps they need to take to bring God into the gaps of their awareness and action.  I suspect Peterson’s definition is more process-oriented than product-oriented.

Risking the loss of the title in the sub-title’s examination, it’s a good time to remember that the title of this book is The Contemplative Pastor.  The work was written with Peterson’s colleagues in pastoral ministry in mind.  It is “contemplative” in the sense that it urges the parish pastor to transcend the “scientific/professional” approach that has dominated the field in the last century to embrace a cooperative search for meaning; pastor and people.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

Chapter 1 – The Naked Noun.  In modern usage, nouns have been weakened by the excessive use of adjective in order to specialize or just “sell” the thing.  Pastor is an example of a noun so miserably used with adjectives that it has been bleached of any meaningful identity.  Peterson purposes to correct this loss by offering unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic as three suitable adjectives to use in modifiying the noun pastor.

Chapter 2 – The Unbusy Pastor.  It is blasphemous to attach the adjective busy to the noun pastor because it indicates a sinful state in which the clergyperson is unavailable to the people paying for his/her availability.  We allow ourselves to become busy because we are vain or too lazy to say “no.”  The unbusy pastor attends the things that are really important, not just the stuff that mollifies his desire to please people or herself.  Pastors need to be unbusy enough to pray, preach, and listen.  If they would recover biblical priorities, they must wield the cultural icon of a schedule to squelch opposition, appealing to the fiat, “My schedule does not allow this.”

Chapter 3 – The Subversive Pastor.  (This is where I came into this project.  Thirty years ago – the last time I bothered to read Leadership magazine, I read an article by this name that was taken from this book.  The concept hung with me all these years and inspired me to read it now, thirty years later.)  Popular culture has denigrated the office of pastor to such a bland, pasty-faced character who offers smiles and hugs in the vain hope of acceptance or at least relevancy.  Peterson sees the pastor’s role as playing that caricature for all its worth, the whole while undermining the errors and confronting the sins of our arrogant culture and the Church that has been co-opted by it.  Ours is a guerilla war, making no fiery clashes we cannot hope to win, but concentrating on the power of the truth to influence and win converts from the “Kingdom of Self” one at a time.  Vanity and naivete have influenced pastors to commit themselves to logistical campaigns destined to futility.  The Kingdom of Self cannot be assaulted directly; the Kingdom of God works through parable and other forms of misdirection that advance our cause in a way that makes victory possible.  It is an interesting paradigm and has encouraged me a great deal over the years.

Chapter 4 – The Apocalyptic Pastor.  This adjective would be contrary to subversive if “apocalyptic” meant what we usually think it means.  Peterson takes the word away from its usual, sensational, sense, to emphasize the revelatory aspect.  The pastor’s job is to reveal God to the people.  This seems patently obvious until we take stock of how deeply we have perjured ourselves where God is involved.  To the degree that secular culture sanctions God, we have misrepresented Him.  To Peterson, the apocalyptic pastor must be patient because God does not change and people stubbornly resist Him.  To honor God and to overcome sin’s resistance, patient adherence to the truth is needed.  In my reading, this was the weakest of the three adjectival chapters, the paradigm a bit stressed by being stretched too far while possessing less substance.

Chapter 5 – Ministry Amid the Traffic.  It is a trade secret that clergy wish there were more Sundays in the week.  It is the time between Sundays that is the most stressful for us.

Chapter 6 – Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art.  To write of “curing” souls is a fascinating turn of phrase and I am coming around to it.  However, the chapter is based on Peterson’s “because I said so” kind of reasoning, with support from other sources conspicuous by absence.  His point is that pastors can either “cure” (mature/improve) souls or run a church, but not both.  As is the case whenever someone presents a false dialectic that requires a choice (“either…or”), I encourage people to ask “Why not ‘both…and’ instead?”  Peterson is so eager for his new turn of phrase he isn’t willing to address the possibility that both activities (curing and running) may be redemptively used for the Kingdom of God.  A pastor may engage in more curing than running if first he seizes the initiative to define what ministry and congregational life is really about.  Second, he/she must consciously use language that is descriptive (by which I suppose he means story, parable, and idiom) over against prescriptive language (which either commends or condemns).   Third, the pastor is usually busied solving problems and counts these as progress in ministry.  Part of curing souls is seeing past problems and looking at the larger, more important, issues of relationships and beliefs which no doubt contribute to the problems anyway.  Again, process trumps product.

