Recovering Pastoral Practice [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 1]

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I first stumbled into the work of Eugene Peterson in the 1990s through his translation work with The Message. It was not too much later, however, that a pastor and mentor introduced me to his writing on pastoral ministry, sometimes referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library.

About three years ago, I re-read and steadily worked my way through one of the treasures of that library, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Doing that helped to ground me in a time of instability in my sense of what it meant to be a pastor. Through Working the Angles, Peterson became an invaluable conversation partner in re-learning what it means to be a pastor.

As I continue that journey, I want to do something similar with the first of those books, published in 1980, is Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I want to blog my way through this work to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity. I do not mean integrity merely in the moral sense, but integrity in the sense of how something holds together. I am increasingly convinced that the very integrity of pastoral ministry, from calling to character, from practice to disciplines, is at stake in North America, if not elsewhere. We are in a crisis and need a renewal of pastoral integrity. So, here goes…


In the introduction to Five Smooth Stones, Peterson describes what we are about as pastors:

Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary. It is the pragmatic application of religion in the present. (1)

While such work should be rooted in the biblical sources, Peterson points out the tendency in his day (which is no less present in our own) to turn toward the latest fads or social theories as the basis for pastoral ministry. However, this impulse is not helpful, and Peterson claims:

“When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth.” (2)

Having found the “counsel of my contemporaries” tried and wanting, Peterson outlines his deep desire—one which I resonate with—and the goal of this book: “I want a biblical base for the whole of pastoral ministry, and not just for its preaching and teaching” (5).

Peterson then walks through four aspects in the work of the pastor that he will explore in the coming chapters.  First, there is the tension between the timeless word and will of God and the local and personal place in which ministry is done. This happens best “not by acquiring new  knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the old ones” (10).

Second, there exists “the distinction between biblical foundation and pastoral superstructure” (11). Here Peterson tells us “each generation of pastors, and to a certain extent each pastor, has to build his or her own superstructure of pastoral work. But we don’t, and we must not, lay out our own foundations” (11).

Third, Peterson grounds all pastoral work within the action of worship. “Pastoral work has no identity in and of itself. It is a derivative work, and worship is that from which it is derived” (18).

Fourth, pastoral work is not about abstraction, but about “the local, the specific, and the personal” (20). Like a hiker on the trail,

It is the pastor’s task to work along such trails using a style of speech and a mode of action that is local, specific, and personal so that each person met is addressed as an object of the love of God, which is not merely universal but particular in its universality. (21)

It is within the second distinction that Peterson introduces the framework for Five Smooth Stones, which will follow the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

Seeing this connection of biblical sources with the community at worship, Peterson seeks to retrieve them for reintegration within the work of the pastor. He writes:

Each of the Megilloth, set by Judaism in an act of worship, deals with an aspect of pastoral work: learning how to love and pray in the context of salvation (Song of Songs); developing an identity as a person of faith in the context of God’s covenant (Ruth); dealing with suffering in the context of redemptive judgment (Lamentations); unmasking religious illusion and pious fraud in the context of providential blessing (Ecclesiastes); and becoming a celebrative community of faith in the environment of the world’s hostility (Esther). (17)

Peterson readily admits that “not everything a pastor does fits into the five areas, but a remarkable amount of it does, giving promise that the Megilloth may be highly serviceable for pastoral use” (17).

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

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