Are Pastors Program Directors?: Eugene Peterson on the need for pastors as spiritual directors [Under the Unpredictable Plant 5]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Late in the book, Peterson argues for a paradigm shift in the mindset we have about pastoral ministry. When Peterson wrote this book in 1992 he was reflecting on nearly 30 years of ministry. His comments about the needed paradigm shift are even more prescient today.

The paradigm shift that I am after is from pastor as program director to pastor as spiritual director. It is as radical vocationally as Ptolemy to Copernicus cosmologically, but with a difference—this is not the formulation of something new but the recovery of something original. The difficulty in recovery is that the original pastor paradigm of spiritual director has to be articulated in a culture that is decidedly uncongenial to such a pattern of understanding.

The program-director pastor is dominated by the social-economic mind-set of Darwinism: market-orientation, competitiveness, survival of the fittest. This is a shift in pastoral work away from God-oriented obedience to career-oriented success. It is work at which we gain mastery, position, power, and daily check on our image in the mirror. A Tarshish career.

The spiritual-director pastor is shaped by the biblical mindset of Jesus: worship-orientation, a servant life, sacrifice. This shifts pastoral work from ego-addictions to grace-freedoms. It is work at which we give up control, fail and forgive, watch God work. A Nineveh vocation.

With that paradigm shift, everything changes. The place we stand is no longer a station for exercising control; it is a place of worship, a sacred place of adoration and mystery where we direct attention to God. Following the paradigm shift, the place occupied by the pastor is no longer perceived as a center from which bold programs are initiated and actions launched but a periphery that faces a center of clear kerygma and vast mystery. Pastoral activity at this periphery is of humbler mien, characterized more or less by what T. S. Eliot called “hints and guesses.” In program direction, the pastor is Ptolemaic—at the center. In spiritual direction, the pastor is Copernican—in orbit to the center. And everything changes. Size, for instance. We go immediately from anxiously mapping sections of religion acreage to inhabiting interstellar grace. The paradigm shift makes it possible to develop a vocation adequate to the “breadth and length and height and depth” of God instead of striving for mere competence in the management of programs that serve human needs.

But while everything changes, it must also be said that nothing changes. The pastor who works out of the paradigm of spiritual director exists in the identical conditions of the pastor who is a program director: pulpit and pew, weddings and funerals, church bulletin and newsletter, the blessed and the bitter, converts and backsliders, telephone and dictaphone, committee and denomination. A superficial observer might never detect any difference in the pastor who has made the shift, confirming that such things both should and can be done, as Jesus instructed, “in secret” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). As in that other paradigm shift, the old vocabulary is still workable—”the sun rose…the sun set”—but it is no longer taken literally. Appearances do not define who we are; activities do not dictate what we do. How we appear and what we do may very well continue much the same; nevertheless, everything is changed.

The paradigm shift is not accomplished by a change of schedule, attending a ministry workshop, or getting fitted out in a new suit of spiritual disciplines—although any or all of these could be useful. It is the imagination that must shift, the huge interior of our lives that determines the angel and scope of our vocation. A long, prayerful soak in the biblical imaginations of Ezekiel and St. John, those robust antitheses to flat-earth programmatics, is a place to start.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 175-177.

Other posts in this series:

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