Book Review: The Pastor

I recently read The Pastor by Eugene Peterson. It was awesome!

The Pastor: A Memoir

Peterson is a gifted storyteller. Each chapter of this book recalls a significant time in his life as he reflects upon how it formed him both spiritually and in his thinking about life in general.

From stories of his childhood to retiring from service at the church he planted, Peterson shares his view of what it means to be a pastor. He summarizes: “…[a pastor] is not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing’.”

His earthy and realistic vision for pastoring was my main takeaway from the book. It’s easy to get caught up in glamorous or even cynical ideas about what pastors do, but Peterson brings the reader back to reality and simplicity.

His thoughts on the following subjects were also particularly helpful to me:

  • The Americanization of the local church
  • How our culture has shifted to valuing a feeling faith over a thinking faith
  • Sabbath practices in the context of marriage
  • The value of storytelling
  • Enjoying and investing in our local area

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Peterson’s memoir. It was hard to put down. I recommend this book to anyone, especially those involved in pastoral work.


On a pastor’s work:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with souls—immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. p7

On salvation:

Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, anytime now. Pay attention. p8

On how not only the content, but the form of worship forms us:

A great deal of scholarly attention has been given to the power of liturgy in forming identity and the shaping effect of narrative in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The way we learn something is more influential than the something that we learn. No content comes into our lives free-floating: it is always embedded in a form of some kind. For the basic and integrative realities of God and faith, the forms must also be basic and integrative. If they are not, the truths themselves will be peripheral and unassimilated. p33

On what the pastor does for the local church:

…the pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful “without ceasing”. p5

On his wife’s high view of her role as a pastor’s wife:

For Jan, “pastor’s wife” was not just being married to a pastor; it was far more vocational than that, a way of life. It meant participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God’s grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who didn’t fit were welcomed, where neglected children were noticed, where the stories of Jesus were told, and people who had no stories found that they did have stories, stories that were part of the Jesus story. Being a pastor’s wife would place her strategically yet unobtrusively at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth. p95

On what the local church is:

Church: a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God. p110

On the Americanization of the local church:

This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric. p112

On valuing locality and contextualization in a church while keeping Jesus at the center:

But if we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves—participants in the unique place and time and weather of where we live and worship—we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church. The usefulness of Acts as a story, and not a prescription or admonition, is that it keeps us faithful to the plot, Jesus, and at the same time free to respond out of our own circumstances and obedience. p119

On our society’s view of the pastoral vocation:

How do I keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description? How do I keep the calling, the vocation, of pastor from being drowned out by job descriptions, gussied up in glossy challenges and visions and strategies, clamoring incessantly for my attention? p165

On being a contemplative pastor rather than a competitive pastor:

Was it realistic to think I could develop from a competitive pastor to something maybe more like a contemplative pastor—a pastor who was able to be with people without having an agenda for them, a pastor who was able to accept people just as they were and guide them gently and patiently into a mature life in Christ but not get in the way, let the Holy Spirit do the guiding? p210-211

On marriage:

I lived twenty-five years as the center of my universe, and then suddenly I was no longer the center. There was another, Jan, who had also been accustomed to being the center. It took us both by surprise—you can’t have two centers. Yes, it is difficult. p228-229

On how putting our faith into practice is the pathway to Christian growth:

We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire—our God is a consuming fire—and finding it all stuff redeemed for a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every ordinary congregation. p230

On constrasting Martin Luther and John Calvin with Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross:

Luther and Calvin were trying to make the truth clear, which they did wonderfully. Teresa and John were trying to deal honestly and discerningly with the experience of God when it wasn’t plain, insisting that there were necessary obscurities and shadows to be embraced if we were to grow into mature holiness. That we cannot have God on our terms, domesticated to our requirements, reduced to our ideas of what God should be doing. Prayer was our immersion in the way that God is present with us whether we understand or like it or not. p231

On the depersonalizing effect that church programs can have:

Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of “doing church.” Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else. But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently nonpersonal. A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. Church was understood not in terms of personal relationships and a personal God but in terms of “getting things done.” p254-255

On the Holy Spirit:

A few hours a week at the seminary were enough to keep my mind engaged with the life of the Spirit, the Word of Life, a living link with the life of the mind. p266

On the world’s perception of church as “terribly ordinary”, from a quoted letter:

My friends would accept me far more readily if they found that I was in some bizarre cult involving exotic and strange activities like black magic or experiments with levitation. But going to church is branded with a terrible ordinariness. p272

On pastoral ego:

You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way. A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work. For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed. Many years earlier a pastor friend told me that the pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’ I’ve never forgotten that. p292

On a pastor being insensitive after his mother’s funeral:

After the benediction, I didn’t want to see anyone and slipped into a room just off the chancel. My daughter, Karen, came in and sat beside me, without words, putting her hand on my thigh. And then a man I didn’t know came in, put his arm across my shoulder, spoke for three or four minutes in preacher clichés, and prayed. After he left I said, “Oh Karen, I hope I have never done that to anyone.” p294

On how Christian community is about being part of each other’s unique story, and that each local church has been invited into the greater story of God redeeming humanity:

Story is a way of language in which everything and everyone is organically related. Story is a way of language that insists that persons cannot be known by reducing them to what they do, how they perform, the way they look. Story uses a language in which listening has joint billing with speaking. Story is a language put to the use of discovering patterns and meanings—beauty and truth and goodness: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the seemingly random and disconnected pieces of experience and dreams, tasks and songs, promises and betrayals that make up life, words and sentences detect and reveal and fashion stories in places of hospitality. p309

On keeping the Sabbath with his wife:

In our thirty years of keeping Sabbath together we had simplified our definition of Sabbath-keeping to three words: pray and play. On Sabbath we would do nothing that was necessary, obligatory, “useful.” We would set the day apart for the unfettered, the free, the unearned. Pray and play. p311

On walking through the Negev:

And so we walked—for five days. We walked through the landscape in which our faith was formed. Abraham walked here and built altars. Isaac walked here and dug wells. Moses walked here and herded sheep. We walked and assimilated through our feed the obvious but slowly comprehended realization that faith is formed on unumpressive ground, among invisibles, with few distractions. p312