Pastors as Spiritual Directors: Eugene Peterson on what spiritual direction is and how it applies to pastors [Under the Unpredictable Plant 6]

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.

In the last post I shared Peterson’s call for a paradigm shift in pastoral ministry from program directing to spiritual directing. One of the questions that most often arises in this discussion is, “What is spiritual direction?” Peterson touches on this in many of his books, but offers a fairly helpful outline of what he means by the term here. He says something helpful about why he uses the term first.

I would prefer not to use the term “spiritual director.” I would prefer simply “pastor.” But until “pastor” is understood vocationally as dealing with God and spirituality with the same unquestioned obviousness that “physician” is with health and healing, a special designation is, I think, necessary. “Pastor,” at least among North American pastors, is primarily, if not totally, subsumed in the paradigm of program director.

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

Peterson goes on a few pages later to offer his explanation of what he means by spiritual direction.

Spiritual direction is the act of paying attention to God, calling attention to God, being attentive to God in a person or circumstances or situation. A prerequisite is standing back, doing nothing. It opens a quiet eye of adoration. It releases energetic wonder of faith. It notices Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities. It listens for the Silences between the spoken Sounds.

I sometimes identify spiritual direction as what I am doing when I don’t think I am doing anything important….The pastor is set in the community to insist that it is not enough, to bring to recognition what is blurred and forgotten, to discern the Spirit, to name God when the name of God slips their minds. “I’m terrible with names,” they say. “All right,” says the pastor who is a spiritual director, “I understand. This is Yahweh; here is Christos; meet Kurios.”

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 181-182.

He goes on later, referencing Reuben Lance, a man who met with him for prayer and conversation while he was home in Montana one summer during college.

Reuben Lance, who had never heard of the term spiritual direction, laid down for me the two essential preconditions for spiritual direction: unknowing and uncaring.

Unknowing. Spiritual direction is not an opportunity for one person to instruct another in Bible or doctrine. Teaching is an essential ministry in the community of faith. Knowing the scriptures, knowing the revelation of God in Israel and in Christ, is supremely important. But there are moments when diligent catechesis is not required and a leisurely pause before mystery is. None of us knows in detail what God is doing in another. What we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. There are times in life when someone needs to represent that vast unknowing to us. When that takes places, spiritual direction is in motion.

Uncaring. Spiritual direction is not an occasion for one person to help another in compassion. Compassion is an essential ministry in the community of faith. When we get hurt, rejected, maimed emotionally and physically, we require the loving and healing help of another. Helping in Jesus’ name is supremely important. But there are moments when caring is not required, when detachment is appropriate. What the Spirit is doing in other persons far exceeds what we ourselves are doing. There are times in life when someone needs to get out of the way in order that we might become aware of the “silent music.” When that takes place, spiritual direction is in motion.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 186-187.

And a little more on why he continues to use this phrase for the pastor.

But even though the phrase spiritual direction is nearly always misleading to newcomers, I prefer to retain it, since it has a long and accessible history. Still, I use it as little as possible. I never use it to refer to myself: I am “pastor” to my congregation and “friend” to my friends. (The Celtic term for spiritual director was anmchara, soul-friend—I like that very much.)

What is important to keep in mind is that the practice has long, rich, and deepening precedents in all parts of the church, East and West, ancient and modern. Pastors and others for whom the term is new will often find, as I did, that the practice is old—and that most of us have had significant experiences in it already. Because we did not have a word for it, we did not notice it as much as we otherwise might have. But it is time to take notice, for there is accumulating evidence that there are deepening hungers for maturity at the center, and spiritual direction is the classic carrier of wisdom both from and to that center.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 188-189.

Other posts in this series:

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