Eugene Peterson has had an interesting career in ministry, to put it mildly. He stumbled into ministry as he was finishing an undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature. After seminary he began a PhD in Semitic languages, intending to have an academic career. While teaching at seminary and pastoring a church as he worked on his dissertation he sensed that God was calling him into pastoral ministry. He followed the call and planted a church, serving there for 29 years. He then went back to teaching, and along the way mixed in writing, producing a large body of what I’ll call “really good books,” including the Bible paraphrase, The Message. In The Pastor: A Memoir, he takes a look back on his life and reflects on the things that gave it shape and meaning, particularly into that curious identity of “pastor.”
Peterson provides snapshots from each area of his life, describing things that in some cases he never considered having great meaning when they happened, but that were influential in shaping him as a pastor. As I read them I was reminded of things from my own life that have shaped me and prepared me, as I, like Peterson, move into a vocation that at one time I would have laughed if it was suggested to me.
Peterson has most definitely not written a “how to” guide on being a pastor, and he would have a low opinion of any such book. He learned, through trial and error, that being a pastor is not a job but a vocation, a vocation that is best lived into as the pastor serves among their congregation, day after day and year after year.
While not writing a “how to” manual of the pastoral vocation, as Peterson relates his own experiences I find that he does provide some general guidelines to foster a particular pastoral ethos among those who read this book. “Pastor” was not so much “what he did” but “who he was.” He did not “work” as a pastor 24/7 but his identity as a pastor permeated his life and relationships. He counted being a pastor to be a great privilege, writing,
“But the overall context of my particular assignment in the pastoral vocation, as much as I am able to do it, is to see to it that these men and women in my congregation become aware of the possibilities and promise of living out in personal and local detail what is involved in following Jesus, and be a companion to them as we do it together.” (247)
This is a book I highly recommend to anyone who has responded to God’s call to pastoral ministry. I believe that no matter how much experience one has in ministry reading it will stimulate both reflection and possibility on their journey. I’m looking forward to reading it again in a few years and seeing how the wisdom Peterson has written here speaks to me anew.