The Pastor as Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 9]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson outlines three essential acts of pastoral ministry: prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. These three acts are, to use a metaphor from mathematics, a holy trigonometry of three inner angles that shape outer, visible acts of ministry: preaching, teaching, and administration. I turn now, in my journey through this book, to the third of those inner angles: spiritual direction.

Peterson spends most of chapter 7, “Being a Spiritual Director,” defining and clarifying what he means by spiritual direction. Here are a few of his definitions.

Spiritual direction is the aspect of ministry that explores and develops this absorbing and devout attentiveness to “the specific detail of everyday incidents,” “the everyday occurrences of contemporary life” (150).

Spiritual direction is the task of helping a person take seriously what is treated dismissively by the publicity-infatuated and crisis-sated mind, and then to receive this “mixed random material of life”…as the raw material for high holiness (150).

Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith (150).

Many are unfamiliar with the term and uneasy with its implications….what I call spiritual direction is what they [pastors] are doing when they don’t think they are doing anything important (150-151).

Peterson emphasizes the ordinary sources for spiritual direction and the relational environment in which such guidance takes place. This is a return to one of the essential tasks of pastoral ministry with a terminology that was widely used throughout the history of the church. While Peterson is not the first to encourage a return to this (see Thomas C. Oden’s 4-volume Classical Pastoral Care or John T. McNeill’s now out-of-print A History of the Cure of Souls), he does speak with direct insight into contemporary shortcomings in pastoral practice of spiritual guidance. 

Let me share a few of Peterson’s insights about the contemporary pastor’s role as spiritual director.

Being a spiritual director, which used to loom large at the center of every pastor’s common work, in our times has been pushed to the periphery of ministry. Ironically, this is the work that many people assume that pastors do all the time: teaching people to pray, helping parishioners discern the presence of grace in events and feelings, affirming the presence of God at the very heart of life, sharing a search for light through a dark passage in the pilgrimage, guiding the formation of a self-understanding that is biblically spiritual instead of merely psychological or sociological (151).

Being a spiritual director means a readiness to clear space and arrange time to look at these elements of our life that are not at all peripheral but are central — unobtrusive signals of transcendence. By naming and attending and conversing, we teach our friends to “read the Spirit” and not just the newspapers (152).

For most pastors being a spiritual director doesn’t mean introducing a new rule or adding another item to our overextended job descriptions, but simply rearranging our perspective: seeing certain acts as eternal and not ephemeral, as essential and not accidental (153).

Being a spiritual director means noticing the familiar, naming the particular. Being knowledgeable in the large truths of sin, grace, salvation, atonement, and judgment is necessary but not sufficient. A lot of our work takes place in the details of the particular (157).

I love Peterson’s comments about spiritual direction, but I almost wish that I could sit with him to see how a week of his ministry would have played out. Thankfully, he gives some practical insight for those of us looking for it: “For me, at least, formal spiritual direction involves only five or six people with whom I meet at intervals of four to six weeks” (161). This makes what Peterson is suggesting both clear and, although I hesitate to use the word about these matters, manageable. Reading works like this, or perhaps older texts on spiritual direction, we may sometimes tend to idealize the pastoral role as doing nothing but meeting with souls hungry for a word from God. Peterson graciously dashes that idealized picture, while still calling pastors to pay attention, listen, and join in the journey as guides for those God entrusts to us.

Three pithy statements in this chapter are worth holding up here at the end of the post for further reflection:

Any Christian can do this, and many do. Spiritual direction is no prerogative of the ordained ministry….But the fact that anybody can do it and that it can occur at any time and place must not be construed to mean that it can be done casually or indifferently. It needs to be practiced out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness (160, emphasis mine).

This is one part of our work that stubbornly resists generalizations. All the same, I will risk one: the “unimportant” parts of ministry might be the most important. The things we do when we don’t think we are doing anything significant might make the most difference (161, emphasis mine).

It would be unwise to forget for a moment that in this business we are sinners dealing with sinners; still, the primary orientation is toward God, looking for grace. It is easier to look for sin (163).

Pastors, let us return to the art of spiritual direction in our ministry, not pushing it aside as unimportant or missing the significant in what we feel is insignificant.

[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

Recovering our way: Thomas Oden on the Antinomian infection in North American Christianity

tom odenMy continued reflections on pastoral ministry, the church, and what it means to be in ministry in North America led me back to Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. I first read this book while still an undergrad at Wheaton College but enrolled with special permission in a graduate level class entitle “Pastoral Ministry,” I believe, with Dr. Timothy Beougher. The class was outstanding and I still remember many things from it, including Dr. Beougher’s own wisdom from experience as a pastor.

Tom Oden is perhaps best known today for his turn from liberal Methodism to classic Christian orthodoxy through his encounter with the church fathers and mothers. He traces this journey in two works, After Modernity…What?: Agenda for Theology and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. The fruit of that journey is Oden’s invaluable systematic theology, as well as the renowned Ancient Christian Commentary series.

While returning to this book with one of our staff members at Eastbrook as part of their ordination journey, I encountered this simple, yet vastly important, statement on the antinomian infection within North American Christianity. Here are Oden’s words:

The tradition has used the term antinomianism (from “against law,” or “lawlessness”) to speak of that undernourished view of God’s grace that views the gospel as if it implied no moral response or ethical constraint or norms of redemptive behavior. Antinomianism is the weird, wild, impulsive, unpredictable sleeping partner of much contemporary pastoral care. It mistakes the gospel for license, freedom for unchecked self-actualization, and health for native vitalism. The classical pastoral tradition has struggled mightily against “cheap grace” solutions and premature reassurances in a way that will be reflected on almost every page that follows.

Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice….

As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me not matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.

The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.