Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson

It's finally here! Yes, you heard me correctly, the new Eugene Peterson memoir is here. I have waited almost a year to read this book and I'm glad I did. Back in April I heard Pastor Peterson speak at a national Faith and Writing conference in Michigan. He read several sections from his manuscript and at the end there was a five minute long standing ovation. Peterson is a monumental figure in pastoral care. I first came across his writings while pursuing graduate work in pastoral ministry when I came across his Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Working the Angles. Then last year I bought a copy of his famous translation of the Bible into colloquial English, simply titled The Message. Peterson's publishing output is amazing. His books take up at least half of a library shelf.
For nearly thirty years Pastor Peterson was the main pastor at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, MD. Then, before his retirement he spent nearly a decade teaching pastoral ministry at Regent College in Vancouver British Columbia. Peterson is now retired and is a guest speaker at conferences and clergy gatherings.
His memoir, which is simply titled, The Pastor (Harper One, 2011) is not a usual memoir. Rather, as he states in the introduction, it is a collection of thoughts about the people and events that went into his becoming a pastor in the first place. While at New York Theological Seminary Peterson had hoped to enter into a Ph.D. program in Semitic languages and teach in a college or seminary setting. This dream never came to fruition. After several seminary classes and working with such noted pastors such as George Buttrick, Peterson felt called to the pastorate, and he never left.
Peterson has lived a long life and includes much of his early childhood in this book. We learn about his early Church life in the Pentecostal Church and stories about his mother who often preached on Sunday and his father the butcher. We hear about his seminary training in New York and later his clergy gatherings and work in Bel Air. Peterson devoted his whole life to serving God, the Church, and fellow humanity. If there was a Nobel Prize for pastors Peterson should get one. He is what I call a pastor's pastor and of all my books in my personal library I turn to his when I feel down in the dumps or need some inspiration in the pulpit.
However, while reading The Pastor I realized there were some important facts left out. Peterson never really tells us why he left the Pentecostal Church to join the Presbyterian Church, only that a professor mentioned this suggestion to him one day in passing. He spent nearly 30 years at Christ the King but we never hear of any problems or pains that he had there except for what he calls "the Badlands" years but he never fleshes this out. There is no way he pastored for 30 years and never had a breakdown or manic episode not to mention conflict in the parish. We never hear about why he went to Regent College or what he did there, that part of his life was also mentioned only in passing. We never hear of his troubles and trials, what John of the Cross calls the "dark night of the soul." I have been in my parish for only 10 years and have had more than enough "dark nights" that I remember, what about Peterson?
I cannot fault Peterson for leaving out these parts of his life. Perhaps they are too personal or too hurtful to share? Perhaps his editor suggested him to leave them out? Perhaps those events will be in another future volume? After reading the book though I was yearning to hear the whole story. After reading Richard Lischer's pastoral memoir Open Secrets and more recently Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church I realize that pastor's go through a lot of tough stuff, stuff that Peterson left out of his memoir. Was this by choice or by suggestion?
Overall I am glad that I read The Pastor and have noted several pages which I will, like his other books on my shelf, read again and again and again. If you are a Church leader or pastor, go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy of The Pastor. Read it and be inspired!