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ROMANCING THE PASTORATE – A RESPONSE TO EUGENE PETERSON”S “The Pastor: A Memoir”

As most of you know, Eugene Peterson passed away on October 22, 2018. He was certainly a distinguished evangelical leader for many years, and positively influenced many people in the course of his life. He espoused the traditional view of “the pastor,” yet candidly admitted to the many problems encamped around it. In my 2011 book, The Pastor Has No Clothes, I wrote the following thoughts about his book, The Pastor: A Memoir.

ROMANCING THE PASTORATE: A Response to Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne, 2011, 320pp.)

We would expect a well-written book from Eugene Peterson, and it is a great read. It chronicles the author’s life as a pastor, and highlights the various experiences he had as time elapsed that enhanced his growth as a church leader. This is a memoir—Eugene is assuming, not trying to establish, the propriety and necessity of “the pastor” as a starting point, and then unfolds his life as it fits into this long-standing tradition. His personal narrative provides an opportune springboard to reflect on life’s revelations, and to critique the institution of “the pastor.”

Montana

Peterson speaks fondly of his upbringing in rural Montana.

This place has provided a protected space and time to become who I am. It has been a centering and deepening place of prayer and meditation, reflection and understanding, conversation and reading (p.11).

I identify with these sentiments, for I spent most of my summers, from the ages of ten to eighteen, on the northwest Kansas farm of my mother’s parents. My most cherished childhood memories are rooted in my wanderings on the land, and the experiences of the sounds, the smells, the people, the animals, and the sunsets found in Smith County, Kansas. The water was drawn from a pump on the front porch, and the calls of nature were answered in an outhouse. Life here added valuable dimensions to the life of a young man used to the city-life around Los Angeles, California!

His Mother Preached

Eugene recalls how his mother’s preaching and storytelling helped forge his imagination when, from the age of three to six, this then twenty-three year old woman took him as her chaperone to Sunday night meetings in various locations. Rough loggers and miners came to sing, hear her proclaim biblical stories, and have her pray for them. These men—never a woman in the audience—would openly weep, “honking into their red bandannas, wiping their tears without embarrassment” (p.28).

When Eugene was six, the meetings stopped because his sister was born.

I heard the best preaching of my lifetime those nights—and the most colorful cursing…. Later, when I was a teenager, I asked her why she never started up the Sunday night meetings again. She told me that a man, having learned of what she was doing, confronted her after Sunday-morning worship in our church with an open Bible and read to her: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” She kept silent…. By the time she was intimidated into silence, she had achieved something formative and lasting in me, an artesian spring of song and story (p.33).

Here, again, poor translation from Greek to English lays waste to heart-felt service; the Greek word used in 1 Timothy 2 is heseuchia, which does not mean “silence” but “quietness.” The same word is used in 1 Timothy 2:2 where Paul suggests that goal for all believers is to lead a “quiet” life. In What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2, I develop a more accurate interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, showing how the Paul’s purpose here is not to silence female participation.

The American Brand of Religion

Throughout the book Peterson displays a marked disdain, to his credit, for the “American way” in religion, which caters to “rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed” (p.4). He saw how the church was viewed as “an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers and make them happy” and as “a business opportunity that would cater to the consumer tastes” (p.111). “Entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation were conspicuous in high places…. Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church’” (p.254).

Not A Pretty Picture

There can be little doubt that Eugene’s Montana up bringing did not inspire much respect for pastors. The ones ministering in the sectarian church his family attended “seemed marginal to the actual business of living,” and “outside of the morning our family spent with them each Sunday, none—there was one significant exception—seemed particularly interested in God” (p.3). Along these same lines, throughout the book Peterson notes concerning problems at work in the traditional pastorate:

** “Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins” (p.4).

** “Many pastors, disappointed or disillusioned with their congregations, defect after a few years and find more congenial work…. In the fifty years that I have lived the vocation of pastor, these defections and dismissals have reached epidemic proportions in every branch and form of church” (p.5).

** “I couldn’t see that God or place—holy God, sacred place—was a significant consideration in forming a pastoral identity in America” (p.13)

** “As I entered adolescence, I began to get the feeling that God, except for the time they talked about him on Sunday, was not high on their agenda. They were pretty full of themselves” (p.71).

