By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
His boldness is unmistakable. To some, it is repulsive. To others, it is prophetic. One thing for sure: once considered, it cannot easily be ignored.
But, whether speaking directly or parabolically, Eugene Peterson’s prescription for ministerial health lies not in numbers, administrative techniques, leadership training, or in pastoral career advancement. Instead, it lies in the recovery of the contemplative.
Soul Wreckage
For Peterson, the proof of the need to recover the contemplative is two-pronged. The first–and most urgent–proof of the need to recover the contemplative is the wreckage of souls. “The soul-wreckage among those who work with souls is appalling” he states (p. 112).
Though Peterson offers no statistics, reports from ecclesiastical organizations such as “Safety Net” indicate that 1300 pastors were forced out of their congregations in 1997. There is no denying it. The church landscape is littered with “soul-wreckage.”
Why is it that pastoral work is so hazardous? Because, Peterson explains,
“the very nature of the work is a constant temptation to sin. The sin is, to put an old word on it, pride. But it is often nearly impossible to identify as pride, especially in its early stages. It looks and feels like energetic commitment, sacrificial zeal, selfless devotion” (p. 114).
As we minister, Peterson continues,
“it seldom occurs to us that in work that is so purely motivated and well-intended anything might go wrong. But something almost always does go wrong. In our zeal to proclaim the Savior and enact His commands, we lose touch with our own basic and daily need for the Savior.
At first it is nearly invisible…[but] Along the way most of us end up so identifying our work with Christ’s work that Christ himself recedes into the shadows and our work is spotlighted at center stage. Because the work is so compelling, so engaging–so right–we work with what feels like divine energy. One day we find ourselves (or others find us) worked into the ground” (p. 115).
Wanted: Contemplative Pastors
Peterson’s second proof of the need to recover the contemplative is the gross lack of contemplation among ministers. Citing the rarity of truly contemplative American pastors, Peterson reflects on a “strange indeed” phenomenon.
“Priests, gurus, prophets, medicine men, shamans, in all the religious groupings that we have knowledge of have, without exception, understood themselves primarily as pray-ers. Their business is with God and spirit and soul. Responsibly connected with everything natural, their reach is toward the supernatural” (p. 111).
Though he remarks that “it is no more difficult to pursue the pastoral vocation that any other,” (p. 4), the greatest pitfall of ministry is that the pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal.
Furthermore, the ministry in America is banal because it is “pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management.” With stunning directness, Peterson gives the final reason for the need to recover the contemplative. There is a “widespread idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage” (p. 4).
Peterson’s Ministerial Maladies
Throughout his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson outlines the roots of the ministerial health crisis. Some of the maladies that he suggests plague American ministry are…
1) Vocational Lip Service. “Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation,” he writes, “but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers” (p. 5).
2) Inadequate Institutional Spirituality. “I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritual–rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit” (p. 5).
3) Hostile Cultural Conditions. “The conditions in which we must acquire a spirituality for our vocation…are, it must be admitted, not friendly. Our vocations are bounded on one side by consumer appetites, on the other by a marketing mind-set.
Pastoral vocation is interpreted from the congregational side as the work of meeting people’s religious needs on demand at the best possible price and from the clerical side as satisfying those same needs quickly and efficiently. These conditions quickly reduce the pastoral vocation to religious economics, pull it into relentless competitiveness, and deliver it into the hands of public relations and marketing experts” (pp. 3-4).
4) Ecclesiastical Pornography. “Parish glamorization,” says Peterson, “is ecclesiastical pornography.” “Anyone who glamorizes congregations,” says Peterson, “does a grave disservice to pastors….On close examination…it turns out there are no wonderful congregations.
Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat–and worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors” (p. 17).
5) Propagandists. “Propagandists are abroad in the land lying to us about what congregations are and can be. They are lying for money. They want to make us discontent with what we are doing so we will buy a solution from them that they promise will restore virility to our impotent congregations. the profit-taking among those who market these [programs] indicates pastoral gullibility in these matters is endless” (pp. 17-18)
6) Pastoral Boredom And Abandonment. When the propagandist’s “sure-fire” program fails, “Pastors, faced with the failure of the purchased procedures, typically blame the congregation and leave it for another. The devil, who is behind all this smiling and lacquered mischief, so easily makes us discontent with what we are doing that we throw up our hands in the middle of it, disgusted, and go on to another parish that will appreciate our gifts in ministry and our devotion to the Lord. Every time a pastor abandons one congregation for another out of boredom or anger or restlessness, the pastoral vocation of all of us is vitiated” (p. 18).
Peterson’s Prescription
What are some ways to recover some of the contemplative aspects of ministry? Peterson suggests the following.

