The Pastor – Eugene Peterson

Over half of my thirty years of pastoral ministry have been deeply marked by the refreshing vision of pastoral ministry embodied by Eugene Peterson and given expression in his books, particularly The Contemplative Pastor and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. His sense of pastoral vocation affirmed for me a focus on pastoral care and the weekly rhythms of congregational life. He came to me as a freeing mentor delivering me from ministry models majoring on ways to grow a church. His affirmation in many ways has saved me from burning out and giving up. His is a critical voice for those called to be ordinary pastors.

So when a friend recently mentioned that he was reading and enjoying Peterson’s 2011 memoir titled simply and profoundly The Pastor, my heart ached to read it. Perhaps I should have tempered my fan-boy expectations, for I came away disappointed and sadly unsatisfied.The pastor

Peterson is foremost a story-teller, and this book is best when he simply tells his story. When freed to tell his stories, he soars. But then he attempts to apply them or draw a moral from them, and the wind falls from beneath the wings. This is more an exposition of his pastoral theology with his life and that of his congregation serving as extended illustrations of the pedagogical purpose. There is a place to develop a pastoral theology. Just don’t call it memoir. It feels as if he has begun to no longer trust his reader to draw the lessons he feels can be learned from his life, and so he insists on telling, and not just showing, and this detracts from the whole.

But unquestionably the greatest flaw is the book’s lack of transparency. Too much is hidden and unsaid. This is fatal in a memoir.

The pastors I know struggle. We struggle with doubt, with disappointment, with anger, and we feel these things intensely. A pastor’s heart is often broken. We disappoint people, we make mistakes, we worry, we question, we hurt and are hurt. How can this book about a pastor’s life be genuine and real without stories of heartache and rejection? A pastor’s life without darkness does not sound like any pastor I know. The only glimpse we have of Peterson’s emotional life are the tears at his mother’s funeral.

Of course, ministry has joys as well. When he speaks of joy in ministry it comes across as clinical. He speaks of his writing, but he says nothing about the thrill of being published, nothing about the agony or prospects of rejection, nothing of his writing habits, little of the tension between his writing and his pastoral ministry. It’s all very theologized, and in fact, boring for those who want to know both what is it like to be Eugene Peterson and what it might be like to be a pastor who also writes.

The lack of honesty tilts to a kind of boasting which conflicts with the humility I’ve come to expect from Peterson. A number of the sections begin with his analysis of weakness in a pastoral model, or a way of ‘doing church’, and then proceeds to show how he, and his church, got it right. This is off-putting, and feels false.

But maybe he was different? I don’t think so. The final three pages of the book is a letter he wrote to a young pastor. Here alone, at the end, we see hidden references to the honesty lacking from the rest of the book. He speaks to this young pastor of not knowing what to do, of making mistakes, and of ‘faithless stretches’. This feels real, like the vocation I inhabit. But he says nothing more about it, and that is the glaring hole at the center of the book.

This is not a bad book. Eugene Peterson is not capable of writing a bad book. But it does not feel honest or true to its genre, and that makes it uninteresting, and that, in the end, makes me sad.


The Unthinkable

I recently ran across a five year old, but still relevant, article on clergy suicide. We wish those two words were never used together, but those who are in ministry understand the reality.

The article (which is now behind a pay wall) observes:

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture…creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others, they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Georgia, which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

I know the pressures. I know the culture. And I know the depression. And therefore I know as well how blessed I’ve been to have been befriended by other pastors who understand the pastoral world. To have such friendships is key to survival in ministry.

But I’ve also been blessed with caring congregants. Shortly after the high-profile suicide of a pastor here in Orlando, one member of the church I pastor determined to love me in a very concrete and highly unusual way. She found me at Starbucks and said she wanted to ask me a very hard question. She looked me in the eyes and asked if I’d had thoughts of killing myself.

That question is a bit shocking, and blunt, and necessary. I might have lied to her (I didn’t) but even if I had, the fact that someone loved me enough to ask the question might have been sufficient to draw me out.

