From the Shepherd’s Nook, with John Frye

From the Shepherd’s Nook, with John Frye September 14, 2012

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.

"I've taken classes with Walton and dialogued with him on the nature of Scripture. He ..."

Reviewing Pete Enns: Saving the Bible, ..."
"I don't know we can identify each household by ethnicity. Weak for Paul would be ..."

Reading Romans — Backwards? Why?
"I was surprised to find that this overview contained so few references to science and ..."

Pastors Reading Charles Taylor
"Trying to read backwards, two questions pop up.Probably five housechurches are mentioned, but only one ..."

Reading Romans — Backwards? Why?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is why I’m still a pastor and comfortable saying it. This post was encouraging to read in the midst of all the discussion reacting against the role of a pastor. Thanks for this.

  • I must have read this book at least a half a dozen times and it never occurred to me that spiritual direction is the antithesis of Bible exposition, CEO, apostle etc. thank you for the insight.

    John, one question; how does the vocation of pastor stand over the gifts listed in Ephesians? The most common push back I get is that Peterson’s definition is outdated and myopic.

    Personally I admire EHP’s insistent pushback aganist the over definition of the pastoral vocation by qualifying adjectives. I grow weary of those who try to make me something other than a pastor. I am encouraged that he has is able to do it. I just hope I can too.

  • Mark,
    I opined on your question in a previous post– the five fold gifts.

  • Yes I remember that now, but I felt there had been some push back on that idea. People often ask why pastor is more important. I liked the idea that is was descriptive not prescriptive.

  • Mark,
    If you’ll go to my blog, you will see the whole series of posts so far on “the pastor.” I do touch on why “pastor” seems to get top billing. If you look at Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20), who undoubtedly represented multiple gifts, and Peter’s words to his fellow elders who also had multiple giftings we assume (1 Peter 5), the controlling word for their local church ministries was “be shepherds” of God’s flock. It seems the term “pastor” and “pastoring’ (being shepherds) is NOT just a gift, but a descriptive calling of church leaders. The term “shepherd” caught the imagination of the church because of the word’s reference to God as Shepherd (e.g. Isaiah 40) and to Jesus’ use of the word as a title for himself (John 10).

  • RJS


    Pastor does mean spiritual direction to me. Father (or mother), or oldest sibling even, of a local gathering of God’s people would be a related image, which is also the kind of image I attach to shepherd. The central focus is on people and discipleship.

    But I also think teaching (Biblical exposition) and counseling are important parts of spiritual direction. So I wouldn’t cut these apart from the term. Apostolic entrepreneurship, CEO, and religious shop-keeping could be severed though.

    It is discouraging that Mark experiences the reaction that EHP’s vision is myopic and outdated.

  • RJS,
    I just meant we cannot reduce pastoral ministry to Bible exposition or counseling. I agree that those are important aspects of pastoral work.

  • RJS

    Thanks John, I assumed you meant something like that.

    Anyway – I think we desperately need more pastors of the kind you describe. I am heartened that Gabe Lyons had EHP as the main guest at Q ideas. Perhaps we will see an impact among younger pastors.

  • I am retired after a mid-life career an associate pastor. I am currently reading this book and loving it, but I surely hope there is room in EHP’s (and your) vocabulary for one adjective at least, cuz I liked being an associate. Very much.