1) Begin Ministry In God’s Presence. Begin the ministerial vocation delighting in the presence of the Lord. Unlike Jonah, we must not flee away from the presence of the Lord. We must not turn away from our uncomfortable calling to the pagan Ninevites for a more illustrious calling to Tarshish where we can develop pride and acquire power. We must be drawn toward, be attracted to, and go where God calls us. It is there we will find joyful fulfillment of our calling.

2) Stay Where You Are. Citing that it was not unusual for monks to leave one monastery to set our for another “more challenging” monastery, Peterson wonders, “Was it really more of God they were after or were they avoiding the God who was revealing Himself to them?” (p. 20).

Apparently, Peterson is not the only one with valid suspicions. So was Saint Benedict. To those who were “sure” that if they just got into the right monastery, things would be better, Benedict said, “stay where you are.” Hence, the Benedictine “Vow Of Stability.”

The “norm for pastoral work is stability,” Peterson notes. “Twenty, thirty, and forty year-long pastorates should be typical among us (as they once were) and not exceptional. Far too many pastors change parishes out of adolescent boredom, not as a consequence of mature wisdom. When this happens, neither pastors nor congregations have access to the conditions that are hospitable to maturity in faith” (p. 29).

3) Think “Vocation,” Not “Advancement.” Citing a parallel between the monastery and the congregation, Peterson urges pastors to “detach themselves from the careerism mind-set that has been so ruinous to pastoral vocations” (p. 21). Begin to see your congregation as a location–the location–into which God has placed you so that you might have a “spiritually maturing life and ministry….The congregation is not a job site to be abandoned when a better offer comes along” (p. 21).

4) Think “Transformation”, Not Just “Results.” God may not be so much interested in the numbers, growth, and institutional success of a given congregation as he is in the spiritual transformation which the numbers, growth and institutional success hopefully reflect. The focus, however, is always the spiritual transformation of each individual, encouraging the process of spiritual growth, and helping the people in the pew find God in their suffering. This transformation must start with the pastor.

5) Think “Imperfect Church” Not “Perfect Church.” Peterson has much to say of the imperfect groupings of people in God’s church. Of the ancient Israelites Peterson remarks, “Nothing in Israel strikes me as terrifically attractive….A bare sixty or seventy years after Pentecost we have an account of seven churches that shows about the same quality of holiness and depth of virtue found in any ordinary parish in America today. In two thousand years of practice we haven’t gotten any better. You would think we would have, but we haven’t. (p. 24)

6) Think “Christ”…First And Always In Everything. That was St. Paul’s advice to the Colossians. “Christ first in everything!” For Peterson, this means that “every time we open up a church door and take a careful, scrutinizing look inside we find them there again–sinners. [But we also see] Christ. Christ in the preaching, Christ in the sacraments, but inconveniently and embarrassingly mixed into this congregation of sinners” (p. 24).

7) Recover The Contemplative Monastic Disciplines. Perhaps this is Peterson’s most radical–but insightful–key for recovering the contemplative ministry. In Subversive Spirituality, Peterson espoused a fifth theological discipline, “Ascetic Theology” to be taught in seminaries alongside the disciplines of Historical, Exegetical, Practical, and Systematic Theology. In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson espouses a return to “contemplation,” a word derived from templum, meaning a “place for observation.”
In order to develop this penchant for spiritual “observation” (i.e. “contemplation”), Peterson suggests two things. First, he suggests a rediscovery of prayer (“askesis”) based on the Psalms. Second, he suggests a return to the fourteen disciplines to develop spirituality in monastic life. These include “Spiritual reading, spiritual direction, meditation, confession, bodily exercise, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, dream interpretation, retreats, pilgrimage, almsgiving (tithing), journaling, sabbaticals, and small groups.”
“Each of us,” he continues, “must develop expertise so that we can call up any one of the disciplines as it is needed and set it aside when it is no longer needed….there is no one-size-fits-all askesis” (p. 108).
Reflections And Comments
1) Certainly, the basic spiritual and contemplative aspects of the ministry calling need to be recovered. Peterson is right. The ministry crisis is a crisis of an understanding of what the calling really entails. As long as both pastors and congregations fail to understand God’s plan for the ministry, the ministerial health crisis will continue its apparent rampant proliferation.
2) Peterson’s focus on pastor as seelsorger (i.e. one who cares for souls) is illuminating, accurate, and traditional. The caring of souls does occur when “we preach the Word and administer the Sacraments, [when] we give pastoral care and administer the community life, [when] we teach and [when] we give spiritual direction” (p. 21).
In many congregations, the caring of souls in a personal way goes far beyond what the pastor can personally do. The challenge for pastoral seelsorgers is to develop other seelsorgers to serve under the pastor’s guidance in an auxiliary manner to the pastoral office. It this there is a great opportunity for the mentoring of spirituality to others. Visitation ministries of caring, small group fellowships and evangelism programs are some examples of such ministries. Indeed, these and other such programs can provide a marvelous setting to embark on an enriched and deepened spiritual journey.
3) Sometimes the church needs to be purified, enhanced, fine-tuned, and given direction. Especially with larger churches, more organizational programming may be warranted to address the diversity of spiritual needs. Such changes, however, should not be done simply for the sake of change. Instead, they should be directed toward specific spiritually transformative goals related to nurturing faith and trust in the Gospel.
4) Contrary to Peterson’s suggestion, denominational and para-church resources should not automatically be discounted and discarded. Certainly there are those organizations which are frankly, wealthy. Many are professional and have been successful. They have brought results. The danger is that wholly unawares, these outside influences may build budgets but not spirituality. Especially when ministry is required from outside sources, congregations need to carefully consider and discern the spiritual aspects first.
Important questions need to be asked. Questions such as
“What spiritual transformations can be expected if such an such organization or consultant assists us?”

