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:

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: