Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have an idea, but that’s about it. Some might think it rather odd that I am a pastor and yet I have only a rough sketch of what it means to be a pastor. Indeed, most of what I know about this calling has come from piecing together what I see at work in Scripture, my personal experience with my former pastors and congregations, and the exploratory writing of fellow pastors. Eugene Peterson has been a particularly helpful guide for me. His book Working the Angles has been seminal in shaping my idea of what a pastor does. His most recent book, however, The Pastor: A Memoir is a different sort than he’s written before. Here, the premier pastoral theologian of our time tells his story as “Pastor Pete.” It is a warm and poetic personal account of his journey to becoming a pastor and what such work entails. It is just one pastor’s story, but it is a story that ought to give shape to how the contemporary church defines the idea of “Pastor.”
Eugene begins with his experience of pastors as people who ran churches but were rarely interested in God. Based on this experience he never thought he would be a pastor. He candidly describes his perception of the pastors, “For me, being a pastor was what you did when you couldn’t do anything else, one step up the ladder from being unemployed” (81). So, he pursued academics. Yet something happened to him along the way. He discovered Scripture. Despite growing up in a home that was saturated with the Bible in daily reading and memorization he had never really encountered the living word. He describes his young perception of Scripture, “More often than not it was a field of contention, providing material for truths that were contested by warring factions. Or it was reduced to rules and principles that promised to keep me out of moral potholes. Or, and this was worst of all, it was flattened into clichés and slogans and sentimental godtalk intended to inspire and motivate” (84-85). Yet as he sat in a seminary classroom Scripture came alive for the first time.
Thankfully, his encounter with the word was not limited to the seminary classroom. Despite his pursuit of academics, his seminary required church field work. Though he asked the dean for an exemption since he didn’t plan to be a pastor, he was told that the requirement was not about “vocational training.” Rather, it was intended to keep students grounded “using ordinary language with ordinary people.” As the dean put it, “Unrelieved intellectual work, especially theological intellectual work, can shrivel your soul” (85). He discovered the deep preaching of George Buttrick and Harry Emerson Fosdick. In the process, he was introduced to the writing of Karl Barth in conversation with a non-practicing Jew. Barth just happens to be the quintessential pastor’s theologian. In Barth, the young academic discovered a book that fit Kafka’s criteria, “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?…A book must be like an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (90). Buttrick, Barth and the Bible were hammering on Peterson’s skull and breaking the frozen sea inside of him.
Despite his new perception of scripture and theology, Peterson was still committed to academic biblical study until he met his wife, Jan. As he describes it, “I was going to write books for people I would never meet. She was going to cook meals for family and friends, and for strangers who would be strangers no longer” (98). Peterson completed his PhD (all but dissertation) under the premier scholar of Hebrew Bible at the time, W. F. Albright at Johns Hopkins. He then returned to his former seminary to teach. Then, while reading Scripture in the sharp contrasts of congregation and classroom his perspective changed again. As he describes it,
I was beginning to feel that the classroom was too easy. The room was too small and orderly to do justice to the largeness of the subject matter—the extravagance of the beauty, the exuberance of the language. Too much was excluded from the classroom—too much life, too much of the world, too much of the students, the complexities of relationships, the intricacy of emotions. The classroom was too tidy. I missed the texture of the weather, the smell of cooking, the jostle of shoulders and elbows on a crowded sidewalk. [. . .] Salvation was not a reference traced down in a concordance. Every act of sin and every event of salvation involved a personal name in a grammar of imperatives and promises in a messy community of friends and neighbors, parents and grandparents, none of whom fit a stereotype. (21-22)
Imagine that. Scripture came alive in a classroom, but ultimately moved into the realities of everyday life. How sad it is when an artificial wedge is driven between study and street, when lexicons are abandoned in favor of “practical application.” Inversely, how incomplete studying Scripture is apart from the gritty realities of life intersecting with a glorious and gracious God.
The word “Pastor” is not found in the Bible, and yet it describes a fitting role of the church leader as a servant-shepherd. Peterson’s tale of what a Pastor ought to be is a compelling plea for an endangered species. As he sees it, “Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” (4). After an unlikely road to his vocation as a Pastor, Peterson began a church plant in suburban Maryland. So, he read the most recent books on ministry and discovered handbooks for “running an ecclesiastical business.” He admits, “I was astonished to learn in one of these best-selling books that the size of my church parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching” (112). He was even advised after the construction of a building, when congregational enthusiasm waned, that he should “start another building program” to rally the troops (202). Peterson knew they didn’t need another building, but this was the substitute for real discipleship – working harder at growing immature churches. Instead, Peterson spent six years toiling hard ground to cultivate spiritual growth that would foster real discipleship.
Peterson correctly observes that one of the major problems with pastoral work today is how it has been objectified and systematized into something manageable. He protests, “We cannot make an object of God: God is not a thing to be named. We cannot turn God into an idea: God is not a concept to be discussed. We cannot use God for making or doing: God is not a power to be harnessed” (186). Pastoral work is a profound mystery because it is concerned first and foremost with God and his activity among people. There is no sure-fire method to connect people with the living God apart from God’s involvement. Yet churches routinely employ strategies and plans to meet goals and build programs. All the while thinking God is pleased with their improvement on his otherwise ineffective public relations campaign. In the process we trade the mystery of God for the convenience of something measurable. We pull out our oars and row to get things done, rather than putting up sails and waiting for the wind of the Spirit to blow.
Peterson’s lively tale cannot be dismissed as a harangue against big churches. Nor is he opposed to programs. He describes his own logic in implementing home-based “covenant groups” as a means to deepen relationships with fellow believers and listen to God in Scripture and prayer (256). His problem is not with creating programs, but with measuring a church in terms of its programs. “A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. [. . .] Treating souls for whom Christ died as numbers or projects or resources seemed to me something like a sin against the Holy Spirit” (255). Pastors are concerned with God and people not getting things done.
Right from the outset, Peterson is careful to avoid falling prey to his own critique. He is adamant that there is no clear plan to becoming a pastor. “I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. [. . .] I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in an actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives—these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor” (5-6). Thus, Peterson tells his specific story. He provides a reminiscence of what God did in his life as a pastor. It is a story lived out of the firm conviction that the God of the Bible is still very much at work. As he saw it, his vocation as a pastor was to pay attention and call those placed in his care to the work and wonder of God. That’s his idea of a pastor.
I have an idea of what it means to be a pastor, but that’s all.