A Review of The Pastor by Eugene Peterson

In The Pastor Eugene Peterson—a prolific author, former pastor, and university professor—recounts in autobiographical form the formative experiences of his life which made him the pastor he is, how “the vocation of pastor formed” him (2). Far from a critical text, Peterson does not have an undergirding thesis but instead meanders along developing the theme of his formation as a pastor. Peterson wanders through the formative events of his life in a rather haphazard arrangement, sometimes reminding me almost of Jeremiah; there seems to be a slight chronological progression, but it often jumps around so much that only the final chapter seems to sit nicely in its chronologically fitting place as the capstone of his life’s adventure. Peterson seems to enjoy writing shorter chapters, this penchant results in 40 chapters dividing the 317 pages that make up the work. These 40 chapters are themselves divided among 4 parts that each share a common sub-theme together contributing to the full picture of Peterson’s pastoral formation. In his rather haphazard account of his life Peterson sketches his experiences beginning as a child growing up in Montana, moving through his pastorate at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland, and ending with his years a professor and writer in Pittsburgh and, later, Vancouver.   Peterson’s purpose in recounting his formative adventure is not merely to entertain readers with the experience of a pastor from a past generation, but he hopes to “give witness to this way of understanding pastor, a way that can’t be measure or counted, and often isn’t even noticed” (5). This is the purpose for which he chose to recall the events and experiences that he did, hoping to share the kernels of wisdom God has taught him over long years of life in vocational ministry.

 

Because Peterson is not writing to an academic crowd, not writing a scholarly work, but addressing what would seem to be pastors, or would-be-pastors, pursuing wisdom formed through the fires of real life ministry he does not seek to present an objective and sterile external perspective on his life circumstances. Peterson writes as the one who experienced the events he records and as such he gives emotional commentary on how it affected him and  as well as providing commentary on how the specific circumstances of his life formed his pastoral character. His bias shows up in the theological perspectives that emerge in the recounting of his story. For instance, Peterson betrays a specific bias towards the issue of women in preaching roles when he writes of the events leading to his mom’s withdrawal from preaching ministry, of these circumstances he writes “she was intimidated into silence” (33, emphasis added). He also shows his bias with a specific stance on ecumenical partnership when he discusses his interdenominational pastoral group (130-160). If Peterson was to write in any other style, such as that of a Historian attempting to be objective, it would detract from any meaningful impact in the stories and would obliterate any attempt to draw out the theme of his pastoral transformation. He does not support any of his perspectives from Scripture or secondary sources, neither does he make a blatant attempt to hold them up as the right way; he merely records his experiences and through this implies what his position is. Peterson is recounting his life in a popular style and as such any attempt to defend his positions and biases would be out of place and would detract from the overall presentation of this book.

 

Overall I found myself with mixed feelings about The Pastor. On the one hand I found Peterson to be an entertaining writer with an intriguing life and some of things he had to say were really spot on (4-5, 86-87, 137, 141), but, on the other hand,  I found the book to drag on at times and contained a few chapters that made me ask;  why? What was the purpose for including this? At these times he seemed to be on mildly nostalgic detours (e.g. ch. 5).  Peterson’s emphasis on prayer throughout the book reflects a theme found in the lives of those God has used mightily in ministry; prayer is foundational  to godly living and success in vocational ministry, it was nice to see this play such a fundamental role in Peterson’s pastoral formation. For the most part I tend to learn more from academic expositions of Scripture or structured and logical works, because of the style of the Pastor I did not find it tremendously impacting on my thinking, but to some extent it has challenged me; I feel as if I may need to re-read it to further think through some of the insights that God showed Peterson. One thing I really appreciated was his heart for people that came out through every page of the book. I personally struggle with the pastoral care part of ministry; I often struggle with empathizing and making smart decision on how to respond to crises in the lives of my friends and family members. Throughout the book Peterson modeled a heart I really desire to have one day; whether he journaled frequently or has a tremendous memory, Peterson gave detailed accounts of how God moved in the lives of those he encountered both in changing them and changing him through them. He gave the impression that he was not a pastor who simply preached and let that be the end of his ministry but a pastor who cared deeply for those under his care and made the effort to know, spend time with, and minister to them.

 

I think that Peterson managed to succeed with his purpose of conveying the particular understanding of the pastoral vocation that he came to through his pastoral experience. His style is not particularly one that I enjoy, but I know that it is a style that effectively communicates to a much broader audience than logical didactic.  If you learn well from stories and real life illustrations, if you learn better from simile and vivid imagery, then Peterson’s book provides a solid deposit of pastoral wisdom and provides a valuable perspective on pastoral ministry.

 

 

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