I love older pastors. They are a unique gift to the church and especially to younger pastors. This is why I was curious to read The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson. This book is a glimpse into the life and ministry of this man who, although he pastored over 30 years and wrote many books, is best known as the author of the biblical paraphrase, The Message.
The Pastor is an easy to read, autobiographical account of one man’s journey in realizing his calling to be a pastor and the constant progression of life’s events that helped bring him to that place. Hence, the catch phrase of the book is “Every step an arrival.” The book begins with his childhood, family life, and living in what the author refers to as the “sacred ground” of Montana—a place to which he comes back throughout his life for rest and reflection. The storyline progresses into his early years of adulthood where his aspirations were to be a professor and teach languages. Peterson’s life took, however, an unexpected, abrupt turn as he came to realize he was to be a pastor, through a series of pivotal events and influential relationships. This brought him to the place of not just pastor, but church planter in the growing suburbs of Bel Air, Maryland where he pastored the church he planted for the next 30 years.
Three helpful lessons for pastoral ministry from this book:
There were several aspects of Peterson’s memoirs that prove beneficial to pastors serving in the trenches of pastoral ministry. Every pastor would do well to embrace and apply these lessons, regardless the kind of church or ministry you serve:
Be resistant to the consumer mindset of church.
Many of us reject the idea that tricks and novelty can in any way build a church, especially a healthy one. Peterson’s life-long rejection of this idea to appeal to the consumer to build a church made him a bit of a renegade in the prime of his ministry and is undeniable throughout the book. His conviction that Christ’s church should not look like the world is an important caution and should be heeded by those who are intensely focused on one primary generation in the church or who might be driven by consumerism in a more subtle form than they realize.
Realize pastoral ministry is largely about connecting with people.
One of the prevalent disconnects that exists on most seminary campuses is the one of theology and practicality. This disconnect will continue as these students take their first pastorates if they do not learn at some point what Peterson knew from the beginning and he faithfully held fast to throughout his ministry. The most engaging characteristic of this book is the way Peterson vividly describes his interactions with the different kinds of people he had met. These interactions helped mold him as a pastor and his understanding of pastoral ministry. The content of the book can be summarized by the people he knew, the experiences he had with them, and how those experiences made him the pastor he is. This book reflects that Peterson got something about ministry really right, and proved he knew what so many still need to learn. Pastoral ministry is largely about people and our long-term invest to care for them.
Growth as a pastor comes through trial and error.
Peterson emphasized that pastoral growth comes, not through further education or finding that niche of pragmatism, but from the way God uses our experiences in ministry to mature us, teach us, and make us wiser than before. This message from this seasoned man needs to be heard by every young aspiring pastor who thinks that next degree or popular conference is what will make them a faithful pastor, when some of the best pastoral preparation is to roll up your sleeves, get dirty and messy, and learn as you minister to God’s people.
Three concerns when reading The Pastor:
I cautiously refer to these critiques as “concerns,” not to be disrespectful to my senior in the ministry who has seen and done much more than I. These concerns are only birthed from my reading of this book and are not based on a fuller evaluation of Peterson’s well-known ministry:
Be careful that your calling and ministry is evaluated by Scripture, not experience.
Although there is merit in the way God prepares a man for ministry through his experiences, Peterson placed an uncomfortable amount of focus on experience as that which identifies a pastor, instead of the biblical qualifications clearly mapped out for us in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9, 1 Peter 5:1–4). In fact, the book ironically entitled, The Pastor, was eerily silent on the issues of internal and external calling in Scripture. According to this volume, which recounts Peterson’s personal experience and call as a pastor, calling is to be evaluated based on the happenstances of life instead of Scripture. Be careful that you do not evaluate your calling, pursuit of pastoral ministry, or your level of faithfulness in ministry by your experience alone.
Be discerning about your associations in pastoral ministry.
Peterson spoke of the value of networking and partnering with other pastors for the sake of fellowship, instruction, and encouragement, a concept with which I would heartily agree. My concern came from what seemed to be a lack of discernment in his doctrinally broad spectrum of associations. In regard to this “company of pastors” Peterson writes, “Theologically we covered the spectrum, from Christian to Jew, from conservative to liberal, and nearly every shade in between. This diversity did not divide us” (pg. 149).
He goes on to describe the most helpful counsel often came from the Jewish Rabbi as he instructed the Christian pastors. We can disagree with many issues of doctrine and practice and still benefit from a band of brothers who shepherd God’s people. However, we must draw certain lines in the sand of association, first of which should come when a pastor is not faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Peterson accounts of clearly crossing that line all throughout his memoirs whether it be learning ministry from a Jewish Rabbi or a monk in a monastery. Be discerning of your pastoral associations for if the gospel is compromised, there is nothing of any eternal significance around which to associate.
Beware of theological ambiguity for the sake of mass appeal.
I was puzzled to read a 300+ page book on the memoirs of a pastor and come to the end with no idea of any substantial theological convictions Peterson possesses. That does not mean he lacks them, but after reading this book I am concerned they are not as pronounced as they should be coming from an older pastor reflecting on his life-long ministry. Although Peterson is very anti-consumer church, he also possesses a theological ambiguity that seems to be for pragmatic reasons. My hope in reading the memoirs of an older, well-known, and experienced pastor would be to rejoice with him in the great doctrines of the faith that have sustained him through all the challenges and difficulties of the trench work of pastoral ministry. Unfortunately, I could not.
Pastors, make sure as we reflect back on our own ministries that not just our experiences with our flock come to our minds. A confidence in God’s sovereignty, the hope of justification by faith alone in Christ, and the unchangeable attributes of our great God could never be absent as we share about those experiences, especially, if you are that unique gift of an older pastor.