Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: The Contemplative Pastor

I'm a little bit embarrassed to confess that I've only just now read Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  It is one of those books that countless people have told me I "should" read.  Now I know why.  Thanks to a wise friend and mentor who recently sent me a copy, it has arrived at the right time.  

Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor, author, teacher, and poet.  He has penned more than 30 books in the areas of biblical studies, pastoral theology, and spirituality.  He was the founding pastor of a congregation in Maryland where he served for 29 years before leaving to teach at Regent College in Vancouver.  What he has to say is rooted deeply in his experience of prayer, study, and listening; which are, he argues, the essential tasks of ordained ministry.

In this book, Peterson's concern is to recapture a sense of the essential work of ordained ministry: being a "pastor."  Writing in the late 1980s, he argued that the understanding and practice of pastoring was "defined by parody and diluted by opportunism." (p. 15)  When clergy are not considered quaint and even rather silly, almost as useless as they are harmless, they are seen as predatory parasites.  Between the huckstering of televangelists and the scandals of clergy sexual abuse, little has transpired in the past twenty years to dramatically shift that perception.

At the same time, there is something of an identity crisis among clergy, many of whom feel relegated to being little more than managers of religious businesses; the parish as franchise providing a standardized packaged product to spiritual consumers. Sinking beneath the high tide of institutional decline among mainline Protestant denominations, the pressures upon pastors to increase revenues - to become financially sustainable - are enormous.  It takes some effort to remember what congregations - and pastors - are for. 

For Peterson, the recovery of the "forgotten art" of the "cure of souls" is the solid, high ground upon which pastors must stand in the face of the forces eroding their sense of integrity and purpose.
Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays.  The context changed:  instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer.  The manner changed:  instead of proclamation, there was conversation.  But the work was the same:  discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.

This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls.  The primary sense of cura in Latin is "care," with undertones of "cure."  The soul is the essence of the human personality.  The cure of souls, then, is the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane.  It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential. (p.57)
Peterson contrasts this with "running a church," the reduction of pastoral work to institutional duties.  Now, such duties are necessary, but they are not sufficient for, much less central to, pastoral work.  The cure of souls does not exclude the managerial and programmatic, but it makes them subservient to the cultivation of "a way of life that uses weekday tasks, encounters, and situations as the raw material for teaching prayer, developing faith, and preparing for a good death." (p. 59)

The contrast between "the cure of souls" and "running a church" is sharpened by several examples.  "In running the church, I seize the initiative.  I take charge . . . By contrast, the cure of souls is a cultivated awareness that God has already seized the initiative . . . Running the church questions are:  What do we do?  How can we get things going again?  Cure of souls questions are:  What has God been doing here?  What traces of grace can I discern in this life?  What history of love can I read in this group?  What has God set in motion that I can get in on?"  (pp. 60-61).

The contrast also can be noted by the way in which we use language.  "Running the church" language is descriptive and motivational - it is the language perfected by advertising.  It is about trying to get people to understand and do something.  "But in the cure of souls I am far more interested in who people are and who they are becoming in Christ than I am in what they know or what they are doing." (p. 62)
We have, of course, much to teach and much to get done, but our primary task is to be.  The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore, is conversation and prayer.  Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected.  It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited - the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer. (p. 63)
Finally, the focus of running a church is on solving problems; the cure of souls on cultivating gratitude and wonder.  Peterson quotes Gabriel Marcel, who wrote that life is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be explored.  Problems are endless, and their resolution a full-time job.  If we get "hooked" by continual problem solving, we will miss the primary responsibility of pastors, which is to invite people into the scary but ultimately more satisfying experience of the numinous.  The focus of pastors is to be "guides through the mysteries." (p. 64)

What this means for pastors is that we need to get clear about our purpose and our priorities.  Peterson confirms a suspicion I have had for some time that while not all spiritual directors need to be clergy, clergy need to be spiritual directors.  Along with Peterson,
I want to cultivate my relationship with God.  I want all of life to be intimate - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously - with the God who made, directs, and loves me.  And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.  I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wondering if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying.  I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name.  I don't want to dispense mimeographed hand-outs that describe God's business; I want to witness out of my own experience.  I don't want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. (pp. 19-20)
Don't we all want such a person to be our pastor?  Don't we wish to be such a person?  The Contemplative Pastor is a reminder of our deepest desire and a hedge against the forces that erode our willingness to nurture that desire.  I recommend this book to clergy and laity, especially those whose congregations are in transition.  It provides a helpful nudge to look beyond clergy job descriptions and resumes to grasp the heart of the matter.

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