** “Tim said, ‘Eugene, did you see us talking, the way she was talking—that intensity? I wish I could do that kind of thing all day, every day. Every time I come in here and there are no customers, she wants to talk about prayer and her life.’ ‘So why don’t you do it—have conversations like that?’ ‘Because I have to run this damn church’…. Why did he find the diner a more hospitable venue for being a pastor than the church?” (p.145).

** Pastors “were lonely, and sometimes angry that they were lonely” (p.149).

** “We were seeing pastors left and right abandoning their vocations and taking jobs” (p.165).

** “We talked together about the dangers of being a pastor in America, where the magnificent church, like the magnificent Rocky Mountains, ‘has twenty different ways to kill you’” (p.211).

** “I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture” (p.242).

** “One evening after dinner, Karen—she was five years old at the time—asked me to read her a story. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Karen, but I have a meeting tonight.’ ‘This is the twenty-seventh night in a row you have had a meeting.’ She had been keeping track, counting” (p.225).

“The Pastor”

While Peterson freely confesses the numerous concerns connected to being a pastor, he nevertheless has sought to structure and live out his life with the pastoral vocation as his template. For him, everything of importance boils down to “pastor and congregation”—more accurately, “pastor/pastor’s wife and congregation” (pp.28-29, 114, 116, 151). Eugene sees himself in the flow of “our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition” (p.5).

Certainly, this ever-present practice has taken various shapes over the course of post-apostolic history. But it must be asked; can the assumption that every local church must have an ordained pastor be validated in the NT? Repeatedly in the book Peterson expresses a desire to walk in a biblically informed manner—“I wanted my life, both my personal and working life, to be shaped by God and the Scriptures and prayer,” (p.5; cf. pp. 3, 6, 21, 107, 151, 183, 227, 286).

However, in the pages of the NT there is absolutely nothing about the centrality and indispensability of “the pastor” who occupies a vocation, which fulfills the following activities described by Peterson:

** “Who else in the community other than the pastor has the assigned task of greeting men and women and welcoming them into a congregation…?” (p.137).

** “The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity” (p.157).

** “I had a role that was recognizable as pastor: I led worship and preached on Sunday, I visited the sick and distraught, I administered the affairs of the congregation, I prayed with and for people” (p.189).

** “I had initiated the prayers on the congregation’s Sunday Sabbath” (p.221).

** “These men and women, I think without exception, know the difference between dealing with alcoholism as a problem, which they are doing in their recovery, and living a life of faith in Christ as a gift and accepting me as their pastor as they do it” (p.263). “In a few months she became a Christian and I became her pastor” (p.271).

** “Every Sunday after a morning of leading my congregation in worship, I walked the quarter of a mile home” (p.273).

** “There is a long tradition in the church’s life that the pastoral vocation consists in preparing people for a ‘good death’” (p.289).

How, then, could this vocational agenda be discovered from reading the NT? The only specific biblical allusion Eugene offers in the book for “the pastor” is a real stretch.

A few weeks into teaching the course [on Revelation], I began imagining myself with John of Patmos as a pastor. John, doing his work on the prison island of Patmos, was exiled from the seven congregations that he served as a pastor…. I realized that John’s vocation as pastor was not confined to those seven sermons addressed to his miniscule congregations, but got expressed in the urgency and sovereignty and beauty and drama that pervaded the entire book…. Pastor John of Patmos provided the biblical DNA that gave me my identity as pastor” (pp.19-20, 237).

This imaginative reasoning is slim pickings upon which to build the entire superstructure of “the pastor” doctrine! There is no explicit evidence that John was “the pastor” of the seven congregations mentioned in Revelation 2 & 3. It is yet another case where Peterson, like so many others, “reads” modern practice into the NT text by suggesting Christ’s words to these seven churches were “sermons” by John.

Peterson’s pillar comes tumbling down when we recall that in Acts 20 Paul called for the “elders” (plural) of the ekklesia (singular) in Ephesus—the first city addressed in Revelation 2:1-7. Clearly, the Ephesian church had no one person functioning as “the pastor.” “The pastor” as defined by Eugene in his book simply is not to be found in the NT documents. Yet visible Christianity has become anchored to the concept and physical presence of clergy or “the pastor.” We must re-visit the foundations of church practice as we know it.

