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Book Review: The Pastor by Eugene H. Peterson

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I’ve been asked more than once why I’m a pastor. Some people ask this question because they’re interested in my sense of call, while others seem to want to know if I’m sane or not. Once upon a time the pastorate was an honorable and respected vocation, even if it didn’t pay all that well. In many communities the pastor was part of the educated elite, and his (it was almost always a he) advice was often sought out by community leaders. Although there are exceptions, those days seem to be long gone.

Much of this story is recounted in Brooks Hollifield’s God’s Ambassadors: A History of Christian Clergy in America, (Eerdmans). The lack of respect by the community and even church members, the impact on family life, the stress of being on call and in a fishbowl 24/7, along with the low pay, have led many clergy to leave the ministry for other jobs that are less stressful and sometimes more fulfilling (at least financially). Some of this story is told by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church (Harper One). Eugene Peterson wouldn’t disagree with the assessment of the ministerial life, but in his memoir, The Pastor, he seeks to lift up the vocation by sharing his own story of discerning his call to ministry and living it out in congregational life.

I think Peterson sums up well in this book the dilemma facing those who hear the call to ministry. When the call is answered, the prospective pastor takes up a vocation in which they are often “invisible six days a week” (p. 272). That is, as Peterson puts it, because “the only time most of the people in our congregations see us at work is when we are leading worship on Sundays” (pp. 273-274). They don’t see us visiting the sick, unless they are the sick ones, writing a letter, making a phone call, or when we pray.

By telling his own story, he invites the reader, especially those of us who are clergy, to reflect on the nature and purpose of vocational ministry in our age. He suggests that this book is both about how he became a pastor and how he was formed as a person by the pastorate that he experienced for nearly three decades. As one would expect with a memoir, the book is full of stories, many of which reveal something of Peterson’s character, values, and concerns. We see glimpses of his identity here and there, but he’s careful not to reveal too much. This isn’t the same kind of memoir that Stanley Hauerwas wrote in Hannah’s Child. We hear some of the pathos, but we really don’t see how the pastorate affected family life, at least not too directly. We hear about some of the joys and the heartaches, the frustrations and the successes, but he’s judicious about what he shares.

We do learn that while he grew up in a Christian family and from early on took his faith and scriptures very seriously, he never took pastors very seriously — and never contemplated taking up this calling. Perhaps that’s because most of the pastors he encountered in the Assemblies of God church of his youth came and went from his church in the small Montana town of his youth, or it might be because his father didn’t hold them in high regard. There was one preacher who did catch his ear, and that was his mother who sang, told bible stories, and preached to the men of the nearby logging and mining camps, at least until she was silenced because of her gender.

Although not having any good role models or encouragement, he finds in his parents the kinds of resources that he would later draw upon, including a biblical imagination. Indeed, he credits his work in his father’s butcher’s shop for giving him a sense of the way religious life transpires. He was also formed by his education, much of which, at least early on, came from time spent at the local Carnegie Library, where he encountered writers from Kant to Dickenson. He would go on to university and study literature and philosophy, and later, still not sensing the call to the pastorate, he went to seminary in New York, and while in seminary he became a Presbyterian. What really drove Peterson was his love of learning, but the only school that rivaled the Carnegie library was John Hopkins University, where he studied Semitics under William Foxwell Albright.

His sense of calling changed after meeting his future wife, Jan. At the time they met, Peterson was studying Semitics intent on an academic career, but Jan harbored a sense of calling to be a “pastor’s wife” (remember this is the 1950s, before the opportunity for ordination was open to women in much of Protestantism),  and it was her sense of calling that led him to reconsider his own calling. After serving for a time as an associate minister, he answered a call to be the founding pastor of a new congregation in Bel Aire, Maryland. Being that this was the late 1950s, it grew rather quickly even though it met for two years in the basement of his house. He would serve this congregation until moving on to Regent College.

The bulk of the book tells the story of the experiences, both positive and negative, that he had as pastor of this congregation. We hear about the successes of the building project and the “Badlands” — an analogy taken from the Dakota Badlands he visited each year in his travels back to Montana from Maryland — that emerged post-building-project. He tells about encounters with parishioners and fellow clergy, including the ecumenical colleague group he met with for much of his ministry. We also learn about the struggles he had in trying to free his own congregation from grasp of American culture. He also tells how he integrated his writing into his broader ministry – something that is of great interest to me. I found it interesting that one of the clues for him that it was time to move on from the pastorate was discovering that he hadn’t written anything for a considerable period of time.

As he tells his own story he identifies a number of challenges that we all face in responding to this call to pastoral ministry. Among these challenges is the perception that leaders are people who get things done, and therefore the job of the pastor is to get things done. While it is true that there are things to be done, this isn’t the core of the pastoral calling, which is call attention to what is happening in the relationships of people with each other and with God. The vocation of pastoral ministry is something that “can’t be measured or counted, and often isn’t even noticed” (p. 5). This statement reminds me of the futility of enumerating ministry, as if God rewards pastors for the number of “calls” made. That isn’t meant to excuse sloth, it just is a reminder that ministry is more than numbers.

Peterson offers us a book full of much needed wisdom that is written with eloquence befitting an author of his stature. Still, and as much as I found this to be an important book for clergy to read, I also came away with mixed feelings. It’s hard to put my finger on what troubles me, but I think it might be tone. That is, while he’s telling his own story, at times I found the tone to be condescending and perhaps overly-spiritualized – almost as if he is using his story as a typology for how ministry should be engaged in. Perhaps that disdain with which he held pastors prior to his own call seeps in at points; of course, this could be more about me than Peterson. Still, there’s something about the tone of the book didn’t always sit well with me. That said, I still think this is a must read for clergy – and maybe for the churches they serve.

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