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:

The Weekend Wanderer: 10 October 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


read aloud“Why you should read this out loud” – When our children were young we began reading aloud to them even when they were babies, inspired by the work of Jim Trelease and Gladys Hunt. As they grew older we found that we still enjoyed reading aloud. As they have begun to leave the house we continue to read books aloud as a couple because we love enjoying a good book or article together. Recent research suggests that reading aloud might not only be good with others but also on our own.


image 1 - COVID-19“N. T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann look to the Bible for wisdom during the pandemic” – When two wise and seasoned students of the Scriptures write about how to think Christianly about the pandemic it is worth paying attention. Both N. T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann are renowned biblical scholars of the New Testament and Old Testament respectively and both have written about recent works, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Wright) and Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty (Brueggemann) that Jason Mahn helpfully reviews in The Christian Century.


Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill“Book review: The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill. By Robyn Wrigley-Carr – Evelyn Underhill is one of those unique authors from an earlier era whose writings continue to have relevance in our own day and time. Perhaps best known for her important work Mysticism, Underhill moved from an open-ended psychological spirituality to a deeper yet more rooted approach to the spiritual life  as evidenced by her works Worship and Concerning the Inner Life. Underhill’s words continue to speak to us today about prayer and also have set the stage for evangelical engagement with spiritual formation and spiritual direction. With a notable preface by Eugene Peterson, Robyn Wrigley-Carr’s recent work The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill is a work I look forward to reading and is worth paying attention to.


Ravi Zacharias“New sexual misconduct claims surface about Ravi Zacharias” – There are certain stories I hate to mention but still know it is important to discuss because it shines the light on paying attention to and overcoming the dark side of ministry. This is one of those stories. Just five months ago we marked the passing of Ravi Zacharias, who has been Recent reports, however, show that Zacharias may have been involved in questionable activities, which are now being investigated by his own ministry, his denomination, and others. Stories like this remind us both to be aware of human failings, even in our heroes, and to guard the weak from being misused by those who hold power.


For the Health“For the Health of the Nation: A Call to Civic Responsibility” – The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and World Relief issued a joint statement and sign-on letter built upon an earlier work of the NAE called “For the Health of the Nation.” This latest efforts seeks to promote faithful, evangelical, civic engagement and a biblically-balanced agenda as Christians seek to commit to the biblical call to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. I encourage you to read and explore the website which has a number of very helpful resources.


Time Distortion“Why Our Sense of Time is Distorted During the Pandemic” – Here is an enlightening interview with Dr. E. Alison Holman by Jamie Aten, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, about why we often feel like we’re in a time warp during the pandemic. “Altered perceptions of time and its passing are common experiences of people facing trauma, as trauma can peel away the façade of the future, and interrupt the flow of time. This creates perceptual distortions such as feeling like time has stopped or that everything is in slow motion, experiencing a sense of timelessness, confusing the order of time and days, and perceiving a foreshortened future. My research suggests that these changes in perceptions of time and our views of the future may have significant implications for our health and well-being.”


Jefferson Bible“‘The Jefferson Bible’ Review: The Gospel, Sans Miracles” – Many have heard of Thomas Jefferson’s famous editing of the Bible, in which he rearranged portions of the New Testament into something radically different with Jesus less as a Savior than an insightful teacher. He called this project “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” but kept it secret out of fear that his work would be too controversial. With “his scrapbook of New Testament excerpts, the third president offered a dramatic revision of Christian tradition. The New Testament presented ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,’ he recognized, even if he hoped to sharpen those qualities by means of redaction.


Music: Johannes Brahms, “Piano Quartet No.1 in g minor, Op.25 4. Rondo alla zingarese: Presto” performed by Paul Huang, Jung Yeon Kim, Ole Akahoshi, and Jessica Osborne at the Seoul Arts Center

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 8 August 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Last week I took a break from “The Weekend Wanderer,” as I was at Fort Wilderness speaking for one of their summer family camps in the beautiful north woods of Wisconsin. Here are a couple of photos of the beauty.