Anything I post which calls for caring for pastors is going to come across as self-serving. But knowing the challenges of pastoral ministry, I know how important it is for pastors to be loved in hard ways like this. I know how important it is for people to pray for a pastor’s emotional health. And I know how important it is for pastors to seek out and find friends.

Note: Some time ago, a pastoral acquaintance (‘friend’ would be claiming too much) of mine, Petros Roukas, did take his own life. The sermon at the memorial service was preached by Dr. Bryan Chapell, then of Covenant Seminary. It is a paradigm for how one ought to handle such difficult situations. It’s a wonderful sermon which I commend to all. The text is found here. I can no longer find the audio on-line, but I have posted it in my dropbox, though I cannot guarantee how long it will remain.

Dark Night Rises

Eugene Peterson, in reflecting on the longing for intimacy with God, often elusive, of which I wrote yesterday, speaks these hopeful words:

“The appetites that God has created in us lead to the satisfactions he has promised.”

That is hopeful, but it does not promise immediate satisfaction. And so Peterson reflects on the role of pastoral ministry in guiding struggling Christians through what has been called such ‘dark nights’ of the soul. The counsel he gives pastors is applicable to all Christians as we come alongside of others who are struggling.

Too often all we know to offer those struggling spiritually are trite and simple “fixes” to their struggle of doubt and loneliness. Rather what they may need are friends comfortable with walking with them through the valley of the shadow doubt and even death. They need friends who understand that such spiritual struggles are not abnormal and cannot be rushed.

Peterson’s words are not only wise and refreshing, but counterintuitive in our technocratic age. It is good for us to hear them.

5 Smooth Stones

“The accounts of saints who tell of the ‘dark nights’ of the soul are familiar. Their search for God seems endless and futile, but is broken into by moments of ecstasy when they find (or our found by) the one they sought….”

“Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it. It does not attribute the agony of longing to a neurosis, it does not search for a cause in moral deficiency, it does not try to ‘cure’ it by working for an adaptive adjustment to ‘reality.’ It honors the quest. The difficult painful moments of unfulfilled longing are integral to the nature of the relationships.

“It is not the pastor’s job to simplify the spiritual life, to devise common-denominator formulas, to smooth out the path of discipleship. Some difficulties are inherent in the way of spiritual growth — to deny them, to minimize them, or to offer shortcuts is to divert the person from true growth. It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow.”

Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, pages 49-51

All the Least of These

I just finished reading Mike Beates’ helpful book Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace. The book is important and necessary, and is disarming in its direct honesty. It is a disturbing challenge to consider how the Christian church has successfully excluded the ‘different’ and the ‘imperfect’ from her community.

Disability and the gospel how god uses our brokenness to display his graceThe book stimulated two tangential thoughts which I think call for some more long term thinking.

Once again I’m struck with how God has used the non-Christian to shame the church. If any should be the champions of the weak and powerless, it should be Christians who have a deep appreciation for the gospel of grace. And yet the most forceful, effective and prophetic voices in fighting for accessibility in the broader culture have come not from Christians, but from those outside the church. Our blind spots have been legion (see slavery, civil rights, poverty). When will we have eyes to see the causes worth championing and the courage to champion them?

One cause that we have championed has been a concern for the unborn. But labor in this field, while producing local and individual victories, has not produced much in the way of a fundamental shift in public concern. After 40 years, abortion is still legal and prevalent.

And so I wonder if there is a connection between our embrace of the ’cause’ of life for the unborn and our lack of embrace of the actually disabled all around us. Causes are always easy to embrace, but broken people are not. Letter writing, petition signing and sign carrying are all fairly easy and antiseptic. But actually engaging our lives with those whose brokenness makes us uncomfortable is all so much more difficult.

Perhaps what this exposes is hypocrisy in our camp. We OUGHT to care passionately about the unborn and the women who carry them. But the reality of our caring is tested and measured by our lack of concern for the born, but different. Perhaps God withholds his blessing until we learn to love in deed all the least of these.

