Eugene Peterson, Please Forgive Me

I have described Eugene Peterson, the author of the popular Bible paraphrase The Message, as a writer who never met a cluster of words he couldn’t hyphenate. Consider his paraphrase of Psalm 1:

How well God must like you—
    you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
    you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
    you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

That hyphenating tendency signifies one of Peterson’s signature traits as a Christian speaker and writer, and that is a relaxed grasp of the conventions of faith, especially the conventions of pastoral ministry.

I have never been a Peterson fan. Check that. I was a Peterson fan while I was considering pastoral ministry, during those several months when I was talking with peers about it, praying fervently about it, and reading everything from Buechner to LaMott pertaining to Christian vocation and call, including Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, a book that my pastor at the time enthusiastically endorsed.

Here’s an emblematic quote from that book:

How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

The Contemplative Pastor argued for an approach to church leadership that privileged solitary contemplation and reading over administration and the running of programs (I seem to remember the book urging pastors to spend hours every day reading, in particular, Dosteyevsky).

That worked for me. Long stretches of meditative reading and writing is what I longed to be doing. It’s what I imagined seminary must be. But once I started seminary I was relieved of that fantasy. And then, once I started working in churches, first as a seminary intern and then as an ordained Minister, I realized first hand just how out-of-step with Peterson’s vision of pastoral ministry the real world of mainline Protestant pastors was.

In those circles, The Contemplative Pastor was treated with a mixture of distant admiration (stressed out pastors whisping, “yeah, that would be nice”) and outright scorn, as if Peterson’s posture was not just unrealistic but unprofessional. I quickly become one of those who relegated Peterson to that chorus of voices I did not wish to listen to.

It’s been 11 years since I was ordained, and in that time I have served two churches and got myself involved with all kinds of work in presbyteries, synods, and other networks of church leaders, all while regarding The Contemplative Pastor as a model not for me. I have spent a decade in perpetual motion, learning the art of schedule juggling. I’m tired.

I think I want to give Peterson another chance.

Luckily for me, a very thoughtful colleague just yesterday left a copy of Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, on my desk.

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3 thoughts on “Eugene Peterson, Please Forgive Me

  1. I have had a more love/hate relationship with Peterson. For instance, I wonder if it is possible that there are different models for different people and contexts? Are all pastors called to lead people to still waters? Couldn’t it also be, “How can I lead people into the everyday world filled with injustice and conflict if I have never done the hard work of advocacy and reconciliation?” Maybe I am Pastor-as-CEO for a while because the context demands it. Another time I am Pastor-as-contemplative.

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