By: Eugene H. Peterson
Article written by: rm Kocak
“Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”
- The Contemplative Pastor, pg. 139.
I am currently a transitional Deacon in the Anglican Mission who is planting churches, making disciples, and preparing for ordination to the Presbyterate (Priesthood) next month. Part of that preparation is being assigned a mentor. Fortunately for me, mine is a huge Eugene Peterson buff. So I’ve been reading through some of Peterson’s books on Pastoral Theology. This present book, The Contemplative Pastor rubs against the grain of the Protestant work ethic, the mega church leadership model, and current cultural definition of “Pastor.” It is a timely read for me personally as a young church planter and Pastor since the “tyranny of the urgent” is always at my heels begging me to be consumed with my “work.”
THE BIG IDEA
“A healthy noun doesn’t need adjectives… “Pastor” used to be that kind of noun – energetic and virile…. But when I observe the way the vocation of pastor is lived out in America and listen to the tone and context in which the word “pastor” is spoken, I realize that what I hear in the word and what others hear is very different…
The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition. To that end, I offer three adjectives to clarify the noun: unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic.”
- The Contemplative Pastor, pgs. 15-16.
Peterson is a poet and writes with depth, clarity, beauty, and passion about a vocational calling that is near and dear to his heart: “Pastor.” The term begs for redefinition because how it has been wrongly shaped by parody, diluted by opportunism, and hijacked by wolves in sheep’s clothing. For Peterson the Pastor is called to a quietness of soul in Christ and not the “business of running a church.” I don’t know about you, but I almost feel obligated to try to justify to others how “busy” I have been in ministry. And when I go through the litany of work, I usually leave out the essential parts of being a Pastor: prayer, worship, study of Scripture, and theological contemplation. Not that I don’t do these things, but because of the perception that these things aren’t as important as “doing the tasks of running/planting a church.” For Peterson, business comes down to either being vain or lazy.
By subversion, Peterson isn’t suggestion to Pastors to be “subversive” as the world is, but to:
- Challenge the status quo of this world.
- Show another world is livable and not just imaginary.
- The means of overthrow (military force or democratic elections) are not available.
LITTLE IDEA #1
“But this is my basic work: on the one hand to proclaim the word of God that is personal – God addressing us in love, inviting us into a life of trust in him; on the other hand to guide and encourage an answering word that is likewise personal – to speak in the first person to the second person, I to Though, and avoid commentary as much as possible.””
- The Contemplative Pastor, pg. 93.
There is a theme with language that keeps coming to the surface in this book. Whether it’s the need to reclaim the middle voice in prayer or using first language in proclamation, Peterson calls pastors to consider the words they use and the rhetoric they clothe them in. Peterson remarks at one point how the language of the community of faith often mirrors the image of the culture: a lot of information, a lot of publicity, but not much intimacy. While Peterson doesn’t suggest to do away with Tier II language (language of information) or Tier III language (language of motivation), he calls pastors to reclaim and primarily speak with Tier I language (language of intimacy and relationship).
LITTLE IDEA #2
“The Christian gospel is rooted in langauge: God spoke a creation into being; our Savrior was the Word made flesh. The poet is the person who uses words not primarily to convey information but to make a relationship, shape beauty, form truth…
Isn’t it odd that pastors, who are responsible for interpreting the Scriptures, so much of which come in the form of poetry, have so little interest in poetry? … Words create. God’s word creates; our words can participate in creation.” ”
- The Contemplative Pastor, pg. 44-45.
Another minor theme that comes up throughout the book is that of poetry (it reminds me of my friend J.D. Walt who encourages pastors to read a poem a day). The entire last section in the book is a series of poems that Peterson wrote himself. For Peterson it isn’t just a “taste” or a “preference” for Pastors to engage in poetry, but as part of getting immersed in the prose of Scripture. He sees a lot of things in common between poets and pastors: reverence of words, immersion in the everyday particulars of life, warn of illusions, attention to rhythm, tone, meaning, and spirit.
THE TAKE HOME
With the McDonaldizaiton of the Church in America, Peterson is offering another way that is more akin to quality, slowly cooked barbecue than fast food. Peterson’s way isn’t programmatic, easy, quick, or comfortable, but it causes one to consider what it means to be a Pastor in our current age of pragmatism, materialism, and hedonism. Peterson raises a lot of questions, calls out the “golden calves” of many American pastors, and offers an “ideal” for pastors to strive for. I find in my own life that everything militates against being unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. I must as a leader make it a priority to spend time in prayer, Scripture, and study or else no one else will for me. According to Peterson, they will gladly congratulate me for my busy work schedule, accomplishments in the community, long hours, and the sacrifice of my relationship with God and family on the altar of Pastoral Ministry.