We will grapple with Eugene H. Peterson’s (EHP) taxonomy of pastor from the opening chapters of his book The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. The subtitle offers the huge clue: spiritual direction. Not Bible exposition, apostolic entrepreneurship, CEO, coaching, counseling, and religious shop-keeping.
What does “pastor” mean to you?
EHP opens with “A healthy noun doesn’t need adjectives.” He writes about “the naked noun.” For him, “pastor” is a virile, energetic term. “Pastor” doesn’t need propping up with adjectives. From his early years, the word “called to mind a person who was passionate for God and compassionate with people.” Yet, this strong noun has become weak, parodied and in need of supporting words. EHP finds himself refusing to let the anemic definitions foisted on the word by the culture define him. Why? “But if I, even for a moment, accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless.” In another place EHP writes that the pastor now seems as necessary as but no more threatening than the neighborhood grocer. With “pastor” rendered so amiable and harmless, EHP feels the need to call in some redefining words for a term almost on life support. Those adjectives are: unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic.
Earlier in the book, we have a transcript of Rodney Clapp’s interview with EHP about the church in USAmerica. Peterson said, “If you listen to a Solzhenitsyn or Bishop Tutu, or university students from Africa or South America, they don’t see a Christian land. They see something almost the reverse of a Christian land. … They see a lot of greed and arrogance. And they see a Christian community that has almost none of the virtues of the biblical Christian community, which have to do with a sacrificial life and conspicuous love. Rather, they see indulgence in feelings and emotions, and an avaricious quest for gratification.”
When George Barna started publishing his uneasy findings about the lack of Christian knowledge and almost non-existent Christian formation in the evangelical church, he discovered those findings among people who attended well-organized, Bible-teaching churches. Pastors were viewed primarily as “feed-my-sheep” communicators of Bible content. The assumption was that the reception of correct doctrine by people who sat “under the Word” would automatically create the expression of correct, Christ-following lives. “Preach the Word in season and out…” “Preach the whole counsel of God!” It was as if the Great Commission was “Preach the Word” not “Make disciples of all nations.” The church-at-large had become horribly ingrown and self-seeking.
Small groups came in vogue. Artificial, zip-code formulated communities studying fill-in-the-blank discipleship books—surely this will turn things around. A companion was added to the Sunday morning entertainment, the celebration (huge worship services). That companion was community (the template-driven small groups). Distinctive Christian living here we come! Yet, alas, large group celebration and small group community were not the magic bullet.
Over time many concluded, “It’s the pastor’s fault.” What is a pastor anyway? What happened to the other gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers? All kinds of new positions were pulled out of the hat: ruling pastors; teaching pastors; worship pastors; executive pastors; youth pastors, local outreach pastors; global missions pastors; and visitation pastors. Peterson would have none of this. He lamented the Saul’s armor baggage attached to pastor and the pastoral vocation. I don’t think EHP and I would ever deny that there are plenty of inadequate and incompetent pastors. Yet, rather than throwing out “pastor” altogether or welding “pastor” to every position in the church, EHP insisted on chipping off the hardened innovative cultural accretions on the very robust term “pastor.” EHP is passionate about the sheer force of the naked noun.
This year Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) and his, wife, Jan, were the main guests of Gabe Lyons’ Q-ideas sessions in New York City, February 28-29. Through the generosity of good friends, I was able to attend. I was struck by the attendance of many young, enthusiastic leaders who affirmed the steadfast vision that EHP offered for the pastor. I was one of the older attendees. EHP has weathered the storm of much contentious push-back on his vision of pastor, but his gracious, persistent voice is still strong and magnetic, kind and discerning. EHP is now the pastors’ pastor.