Chapter 7 – Praying with Eyes Open.  Most of this chapter is an homage to writer Anne Dillard.  It really only serves the reader as an over-long emphasis on the “art” of spiritual direction and a call to spirituality that is more abstract.  I would advise the reader to skip this chapter.

Chapter 8 – First Language.  Peterson wants so badly to argue for the primacy of prayer as the pastoral task that this chapter almost descends into anti-rationalism.  I suspect it is a point that must be made as it is the greatest weakness among clergy and laity alike.  Prayer is the most vital thing in a truly spiritual life and yet it is the most neglected thing.

Chapter 9 – Is Growth a Decision?  Prayer leads to providence as surely as sowing to reaping.  The question is one of will – divine and/or human – and how they intermingle to accomplish anything in prayer.  Peterson’s solution is to offer the middle voice of English grammar as a symbol of the mutual participation of human and divine will in accomplishing spiritual maturity in the believer and in the local church.

Chapter 10 – The Ministry of Small Talk.  The definition of “small talk” is very much in the eye of the interpreter and we tend to make such decisions very selfishly.  However, not everything a lay person has to say is a worthy use of a pastor’s time.  “Art” will always require sensitivity to context and may also require participation (usually active listening) in moments that might seem otherwise trivial.  Pastors can easily see walk-ins as intruders on their more important (read: “more spiritual”) activities.  Such an attitude will obviously cast a shadow on trust and will provide fewer opportunities to provide spiritual direction.  In a sense, pastors earn the right to be heard by listening.

Chapter 11 – Unwell in a New Way.  This chapter is Peterson addressing some of the symptoms of postmodernism in our culture without necessarily intending to do so.  From his point of view, adolescence is a model for understanding the sin nature.  It is immature and committedly so.  (I agree and have thought so for years).  There are two aspects of this cultural adolescence; a sense of inadequacy (especially in spiritual matters) and a lack of context that comes from expunging tradition and history.  This is “new” in the sense that in the 50s pop culture began a cultural shift from respecting age to respecting youth.  Postmodernism is part of the process and the product of this shift.

Chapter 12 – Lashed to the Mast.  Here’s another trade secret: pastors have a complex relationship with their churches.  In Peterson’s case, this is manifest in his contention that lay people have low expectations of their pastors because it makes less work for them.  Contrarily, pastors have an overly-high view of their work and exaggerated expectations of themselves.  The latter makes pastors irrelevant and the former depresses them.  The epitome of this state of disrepair is pastors offering to baptize Cabbage Patch dolls at the height of that craze.  Hilarious but true.  Being a pastor means having the job at which it is easiest to placate one’s clients but hardest to live with one’s self.  If that sounds like a prescription for failure, it is.

Chapter 13 – Desert and Harvest: A Sabbatical Story.  If you’re not considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  If you are considering a sabbatical, this is the most important chapter of the book.  Otherwise, there’s not much here for the between-Sundays pastor.

The final two chapters are an ode to poetry as a means of becoming “artsy.”  Unless you need help getting in touch with your feeling side, there’s little to be mined in these pages.

THE FINAL GRADE: B+

Peterson’s task was to restore spiritual direction to its rightful place as primary among the pastor’s tasks.  That achievement is no less necessary today than it was in the nearly thirty years since the book’s publication.  I award this grade on the basis of a good try made with insufficient methodology and evidence.  In the art vs. science dialectic, it errs on the art side.

For example, you can’t hue and cry about the current culture’s adolescent lack of moorings to history and then substantiate most of what you write with personal observations and subjective reflections that lean more to the “art” than “science” side.  While pastoral ministry still needs the course adjustment Peterson advises, he method of making his point seems too “micro” in scale to achieve that correction.  But that may just be Peterson being a subversive.

Reading the book has made it clear to me that discipleship/spiritual direction is a part of ministry I have personally neglected.  While Peterson’s introductory tract may have been surpassed by more recent entries in the field, it served me well as an introduction and incentive to spiritual direction as a means of moving people closer to God.

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