Wise Words for Pastors from Eugene Peterson

13 May

Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is, so far (I’m about 130 pages in), one of the richest books I have read on pastoral ministry.  I found the following passage, on the relationship of pastor to congregation, extremely helpful.

An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger. Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal—that is, untheological—presuppositions are abandoned. If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are. We already know they can’t make it. We already have accepted their depravity. We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways. “Cursed be he that trusteth in man, even if he be a pious man, or, perhaps, particularly if he be a pious man” (Reinhold Niebuhr). We have come among the people to talk about Jesus Christ. Grace is the main subject of pastoral conversation and preaching. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).

But a pastor is not likely to find this view of people supported by the people themselves. They ordinarily assume that everyone has a divine inner core that needs awakening. They’re Emersonian in their presuppositions, not Pauline. They expect personal help from the pastor in the shape of moralistic, mystic, or intellectual endeavors. People don’t reckon with sin as that total fact that characterizes them; nor do they long for forgiveness as the effective remedy. They yearn for the nurture of their psychic life, for a way in which they may bypass grace and walk on their own. They are frequently noble and sincere in their approach as they ask the pastor to believe in them and their inner resources and possibilities. The pastor can easily be moved to accommodate such self-understanding. But it is a way without grace. The pastor must not give in. This road must be blocked. The Word of God to which pastoral ministry is committed loses propinquity the moment a person is not understood as a sinner.

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners. It enables us to heed Bonhoeffer’s admonition: “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.” So sinner becomes not a weapon in an arsenal of condemnation, but the expectation of grace. Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry. But to see people as sinners—as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way—that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”

One Response to “Wise Words for Pastors from Eugene Peterson”

  1. shamtest May 14, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    I can’t seem to be able to reach this page from my droid!

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