The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson — Book Review

Sometimes, certain books come to you at just the right time. Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor is one of those books.

As I’ve said here before, our church has been in a transformation process/training sponsored by our presbytery, which involves a lot of being pushed, pulled, folded and spindled as we realize that the old ways of doing ministry and being church don’t resonate in the 21st century. It’s hard work, and there’s a lot of pushback and grief, a lot of “what’s wrong with the way we’ve always done it?”

Peterson’s book is a good reminder that even as we seek to “take people somewhere”—and be taken places ourselves—that the heart of the pastoral vocation is relationships: the unhurried conversations, the holy and ordinary moments, the intimacy that forms over many years and countless potlucks, funerals, cleanup days, and (gasp!) session meetings. Last night our session read and discussed an article by Tony Robinson in which he talks about the need for both “urgency and patience” in ministry. I think Peterson would tend towards the patience end of that spectrum, but the urgency is also there in the sense of taking this faith stuff really, really seriously. Worship and study are at the heart of it all. I haven’t read Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, but in his memoir he shows us what that looks like… and I like what I see.

I’m in a phase of life and ministry in which I resonate with Peterson’s career trajectory. His context (mid-Atlantic suburbia) is very similar to mine. He was an academic in a congregation of non-eggheads. Most notably, he stayed at this congregation for some twenty-five years and was very much a writer/pastor. There are some fundamental differences between us—Peterson has a spouse who saw “pastor’s wife” as her true and serious calling, and excelled at it. I sure would like one of those sometimes, though my spouse is very supportive of me from his own context of full-time employment. Nonetheless, I too feel drawn to the writer/pastor vocation, so Peterson is something of an unofficial mentor.

Peterson writes honestly about the down times and depressions, which he calls “the badlands.” I’d read in another publication the story of his resignation, but he fleshes it out more fully here. His young daughter informed him that he had been away from home 27 evenings in a row, and that night he marched into the session and quit. He had been overfunctioning, buried under administration, trying too hard, forcing stuff—and there was no joy left, he said. Thankfully, the session didn’t let him off that easy, asking him what he would like his vocation to look like at the church. “What do you want to do?” they wanted to know. He responds with a heartfelt verbal manifesto that I’d like to cross-stitch onto a sampler.

In some ways, Peterson’s approach to ministry seems old-fashioned. He is a contemplative, a scholar, a writer. Pastors today are expected to be that, but also be community organizers, social media experts, fundraisers, PR gurus, etc. etc. So I may be pining for an approach to ministry that no longer exists. Or perhaps the approach Peterson describes is still the most authentic one, but one we take into the worlds of Facebook, Twitter and so forth. (I was happy to read that he would spend around 6-8 hours a week on a sermon, not the near-impossible 10-15 hours that many of us were taught as the “right” way.)

It was fun to read how he was approached to write The Message, and I enjoyed some of his brushes with greatness (e.g. Fosdick). Some of the writing meandered and repeated along the edges; it felt as if the book started out as a series of essays that got stitched together. But Eugene Peterson is a master—in a class by himself. I’m glad I read this book.

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6 thoughts on “The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson — Book Review

  1. Katherine says:

    I just read it, and Lee’s reading it now too. I loved it. And if you cross-stitch that manifesto, please send along the pattern so I can make one for my study, too. 🙂

    • MaryAnn says:

      Admittedly it’d be a really freakin’ huge sampler.
      What would be REALLY cool is to have the words silkscreened onto a stole… perhaps the underside so you could see it every time you put it on for worship…

    • Lee says:

      Just finished it this morning! Thanks for the review, MaryAnn. I did like the book, though I had a hard time getting past the feeling that he was writing from a different generation, with the whole pastor’s-wife thing. I appreciated the badlands stuff, too, as I am settling in to year three at my church… gone is the momentum of the first couple years, and now we have to figure out how to live together for while.

      • MaryAnn says:

        I agree, that part was very interesting and challenging to read. He seemed to genuinely value Jan as a partner in ministry, and what a gift that she was able to do what she was always called to do, which is be a pastor’s wife, and everything that image entails.

        That said, I’m very glad that we’re in a new era in which women have the option to be pastors, full stop.

  2. anne says:

    in the meantime you could print it onto that stuff that you can iron onto a t-shirt and wear it as a close-to-the-skin layer on days that you need to remember but might forget.

    (one time i imagined wearing a nike-swoosh t-shirt on a day when i needed to be reminded to ‘just do it.’) didn’t even have it on, but imagining helped.

  3. Sarah says:

    or iron it onto your robe – the underside -so it would be undergird you, so to speak?

    Will add this to the ever-lengthenling list of must-reads.

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