Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 320pp.
I just returned from a three day retreat on which I read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. I first encountered Peterson while in seminary. He had something of a cult following amongst certain students who seemed read everything he’d ever written and who, at the time, struck me as little odd in the extent of their devotion.
I have since come to find in Peterson’s writing a sanity that is helpful at the times I most despair of my vocation. In fact, it was The Contemplative Pastor that called me out of law school and back into the church, actually the parachurch, having almost abandoned pastoring before I even began.
I appreciate Peterson, but I don’t consider myself a fanboy. To this day, The Contemplative Pastor is his only book that really has connected with me in any significant way. I appreciate the magnitude of the task, but I’ve never really liked The Message. Peterson’s is a unique prose style, which can at times be laborious. I suppose he’s much like his pastor-theologian mentor Karl Barth. Enough of the dialectic already.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Pastor. At the end of the book, Peterson admits that memoir is not a genre that comes naturally to him. I agree. In many ways this book feels unnatural, forced. After all, I’d say that each of his books is a memoir (something that can be observed in the pages of The Pastor where we meet the circumstances of life and ministry that brought each work into being).
The book at times gets a little preachy. Ironic, perhaps, since Peterson has such an aversion to the God talk that he claims marks many of his fellow clergy. It’s almost as if he’s trying just a little too hard to convince his contemporary pastor-readers of the folly of their ways. Would that they (we) would hear and heed him! However, at times I found myself thinking: “Easy Eugene. I got it: you don’t like numbers…people are souls. Yep, let’s move on.”
There is, however, pure gold in The Pastor. Writing about his “company of pastors,” fellow clergy he met with weekly for more than twenty years:
…we were tired of letting people who were not pastors tell us what we should or should not be doing as pastors. The sociologists and the academics, the psychologists and business executives, the talk-show gurus and religious entrepreneurs had all had their say about us long enough.
I remember reading the LinkedIn profile of a former pastor. It read, “non-profit management professional.” My heart sank. Perhaps this man was seeking a way to exit pastoral ministry, I don’t know. It may be that he thought that this was the closest “secular” description of his work. He might have a point.
There are so many things about the work of a pastor that are secondary that we make primary. Peterson excels in calling pastors to the heart of their vocation: living life with their congregations and guiding them in the Jesus-shaped life. That’s pastoring. Not every pastor will be as fortunate as Peterson in shaping their life and work. It takes a lot of discipline to emulate Peterson’s “unbusy pastor.” I’m not even sure the extent to which Peterson himself succeeded. Where he succeeds, and I suppose it has been the mark of his ministry, is in helping us imagine what it could look like and that is no small thing.
More on that later.