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Beirut explosion“16 Beirut Ministries Respond to Lebanon Explosion” – Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, directly affected people within our church and partners in that part of the world. We are praying for the country and the believers as the recover and talking with church partners as they fashion a response (support our efforts by giving financially here). Here are some examples of ministries responding on the ground in Beirut in an article at Christianity Today. You may also benefit from reading about the way this reflects deeper problems in Lebanon (“Beirut Explosion Looks Like An Accident — And A Sign Of The Country’s Collapse”), the impact on humanitarian aid for refugees (“More than $600,000 in humanitarian aid for refugees destroyed in Beirut explosion”) and one journalist’s attempt to explain this disaster to his children as they live in Beirut (“How I Explained Beirut’s Explosion to My Kids” ).


CT bodily worship“Preserving Our Body and Bodies for Worship” – One of the most important aspects for worship and discipleship is our bodies. Those who serve an incarnate Lord serve Him incarnationally, following Him by offering our bodies as living sacrifices and living together as the redeemed community. Here is Hannah King reflecting on the importance of this in relation to the body of Christ, our bodily life, and the church at worship. “Corporate worship demonstrates this reality weekly. We gather as bodies, presenting our whole selves to God in praise and thanksgiving. We sing and lift our hands, we kneel to confess and to pray, we take the bread in our hands and eat. But we also gather as a body of bodies, embedding our individual faith within a larger, corporate reality. Christianity is never merely personal and private, but interpersonal and familial. Our communion with God is the fellowship of a family.”


51MxgeRI+ML._SL250_“Barbara Peacock – Soul Care in African American Practice – Review – In The Englewood Review of BooksOpe Bukola reviews a book I hope to read soon: “Though I was drawn to contemplative practice, the little I knew of it made me doubt it was ‘for me’ as a 30-something Protestant black woman. I know my share of prayer warriors, so praying intentionally resonates strongly as part of black Christian practice. But contemplation? Not so much. I’ve since learned of the African roots of Christian contemplative practices, from church fathers like Augustine and Tertullian, to 20th century giants like Howard Thurman. So when I first heard of Dr. Barbara Peacock’s book, Soul Care in African American Practice, I was immediately drawn to the term ‘soul care.’ In the book, Peacock highlights the spiritual practices that have sustained generations of African American Christians and urges black Christians to prioritize intentional soul care.”


Science_poetry_98603463“What Poetry Means for Doctors and Patients During a Pandemic” – As a lover of poetry and limping writer of poetry, I found this article in Wired fascinating. What is it about poetry that helps us in times of difficulty? “When Rafael Campo took over as poetry editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association a little over a year ago, he wasn’t expecting to field quite so many submissions….At first, Campo says, he got about 20 or 30 poems each week. Some are from patients or family caregivers. Most come from doctors and nurses. But as the pandemic got underway, more and more poems arrived. Now, his inbox is bursting with over a hundred weekly submissions. ”


White fragility“White Fragility: Why this Book is Important for Evangelicals” – Ed Stetzer invites Allison Ash to be the first in a series of interactions with Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She writes: “I think this book is important for evangelical Christians, particularly white evangelical Christians (both people who would identify as progressive, conservative or a combination of the two), because it speaks a language that has been almost completely missing within the white evangelical church throughout its history.” For another perspective you may want to look at an article I posted in July by George Yancey, “Not White Fragility, Mutual Responsibility.” 


Flannery O'Connor“The ‘Cancelling’ of Flannery O’Connor?:  It Never Should Have Happened” – Flannery O’Connor is a twentieth-century southern novelist whose Christian faith weaves in and out of her work with a mesmerizing and sometimes ghastly force. If you’re not familiar with her work, I’d encourage you to start with her short stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find. O’Connor, however, has recently come under scrutiny for some of her views, leading Loyola University of Maryland to remove her name from a building because “some of her personal writings reflected a racist perspective.” In Commonweal, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell takes the university to task for this decision.


Music: Bon Iver, “AUATC.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

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.]