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Book Review: The Pastor by Eugene H. Peterson

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.

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