Clergy/Laity

Peterson purports that “one of the achievements of the Protestant Reformation was a leveling of the ground between clergy and laity” (p.280). This is a historically inept assumption and a most misleading statement at several levels. First, the Protestant Reformers all strongly insisted upon and advocated for the division between clergy and laity; they just wanted Protestant clergy to be in charge instead of the former Roman Catholic leadership. They wanted their own pulpit to be the center point instead of the sacramental altar table.

Secondly, in theory the Protestant conception of the “priesthood of all believers” was essentially individualistic wherein a believer had direct access to Christ and the scriptures with no need for human mediators. In practice, this was almost always enormously diluted by the insistence upon their own preeminent ‘pastoral’ leadership, which, in turn, meant they could not develop the corporate dimension of the priesthood because of the inordinate attention given to the clergy, and the distinction between the ordained and non-ordained. In reality, the NT the terms “clergy” (Greek: kleros) and “laity” (Greek: laos) both apply to the same group—all of God’s people without distinctions.

Christ In All the Scriptures

Eugene makes some great points regarding how the Bible is approached and handled. As a lad growing up he admits that he was not “fond of it,” and was actually “bored with it” (p.84).

More often than not it was a field of contention, providing material for truths that were contested by warring factions. Or it was reduced to rules and principles that promised to keep me out of moral potholes. Or, and this was the worst of all, it was flattened into clichés and slogans and sentimental god talk intended to inspire and motivate…. Until now, I and all the people I associated with had treated the Bible as something to be used—used as a textbook with information about God, used as a handbook to lead people to salvation, used as a weapon to defeat the devil and all his angels, used as an antidepressant (pp.84-85).

First and foremost, the Scriptures are about the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—“Moses wrote about me.” As Isaac Watts penned, “But in Your written Word/ The volumes of my Father’s grace/ Does all my griefs assuage/ Here I behold my Savior’s face in every page.” “Therefore,” Martin Luther asserted, “he who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it.”

The Early Church

Peterson acknowledges that “the first three centuries of Christian churches were cave churches—unobtrusive house churches and catacombs” (p.170). It seems this fact’s significance is usually glossed over as if it stands as an irrelevant footnote for us. I would like to suggest that a pattern of Christ-centered simplicity unfolds in the NT. Jesus desires for himself to be expressed through his body in this age, (cf. Eph. 3:10). Eugene notes that “all the great realities that we can’t touch or see take form on ground that we can touch and see” (p.12). I agree, which means that—to a watching world—the invisible heavenly realities on earth can only be seen in the properly functioning body of Christ—where all parts work together, not just a select few paid staff.

Peterson rightly points out that “the way we learn something is more influential than the something we learn. No content comes into our lives free-floating: it is always embedded in a form of some kind” (p. 33). It would seem that the primary way we grow in Christ’s body is through communicating Christ with one another in an open atmosphere. It is universally agreed by communication experts that a monologue is the worst possible way to learn. Even Eugene concedes, “we don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library…or by going to church and singing and listening to sermons” (p. 230). Yet the sermon form yields the practical result of shutting down the open “every-part” participation vital to our growth and to our witness (cf. John H. Yoder, “The Rule of Paul,” Body Politics, Herald Press, 1992, pp.61-70).

The Pastor Not Noticed?

Eugene suggests this goal: “You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way” (p.292). If this is truly carried to its logical conclusion, then the pastoral system is unfortunately dysfunctional, since it is designed to cultivate and foster attention and dependence on one part: “the pastor.” Which is why it is almost impossible to keep this vocation healthy for any meaningful length of time—it requires one person to bear the brunt of church vision, growth, and health, which is an impossibility. The nature of the beast makes sure one person is either a hero or a scapegoat. Neither seems to reflect Jesus’ will for his bride.

A Marginal Minority

A most profound insight arrives from Peterson in his persuasion that smallness not largeness will be most effective in forwarding Christ’s kingdom.

“[I came to] a developing conviction that the most effective strategy for change, for revolution—at least on the large scale that the Kingdom of God involves—comes from a minority working from the margins…that a minority people working from the margins has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the non-community, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America” (p.16).

It is my heart-felt conviction that this marginal minority will penetrate our alienated, wounded, impersonal culture best with forms outside of the institutional church. The traditional pastor-centered form is just not going to cut it—from a biblical or pragmatic perspective. As Eugene asked after his pastor friend was frustrated about being pulled from real service to people “because I have to run this damn church” —why did he find the diner a more hospitable venue for being a pastor than the church?

—Jon Zens, April, 2011

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