STUDY leave

I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter (@rg7878) my gratitude to the leadership of the church I pastor for granting me a week of study leave. That lead to a conversation with my sister last night in which she assumed that I was taking a week off relaxing at home.

Un, no. That’s not quite it.

Pastoral ministry happens in the course of life – through God’s work in my own life and through my day by day interaction and involvement in the lives and struggles and questions of others. Depth in pastoral ministry comes from study and reflection and prayer. I read recently of John Piper challenging pastors to get away and study, and suggesting that most congregations do not really understand the amount of emotional and mental and creative energy it requires to prepare sermons week after week after week. John Stott in his “Reflections of an Octogenarian” challenges pastors to set aside one hour/day, one day/month, and one week/year to isolate oneself for study. Bill Gates used a similar strategy to keep himself sharp when the head of Microsoft.

I like to joke with the seminary students who attend our church (Reformed Theological Seminary is two miles away) when they are complaining about writing a paper that they are pursuing a ‘career’ which will require writing a 4000-5000 word essay WEEKLY, due every Sunday at a particular hour, and there is no possibility for submitting it late. There is never enough time in a week to prepare a good sermon. Some of that preparation has to happen ahead of time. A week for study allows for some of that.

“Study” for the pastor, however, is not merely a book discipline. A congregation has a right to expect that the person who challenges them regarding the things of God is himself actively pursuing and nurturing a vital relationship with Him. That can get lost in the busy moment by moment pressure of ministry. A study leave provides some extended time to address one’s walk with God.

All of this is an argument for the idea of the pastoral sabbatical so eloquently plead by Eugene Petersonand others. But at the least it is an argument for pastors occasionally getting away from the routine to invest time in these valuable activities which are sometimes otherwise squeezed out or simply impossible.

So, no, Jeanne, I’m not spending the week at home. Rather, I’m holed up in a conference room at the hospitable Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, Florida. I can invest three, six, nine hours of uninterrupted time on a single project if need be (yesterday, it was long range sermon planning). I have stripped my calendar of appointments and meetings, and I have someone else preaching for me on Sunday. This allows me to invest time in other things.

Still on the agenda are books to be read, worship services to be pondered, and even some software to learn to use better and more efficiently. And if I use the time correctly, there will be significant time spent talking to God and staring off into space thinking, reflecting, and dreaming.

So, if you will, pray that God would bless this week and give me the uninterrupted time I need.


“Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.” (from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper)

Thank You, Dr. Chapell

I was leading a training session yesterday afternoon for a group of seminary students attending our church who were preparing to assume some responsibility in worship leadership. In the course of the training, I commended highly Bryan Chapell‘s Christ-Centered Worship.

After the students noted that the book was among the recommended reading in their worship class at the seminary and Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching required for their preaching classes, one of them, our worship team leader, said, “You told me to read the worship book as soon as you got here.”

I didn’t remember doing that, but then another said, “You told me to read a Chapell book last year as well.” (He was referring to Holiness by Grace.)

They all began to wonder if I got a kickback.

I don’t.

But all pastor’s are book pushers. I’m grateful for the good and rich and solid resources God has brought to our lives through Dr. Chapell’s ministry. I happily push them!


I’m working on a sermon in which a beloved brother dies, and the One who could have kept him alive and could have saved them the hurt and suffering delays in a seemingly callous way. We wonder where God is in our suffering, but often we don’t have to wonder where people are. They tell us, when maybe they shouldn’t.

I was reminded of a very wise, very short song by Charlie Peacock.

Now is the time for tears
Don’t speak
Save your words
There’s nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don’t try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don’t try to fix me friend
That’s how you’ll comfort me

Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears

On the Reading Desk: Practice

Yesterday, I outlined my goals for reading – the “whys” behind what I do. Below are the books which currently fill out that outline.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, referred to already here.

The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer.


At this point I have tried to link several works which have been sitting on my shelf into something of a ‘Christian Life’ theme. Some will see the threads connecting these works. Thus far, this has been very fruitful.

Theology: The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Practical: Surprised by Hope and After You Believe, both by N. T. Wright.

Professional: God’s Empowering Presence by Gordon Fee and Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace.

