Eugene Peterson: Letter to a Young Pastor


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April 19, 2011
Dear A-,

Your letter revives a wonderful memory-those years of vigorous correspondence between your father and me. The last mention he made of you in his letters was that you had “flunked churchgoing.” I urged him to be patient. His death a year or so after that prevented me from knowing the outcome but his patience must have paid off since here you are, ten years later, not just back to “churchgoing” but for the last five years now pastor of a church, or as you put it, “finding my way as a pastor.”

And yes, I would be honored to receive and respond to your letters, a welcome sequel to the letters your father and I exchanged. But I am not sure you can expect answers from me-think of it as something more like a conversation between two friends who share this pastoral vocation on the Way.

Your phrase “finding my way as a pastor” sets up resonance within me. As I look back on a lifetime in the pastoral vocation what I remember most is a kind of messiness: a lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again. It is amazing now that anything came of it.

As we enter into conversation regarding just what goes into making up a pastoral vocation, one thing that comes to mind is the uniqueness- being a pastor is unique across the spectrum of vocations. Not better, not privileged, not anything special, but unique in society as a whole, also (but maybe not quite so much) unique in the company of the people of God. Not much transfers from other vocational roles to who we are, what we do.

One aspect of that uniqueness is that we make far more mistakes in our line of work than other so-called professionals. If physicians and engineers and lawyers and military officers made as many mistakes in their line of work as we do in ours, they would be out on the street in no time. It amazes me still how much of the time I simply don’t know what I am doing, don’t know what to say, don’t know what the next move is. The temptation in that state of being is to determine to be competent at something or other. Unfortunately, there are many “ways of escape” in which we can exercise and develop areas of administrative or therapeutic or scholarly or programmatic competences in the church and in so doing avoid the ambiguity of being a pastor.

But I also had a sense much of the time (but not by any means continuously) that “not knowing what I am doing” is more or less what it feels like when I am “trusting in God” and “following Jesus.” The position in which the church has placed us by ordaining us to this vocation means giving witness to what we don’t know much about and can’t explain- living into the mystery of salvation and holiness.

Here’s a Psalm phrase that has given me some helpful clarity in the midst of the murkiness: “Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods” (Ps. 40:4). The “proud” for me in this context are those pastors who look like they “know what they’re doing”-who are competent and recognized as such, who have an honored position in society and among their colleagues. And going “astray after false gods” amounts to living in response to something manageable, turning my vocation into a depersonalized job that I can get good at. I’m probably reading more into this text than it warrants, but it has given me a couple of images (“proud” and “astray”) that set off little alarm signals when I have sensed that I was betraying or avoiding the uniqueness of pastor.

As I reflect with you on my fifty years in this pastoral vocation, it strikes me right now as curious that I have almost no sense of achievement. Doesn’t that seem odd? What I remember is all the little detours into “proud” and “astray” that I experienced, the near misses, the staggering recoveries or semirecoveries of who I was and what I was about. People who look at me now have no idea how precarious it felt at the time, how many faithless stretches there were.

In retrospect, I think that the two things that preserved the uniqueness of pastor for me were worship and family. I knew in my gut that the act of worship with the congregation every week was what kept me centered and that it needed to be guarded vigilantly-nothing could be permitted to dilute or distract from it. And I knew that family provided the only hope I had of staying grounded, faithful, personally relational, in the daily practice of sacrificial love.

Maybe those things as such don’t make pastor unique-everybody has to deal with them. But our vocation is very public in what we do in relation to God and a life of love. That public exposure opens up the possibilities of either bluffing our way or constructing a way of life that is competent but quite apart from trusting God or braving the intimacies of love. People watch us. They see and are influenced either for good or bad by the seriousness and reverence in which we order our response to God (the showcase for this is Sunday worship); and they notice the way we live with our families and friends-they see or don’t see forgiveness and grace, blessing and patience in our body language, gestures, and offhand remarks.

The daily, inescapable reality is that in neither of these areas, worship or family, are we in complete control. If we try too hard we end up being self-conscious, substituting our ego and performance and reputation for the very thing we are committed to doing.

Is that enough for a start? Even though we have never met personally, because of my long friendship with your father, I feel we are part of the same family, which, of course, we are. But also companions in finding our way as pastors in this American culture that “knew not Joseph” and doesn’t quite know what to make of us. That makes for lonely work. We need each other.

The peace of our Lord,

Eugene
Excerpted with permission from The Pastor, Copyright © 2011 by Eugene Peterson. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Eugene Peterson – Letter to a Young Pastor – Excerpt from the book, ‘The Pastor’ – Day1.org.

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