  • “Are these helpful–or hurtful–in our greater understanding of God’s plan for this congregation?”
  • “Are the principles suggested in conformity with a proper understanding of the Law and Gospel in our midst?”
  • “Does the Gospel pre-dominate?”
  • “Is the Law used to provoke guilt-motivation?” and
  • “Will this program glorify Christ in the immediate presence, the short-term, and the long-term?”
Once agreed on, any program ought to be genuinely promoted first and foremost for its value for the spiritual transformational development of individuals, not for sheer institutional advancement.
5) Pastors need to quit moving around unnecessarily. Certainly, God does call pastors to different churches. Increasingly however, interviewing congregations are checking pastoral resumes. They are looking for various things...including tenure. Many healthy congregations want and seek a long-term pastor. Conflicted congregations, accustomed to a new face in the pulpit every couple years (or less) may need one badly!
Until quality pastors can stay long term in these difficult congregations, the “disposable pastor” syndrome will continue to dominate their agenda and congregational life. By changing pastors every 2-5 years, there may be lots of change, but no transformation. Congregational spirituality needs time and pastoral tenure to lead the necessary spiritual transformations.
Since pastors are change agents, and since change takes time, it follows that healthy change is not likely when pastors keep changing. For this reason, today’s pastors need to counter cultural expectations of “instant results” with a strong dose of good old patience. A poster at the University of Michigan’s Cancer Center is certainly applicable to pastors. Numquam decadamus, that is, “We never give up!
6) Though Peterson’s view of the ministry may over-emphasize the spiritual, ascetic side of the ministry, the emphasis is not bad. Indeed, Peterson may have struck a major key to recovering the contemplative. If pastors would implement those items in the fourteen monastic disciplines which are doctrinally and vocationally appropriate to their respective denominational heritage and scriptural position, perhaps a very necessary spiritual transformation of American ministry might occur.
7) Recovery of spirituality begins with a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It exudes the joy of being forgiven “in Christ.” Such Gospel-centered message is the inextricable basis and motivation for everything the Christian does.
8) Recovering the spiritual is not a panacea. It also avoids potential extremes of spirituality which may also threaten the church. Whether it be pride of buildings and programs or pride of spirituality, the common factor is still pride. Thus a balanced ministry for Jesus Christ balances Law and Gospel, buildings and relationships, corporate congregational development and personal spiritual development.
9) As the Law encourages the external and mechanical and the Gospel flows from the cross of Christ through the internal heart, soul and mind, perhaps the need for the recovery of the spiritual is a sign of a church infiltrated with and dominated by the Law.
10) By recovering the Gospel and elevating it to its appropriate predominance the Church, through the Spirit’s working in Word and Sacrament, may develop a renewed focus which looks to the spiritual relationship of the believer exercised through spiritual disciplines such as worship, prayer, receiving the sacraments, meditation, et al.
In Closing…
Properly balanced with a Scriptural understanding of ministry, Peterson’s call for a spiritual perspective of pastoral vocation is refreshing. It is inviting. Most of all, it gives rays of hope and encouragement to a vocation so severely battered in contemporary Western society.
If you want to challenge your understanding of ministry, read Eugene Peterson’s Under the Predictable Plant or other of his books (e.g. Subversive Spirituality, et al). If you do, you’ll probably never see your ministry–and your vocation–quite the same again.
Thomas F. Fischer

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