Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: The Pastor by Eugene Peterson

Along the way, I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, 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. - Eugene Peterson, The Pastor
Months ago, I had coffee with a older colleague who is nearing retirement age. He's been in his current call for over 15 years, and during that time has led incredible transformation in that church. As far as I can see, his congregation is engaged and energized in the ministry that he has cultivated there, which has included an embrace of emerging worship and technologies, a sense of mission in their surrounding suburban community, and an inclusive welcome of a diversity of people.

As I recall, I was there that afternoon to pick his brain about how he'd been able to lead this change and how he'd been able to stay long enough for such things to take place. I paid for my coffee, sat down across from him, prepared myself to ask about his ministry. But before I could utter a single word, he said, "Well, I've about had it." What followed was a long unloading of things he'd still like to see change, his problems with the institutional church, his pining for retirement. Eventually, he came to the state of the American church in general: his perception that it has become caught up in the wrong sorts of concerns, his reading of its continued decline, and the changing role of the pastor in the midst of it. It was during this part of his ruminations that he said something to the effect of, "Given what the church is going to face over the next couple decades, I'm glad I'm about to get out."

I don't recall talking too much during this meeting. Here I was wanting to engage him in what had made his latest pastorate life-giving, fulfilling, and long, and instead I was privy to a long monologue about being ready to leave pastoral ministry behind. The afternoon was one of learning, just not in the way that I'd expected. And it was perhaps his statement about the coming years facing the church and the pastoral vocation that stood out to me the most. What will being a pastor mean in the next 10, 20, 30 years? How will it be done? What will it look like?

When I took my sabbatical last May, Eugene Peterson was one of my companions in the form of his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant. In that book, he laments the transformation of the pastoral vocation by many into that of CEO, or entertainer, or self-help guru. He offers what to many may seem like an alternative vision, one simpler and less glamorous than those other adopted models, one that points to God in the everyday and the mundane. He learned this vision while serving as pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Baltimore for almost 30 years. His memoir, The Pastor, is largely the story of how he learned it.

Peterson doesn't immediately start at his pastorate, however. He begins much earlier with his origins in small-town Montana where his mother preached to coal miners and his father ran a butcher shop. He identifies those early people and places that helped set the groundwork for his discovery of his call, the instillation of a passionate faith by his mother and the groundedness in the everyday by his father. He tells of his father's coworker, a cousin, two missionaries, and others who in some way helped him discover his calling even if he hadn't always recognized that that was what was happening. Eventually, he tells of his enrolling in a New York seminary much to his surprise, but with intentions to teach. He describes his resistance to any notion of becoming a pastor, whether due to the advice of others or to his own stubborn insistence that he'll be anything but one.

Again, much to his surprise, Peterson became one. It had taken him a long time, but at some point during his stint as an adjunct professor at his alma mater as well as an associate pastor in a large New York congregation, he fully embraced the notion that he's called to be a pastor. Shortly after this, he was encouraged to plant a church in suburban Baltimore. And here began a duel discovery not only of what his pastoral identity actually meant, but what it means to be a church as well. He writes, "It had taken me a long time to arrive at the realization that pastor is who I am and, without being aware of it, always have been. But my realization of the nature of congregation as my primary workplace lagged behind my sense of pastoral identity. Why the lag time? Maybe because I hadn't had the long development in understanding congregation that I had had in becoming a pastor."

The bulk of the book, accounting for nearly 30 years, is that developed understanding, which intertwines with his continued understanding of what a pastor is. Peterson takes the reader through a history of Christ the King and his place in it, as he and his wife Jan move to Baltimore and start a church in their basement (he repeatedly alludes to he and Jan having a ministry together, and seems to subscribe to an older view of what a pastor's wife is and does). Lovingly nicknaming this church start "Catacombs Presbyterian Church" as a reference to the earliest Christians meeting in catacombs, Peterson introduces us to some of the characters he meets along the way, both inside and outside this venture: the boisterous high school girl who actually gave him the idea for the catacomb name, the woman who often sings in worship but can't hit the high notes, the older man who falls asleep whenever he gets anxious, the young guy who seems to offer nothing but critiques of Peterson's pastoral style and preaching content. These are but some of the particulars in which he ministers, which he repeatedly acknowledges he can't and won't abandon.

Peterson also describes his exploration of what the pastoral vocation is. This is a constant search for him as he builds up this fledgling congregation. One constant help in this area is a group calling themselves the Company of Pastors, a group of 20 or more clergy who meet every Tuesday. While perhaps many clergy attend or know of at least one group like this that supports one another, swaps war stories, compares numbers, or shares gripes, this group quickly becomes something else: a community that asks the question, "What is a pastor?" In asking, they decide to explore the question in a way that doesn't see the workplace as an adversary or as something to wrestle into submission. Instead, they begin cultivating a different understanding, one apart from American competitiveness and pastor as The Guy Who Gets Things Done. In this group begins Peterson's exploration of pastor instead as one who points out where God is, who calls people to attention to the divine in the midst of their harried, exhausted, boring, or insulated lives. This understanding permeates the rest of the book, through his continued interactions with parishioners who come and go, through the congregation's plan to construct a building, through his burgeoning writing career. Peterson constantly and consistently resists more recent models of pastoral ministry, calling instead for something more humble and contextual.

I recognized multiple stories in this book, as he also shares them in Under the Predictable Plant. I didn't mind reading them again, as I found most of them humorous or helpful the first time. However, this time around they are shared in the midst of when he first discovered the truth behind them. At the same time, he reminds the reader that such discoveries are contextual, that the way one pastor discovers who he or she is cannot be duplicated, that ministry is done in the muck and dirt of the particulars of place, and there is no other way.

This can be a hard truth to hear, as it'd be so much easier if pastoral ministry could just be applied in a single way in all contexts. Instead, pastors come to people at specific moments in their lives, in a mix of illnesses, anxieties, joys, heartaches, resistances, and challenges, and it's part of the pastoral calling to embrace them in that moment. It is inevitable; it can't be avoided. The Pastor is a story of building a church and a congregation, but it is also a story of building a vocation. Peterson does both at the same time. And just as he and the people he serves build a church on a certain piece of land in a certain neighborhood, Peterson builds his understanding of his call among certain people, and recognizes that this is the only way that it can be done.

I don't know what the future of the church holds. Obviously my colleague saw some things coming that he doesn't want to deal with. Whatever the church is going to face and however pastors are going to need to understand themselves in the midst of it, whatever being a pastor will mean for the rest of my working life, it will come from experience, the particulars of place, and learning by doing. In that sense, Peterson's tale is common to all pastors willing to do that work of exploration and to accept a view of ministry apart from traditional American understandings of success, competition, and accomplishment. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived and develops, as Peterson notes, will be unique to each of us.