The Contemplative Pastor: A Return to the Art of Spiritual Direction

Eugene Peterson should be among the voices from whom every pastor seeks wisdom.  In The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Peterson redefines the term pastor, gives insight into the invisible aspect of the pastor’s role, and offers the pastor examples of how the word can be made flesh anew through preaching and poetry.

He begins his book with this,

The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition. To that end, I offer three adjectives to clarify the noun: unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic.

Right away I cringe.  How can I be unbusy when there is so much to do?  How can I be subversive when the masses demand relevancy?  How can I be apocalyptic in a day and age when everyone is screaming and scampering about looking for security?

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important.

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself.”

To be an unbusy pastor means I have to sit down with my calendar and with Jesus before anyone else gets to it.  I must set myself to the tasks that are important, not just urgent.  I must make the hard decision to do the things that matter, not just the things I can easily check off of my to-do list.  Emails are easier than exegesis.  Administrative tasks are more appealing than asking in fervent prayer.  However, there are great benefits to being an unbusy pastor.

I can be a pastor who prays. I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all of life to be intimate – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.  I can be a pastor who preaches. I want to speak the Word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with. I am given an honored and protected time each week to do that. The pulpit is a great gift, and I want to use it well.  I can be a pastor who listens. A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what’s going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so that when they’re through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.”

The subversive pastor has the long view in mind.  This is a difficult task when our culture and our people demand immediate results.  We know we can’t give them what they want.  We know too well that maturity in Christ isn’t attained overnight.  We know that what they need is the very opposite of what they want and that giving it to them will require that they surrender to a new King.

I remember that I am a subversive. My long-term effectiveness depends on my not being recognized for who I really am. If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all pleased. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me.

The methods that make the kingdom of America strong – economic, military, technological, informational – are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong. I have had to learn a new methodology: truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable. These are not methods very well adapted to raising the standard of living in suburbia or massaging the ego into a fashionable shape.

Three things are implicit in subversion. One, the status quo is wrong and must be overthrown if the world is going to be livable. It is so deeply wrong that repair work is futile. The world is, in the word insurance agents use to designate our wrecked cars, totaled.  Two, there is another world aborning that is livable. Its reality is no chimera. It is in existence, though not visible. Its character is known. The subversive does not operate out of a utopian dream but out of a conviction of the nature of the real world.  Three, the usual means by which one kingdom is thrown out and another put in its place – military force or democratic elections – are not available. If we have neither a preponderance of power nor a majority of votes, we begin searching for other ways to effect change. We discover the methods of subversion. We find and welcome allies.”

We resist the subversive life because their is no prestige in it – vanity.  We resist the subversive life because we naively believe that the church is already the kingdom of God and that her people are already holy.

Much of what the pastor offers that is worth while is invisible.

With professions the integrity has to do with the invisibles: for physicians it is health (not merely making people feel good); with lawyers, justice (not helping people get their own way); with professors, learning (not cramming cranial cavities with information on tap for examinations). And with pastors, it is God (not relieving anxiety, or giving comfort, or running a religious establishment).

Therefore, our primary task is to pray and teach our people to pray.

And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally quite good at.

By not engaging in prayer and teaching others to pray – that is, to talk with God on their own – we place ourselves in the position of God, which can be dangerously flattering.

Language, Peterson argues, can be categorized in one of three ways.  Language I is the language of romance and relationship.  It is the language of love.  We experience this language as baby cooing at our parents.  We then forget it.  We rediscover it the first time we fall in love.  Then, once again, we forget it.  We rediscover it early in marriage and when we become parents.  But alas, it rarely becomes our primary language.

Language II is the language of information.  Our culture is the leading expert of Language II.  Information is king and too many of our prayers, our sermons, and our conversations are composed in Language II.

Language III is the language of persuasion and manipulation.  The next best thing to information is action.  So we preach and we counsel and we debate with all the Language II we can muster and throw in a large dose of Language III at the end.  The language of God, the language of Scripture, the language of prayer is Language I.  It is the pastor’s responsibility to recover and teach this language.

But this is my basic work: on the one hand to proclaim the word of God that is personal – God addressing us in love, inviting us into a life of trust in him; on the other hand to guide and encourage an answering word that is likewise personal – to speak in the first person to the second person, I to Thou, and avoid third-person commentary as much as possible. This is my essential educational task: to develop and draw out into articulateness this personal word, to teach people to pray. Prayer is Language I. It is not language about God or the faith; it is not language in the service of God and the faith; it is language to and with God in faith.

Such language finds it best expression in poetry.  Perhaps this why so many prophets were poets.

Peterson closes his word on the role of pastor with these thoughts.

Being a pastor who satisfies a congregation is one of the easiest jobs on the face of the earth – if we are satisfied with satisfying congregations. The hours are good, the pay is adequate, the prestige considerable. Why don’t we find it easy? Why aren’t we content with it?

Yet century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.”


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