Historical: Calvin by Bruce Gordon.

My categories can be critiqued, but this is just a snapshot and a snapshot does not always catch things perfectly arrayed. I hope to be able to say something about each of these works as the days progress.

It is safe to say that I do not read enough. However, without the plan I have, I would read far less, and be that much more deprived. I’m grateful for then, the encouragement to set forth a plan.

On the Reading Desk: Theory

In general I like to be reading several books at once. My reading can be broken up into two general groups, ‘personal’ and ‘professional,’ but being a pastor the two cannot be so easily divided as perhaps they might be if I were, say, a civil engineer. Often what I read on the personal side has profound implications for what I believe, preach, or teach, and what I read on the professional side moves me and effects how I live my personal life. It’s a wonderful place to be.

I think it important to separate what I’m calling here my professional reading from my labor to produce sermons and classes. They may overlap, but the reading I’m speaking of here is reading that is designed primarily to feed me spiritually and professionally. That sounds on the one hand a selfish thing. But for a church to have a pastor who himself is spiritually deprived and whose vision is limited by the trials and struggles of his own situation is never good. It is a wise church that encourages its pastor to invest time in his own growth and maturity.

The temptation will be for a pastor to read what is currently creating a stir. Sometimes the stir is so great that I give in, but generally I let the fads pass. Rather, I try to steer my reading in four directions, listed here in no order of priority:

1. Professional

2. Practical

3. Historical

4. Theological

There is much written that is designed to help pastors do the varied tasks that are before them. Topics may concern preaching or counseling or leadership or the nature of the church. One could be consumed and read nothing but these things. Or one could think one is above all of that and neglect what is helpful. Neither option is good.

Secondly, I am of a reflective and contemplative nature. It is important that I read works which direct my thinking toward the practical nature of the Christian life – books on marriage, on sanctification, on evangelism, on idolatry, or the like.

Thirdly, there is much to be learned from the saints who have come before us. General history or biography are important in keeping me grounded with a well rounded sense of where we have come from.

And fourthly, it can be too easy for a pastor to narrow his reading to his own area of theological interest. To counter that, I always have some work of general theology on the list to be worked through.

And I should add, I will now and then read something that just seems fun, or which seems aimed at a hole in my heart. Appetite can lead to wonderfully nourishing meals.

This is my thinking. Tomorrow, specifics.

Of Precious Brownies and Tire Swings

Life is out of sync, so things I may have wanted to say weeks ago are only now being said. Forgive me, therefore, if this post seems painfully out of date.

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The joy of coming to know students was one of the great privileges of ministry in the Bradenton/Sarasota area. In addition to the commuter based State College of Florida and the Sarasota campus of the University of South Florida, there are three small but prominent residential schools: Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ringling College of Art and Design, and New College of Florida. Students we have met from each school have become friends we will treasure forever. And of all the expressions of gratitude we received before leaving Bradenton, two from students were especially touching.

For the past year, I had the delight of meeting with a few students from New College for prayer every Friday morning. This was nothing dramatic, and the crowd was always small. But the time was something I looked forward to every week.

On the last day of prayer for the semester, and the last Friday that I would be in Bradenton, having accepted the call to Oviedo, the students made me brownies and a cake. I was expecting nothing and looking for nothing. But this was something.

The brownies may not have meant much to the students – they apologized for their quality. But as they were a gift to me from the heart of these students, they were the most precious brownies I ever ate.

Thanks, guys!

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One of the friends we have made is Jenny, a graduate of Ringling still living in the area. Having artists as friends has its unique charms.

In a sermon preached not too long before I left Bradenton, I made reference to the tire swing behind our house and that our ‘faith’ in the rope is what enables us to put our weight in the tire.

Before leaving, then, Jenny presented me with this drawing in her own gentle style. The inscription, if you cannot read it, says, “Faith is like a tire swing.”

Thanks, Jenny.

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I was touched by both gifts, and many others which came our way. To all, please know, you have showered upon us evidences of God’s grace to those who don’t deserve it.

We are humbled and glad.