Peterson is most well-known as the translator of The Message and the author of several books, including the wonderful Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. But he doesn’t find his identity in these accomplishments. In his memoir, he finds his identity as the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in BelAir MD. In The Pastor, he tells his story with humor and depth.
Clashing Visions of Pastoral Ministry
The contemporary vision of the pastorate is one that has been co-opted from the business world - pastor as CEO, pastor as manager, pastor as marketer, pastor as politician. The church of today has bought in to this vision with little reservation. If people’s expectations for their pastor aren’t met, they jump shipping, shopping for who can deliver what they want. As a result, pastors twist themselves into knots, seeking to satisfy while serving.
But Peterson’s vision is so very different, so counter-cultural, so radical. He envisions himself as an unbusy pastor. A pastor who has the time and energy to listen to the stories people are telling about their lives. A pastor who has the time and energy to listen to the story God is telling. A pastor who has the time and energy to connect the two.
I am reminded of Moses, rebuked by his father-in-law Jethro for being too busy to represent the people to God and represent God to the people. I am reminded of the Apostles in Acts, appointing deacons so they they wouldn’t be too busy to give themselves to prayer and study of the word. I am reminded of myself, too busy to pray, too busy to listen, too busy to think, too busy to care.
The Pastor is a wonderful affirmation of the kind of pastor I am trying to be - unbusy, gentle, patient.
As I read Peterson’s memoir, I kept expecting the chapter where he would tell the juicy stories, air the dirty laundry, and show the scars of battle. But it never came. A time or two he hints at an awkward situation, but this is not a book about how to deal with conflict or the crazy people in your church. He doesn’t let on about any sleepless nights he might have had over the people in his church or if he walked around with a pain around his heart like I have for years.
He doesn’t see people as problems. As a pastor, he is not a therapist. He sees his role as listening to and loving people. He isn’t a pastor to fix people. He is a pastor to call people to worship God. And this results in his profound and overwhelming gentleness.
Gentleness doesn't come naturally to me. I am sarcastic. Really sarcastic. I admitted to the folks at Vintage a few years ago that often, I don't really even like people. Hyperbole? Maybe, but still a liability for a pastor. It is in this that Jesus has made all the difference. His life and ministry were all about people, meeting them where they are and having conversations with them. Full of grace and truth. What I am not naturally, I am pursuing for the sake of Jesus whom I follow. Peterson's memoir gives me a good look at what that might look like in today's American pastorate.
And Peterson’s vision of pastoral ministry is one of patience. He co-opted the phrase “a long obedience in the same direction” from Nitzsche, and I have co-opted it from him to describe my life of following Jesus. People don’t change overnight. Churches don’t have to be big and effective in two years time (if ever). Pastors don’t have to have all the answers, right here and right now. We can be patient with others, with our communities, with ourselves.
When we started Vintage, there was all kind of pressure to “succeed” immediately, to be big, to make a big impact ... like the shape shuttle launching. I spent the first few years of Vintage’s existence feeling guilty that we were not bigger, not more than we were. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not in a hurry. It’s not that I am apathetic; I have a strong sense of urgency that Jesus would be exalted in us. But I’ve grown patient with us. The journey we are on is a long obedience in the same direction.
There was one other wonderful theme in The Pastor that resonated deeply with me - that pastoral ministry is not done alone.
Peterson speaks repeatedly and with reverence for his life-companion and wife Jan. Jan viewed her role as pastor’s wife as a vocation, a holy rite to be discharged through hospitality and care. Jan reminded me of Vanessa. I’m a lucky guy.
Peterson’s other companions in ministry are other pastors. He describes a diverse group of pastors that begins to meet on Tuesdays. They call themselves the Company of Pastors. They encourage one another, talk and pray. And they continue to meet decades later. The Company of Pastors made me miss the Pastors Theology Roundtable, a group of guys in Michigan that met every couple of months to talk shop. I need that in my life again.
I cannot grow up to be Eugene Peterson, nor do I want to be. I want to be myself and develop, by God's grace, into the pastor that God created me to be. But I am so thankful to have Peterson as a mentor-from-afar, a role model, a friend. He has pastored me.