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:

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.]