Practicing Spiritual Direction [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 11]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription. Every person who comes to a pastor with a heart full of shapeless longings and a head full of badgering questions is complex in a new way. There are no fail-proof formulae (179).

Eugene Peterson brings this book, Working the Angles, to conclusion with attention to what it means for the pastoral to practice spiritual direction with his parishioners. As he mentioned earlier in the book, 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). But how does a pastor do that well?

Peterson begins by drawing out five examples of how not to do spiritual direction. He borrows those five negative examples from the journal of George Fox, who, in his desperate searching, experienced multiple failed attempts to find spiritual guidance. Here they are:

  1. First Pastor: Nathaniel Stephens, who turns Fox’s search for guidance into a theological inquiry and fodder for sermons he will preach. “When a person comes to me for spiritual direction it is not to get into a theological discussion but to find a friend in a theological context” (182).
  2. Second Pastor: The ancient priest at Mancetter, who “doesn’t see Fox as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). When we depersonalize people into customers, we are missing the point of spiritual direction.
  3. Third Pastor: The priest living about Tamworth, who comes across as “an empty hollow cask” because he is focused on techniques or experiences instead of being the sort of person who can really guide Fox. Peterson comments: “our primary task is to be a pilgrim. Our best preparation for the work of spiritual direction is an honest life” (184).
  4. Fourth Pastor: Dr. Cradock, who is fixated on orthodoxy in theology and orthodoxy in life as a means for diagnosis of another’s life. Yet, when Fox transgresses his models, he lashes out in anger. “If we should mistakenly do our work in the dogmatic schoolmaster style of Dr. Cradock, we will deserve the epitaph ‘miserable comforter'” (186).
  5. Fifth Pastor: one Macham, who is regarded as a pastor of high value, but sets to action upon Fox as a means to accomplish something. “Pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history” (187).

These pastors have good reputations and experience, hold mastery in degrees and techniques, but fail as spiritual guides to George Fox. When we succumb to these impulses, we, too, as pastors miss the point of spiritual direction. What wisdom does Peterson offer for those of us wanting to stay on track as spiritual directors? The wisdom comes in three main points.

  1. “For a start, I can cultivate an attitude of awe” (188). This calls us as pastors to see those sitting with us as wonders made in the image of God, whose lives, full of joys and challenges, are worth paying attention to. Peterson comments: “George Fox was a remarkable person, but not one of his five pastors had the faintest inkling of it” (189).
  2. “Second, I can cultivate an awareness of my ignorance” (189). There is so much we do not know about the person with whom we are dealing, that we must admit it, or we will fail to see what we do not yet see. Even more, we are often ignorant about God and what He is doing in this person’s life. “My words and gestures and actions take place in the midst of a great drama, about the details of which I know little or nothing” (191). This puts perspective on our limitations, helping us to lean into our dependence upon God to see and hear what is happening in the one we are meeting with.
  3. “Third, I can cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). Peterson assumes that what people need most is to learn to pray so that they might enter into conversation with God. We are not merely engaging in discussion about ideas or truths, but trying to take them into deeper engagement with God. “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there” (192).

And so, Eugene Peterson’s “holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry” – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – concludes, as does my journey through the entire book. The book ends suddenly, in my opinion, as if Peterson is thrusting us out into the work he has outlined. Perhaps one of the final lines of the book best reminds us of what Eugene Peterson is really calling pastors to in these days:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (192).

Pastors, let us help people keep company with God. Let us live in and minister from these three holy angles of prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. Let us not lose heart in the cultural confusion or drift out of focus with fads and models, but once again send down deep roots into the biblical foundations and historic practices of pastoral ministry.

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

Getting a Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 10]

fullsizeoutput_ae1There is a saying among physicians that the doctor who is his own doctor has a fool for a doctor. It means, as I understand it, that the care of the body is a complex business and requires cool, detached judgment….If those entrusted with the care of the body cannot be entrusted to look after their own bodies, far less can those entrusted with the care of souls look after their own souls, which are even more complex than bodies and have a correspondingly greater capacity for self-deceit (165).

In this way, Eugene Peterson continues his attention on spiritual direction in chapter eight of Working the Angles. This time, he turns to why and how a pastor must find a spiritual director, not for others, but for themselves. Peterson highlights the reality that, in the past, having a spiritual director (whether called that or not) was a requirement for pastors, but that this is no longer the case. “It is rare today to find a pastor who has a spiritual director” (166). The results in contemporary pastoral ministry, and I could corroborate Peterson’s description here, is disastrous:

The wreckage accumulates: we find pastors who don’t pray, pastor who don’t grow in faith, pastors who can’t tell the difference between culture and the Christ, pastors who chase fads, pastors who are cynical and shopworn, pastors who know less about prayer after twenty years of praying than they did on the day of their ordination, pastors with arrogant, outsized egos puffed up by years of hot-air flattery from well-meaning parishioners (166).

I would be more happy to read Peterson’s clear diagnosis of pastoral ministry in our day if it were not so painfully true. My experience with friends and colleagues in ministry over the years fits this ‘wreckage’ fully. At the same time, my own personal experience has shown me how hard it is to move forward as a pastor with an “undivided heart” (Psalm 86:11) without someone speaking from the outside into my areas of slippage, shortcoming, or confusion. Why is this the case?

Peterson traces the contours of one of the most distinct challenges of pastoral ministry, which is that the role calls for the exercise of both authority and submission. “At memorable moments of life…pastors are robed in dignity and represent God’s authority….But the practice of our faith involves the exact opposite of wielding authority, namely, the exercise of obedience” (167). The pastor lives at the intersection of these two seemingly contrary realities and therein arises much of the tension for pastors. We must preach God’s word with authority, but we must also obey it, particularly in areas where it is most challenging for us. We must represent Christ at the communion table, in the waters of baptism, and in visitation within hospital rooms, but we must also receive Christ at the table of our lives for our own daily bread and hear Him call us to take up our cross of selfless obedience.

It is at the point of this tension that our need for a spiritual director finds traction. In one footnote, Peterson shares a quotation from St. Dorotheus of Gaza on this point:

There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself….That’s why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel (166).

Comparing this work of the pastor both to learning a musical instrument and ascending a mountain climb, Peterson calls pastors to have teachers and lead climbers who will point the way ahead of us, highlight our errors, and direct us into the most fruitful practices of ministry. A spiritual director serves toward these very ends. For pastors this means letting go of absolute authority and fierce independence in order to allow a trusted other to be present with, listen to, and speak into our life and ministry.

Peterson describes his own journey to find a spiritual director who could speak into his journey. I will not recount his words here, but will share my own journey with those who have served as spiritual directors for me over the years. During college I reached out for an older man in the faith to mentor me. He agreed to meet every other week in his office. Not knowing what to ask for, I let him set the agenda, but was shocked when he said he would like for us to simply pray for an hour every time we met. I’m not sure why I was shocked, but I’m glad that was the agenda. As I should have expected, I learned more about prayer by praying than by talking about prayer or talking about myself. It was a few years later, that a professor, who also was a pastor, became a spiritual father to me near the end of my college years and into my first years after college. I lived in the basement of his home for a summer and it was not only our formal lunches where we talked about the spiritual life that directed me in the ways of growth in ministry, but also the laughter over a Sunday night meal or the way he and his wife interacted in marriage that set me up for growth as a pastor in my own marriage and family.

Many years later, I have had mentors and spiritual directors, both formal and informal, who have spoken into my life and ministry in various ways. I am so thankful for those I’ve mentioned and others who have helped me become the disciple of Christ and pastor of His church that I am today. I would not be here without them. It has always been a challenge to discover the right person to look toward for spiritual direction, but never so challenging as in my role as Senior Pastor of a larger church over the past several years. I have been forced to seek it out and strive to find it with greater intentionality than ever. Sometimes people I have look to for spiritual guidance have moved to another geographic location, and I have had to start over. Sometimes, I have needed specific guidance for specific things, whether during a recent ministry sabbatical or as I wrestle with specific challenges in ministry. Through it all, however, I cannot agree more with Peterson on the priority of spiritual direction in the life of the pastor. Concluding the chapter, he writes about how his own growth was helped through spiritual guidance:

Quite obviously none of these experiences depends on having a spiritual director. None of them was new to me in kind but only in degree. Some people develop marvelously in these areas without ever having so much as heard of a spiritual director. Still, for most of the history of the Christian faith it was expected that a person should have a spiritual director. In some parts of the church it is expected still. It is not an exceptional practice. It is not for those who are gifted in prayer or more highly motivated than the rest. In fact, as responsibility and maturity increase in the life of faith the subtleties of temptation also increase and the urgency of having a spiritual director increases (176, emphasis mine).

Pastors, let us take Eugene Peterson’s words to heart. Join me in seeking the wisdom of another who can, like a music teacher or a lead climber, direct us toward thriving and flourishing in ministry over the long haul.

[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.]

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.]

Abandoning Our Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 1]

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In reflecting on the ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry after his passing (see “Remembering Eugene Peterson“) on Monday, October 22, I took a look through his writings again. I asked myself a number of questions, amongst them being: what was it about Peterson that helped me so greatly as a pastor?

I saw a note in one  book saying that I re-read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work in August 2016. I remember receiving that book like a glass of cool water on a hot day right when I needed it. Part of what made his words in that book so refreshing was the way in which he opened up Scripture so powerfully and clearly with application to pastoral ministry today.

fullsizeoutput_ae1As I continued peaking through the pages of his writing on pastoral ministry, I was quickly sucked in by the first few pages of Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. This book, published in 1987, strikes a chord so relevant for our own day. I will share the extended excerpt that caught my attention below, but over the next few weeks, I will share some reflections on this outstanding book. I hope you benefit from it as much as I do.

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. ‘A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,’ says Martin Thornton, ‘but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.’

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 1-2.

As I read those first two pages of the book, it was as if I were reading so much of my own story, and the story of so many other pastors, as we wrestle to hold onto our vocation in a culture and church culture that seems many times dead-set on forcing us to let it go of it. Throughout the rest of the book Peterson works out how the pastor can hold onto appropriate biblical vocation through three “angles” of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. More to come on that in future posts, but perhaps now is a good time to consider whether we have abandoned our post — our pastoral calling — as pastors in North America.

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. You can read all the posts here.]