Eugene Peterson on the Making of the Modern Pastor (and Congregation)

I have been reading through Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). It is a tremendous read, one that I highly recommend to all who find themselves ministering in the church. Peterson is a provocative writer, someone who is able to point out with precision some of the idols that often accompany the way American evangelicals (not least pastors) approach the subject of “doing church.”

Subversively, Peterson has the unique ability to diagnose some of the misdirected, specifically the fad-centered, ways in which the American church lives and moves and has its being. He is a sharp (though never ungracious) critic of how infatuated American evangelicals have become with things such as crowd size, exciting worship experiences, fat budgets, busyness – all things which, when elevated as the main thing, serve to undermine the pastoral vocation and, not least, Christian worship itself. By calling into question some of the idols that have come to define the modern American evangelical church, Eugene Peterson remains a blessed gift. 

Below is a quote from his book (Working the Angles, pp. 7-8). I think he hits on a problem here that, sadly, pervades much of how ministers (and congregations) understand the way to “do church” and the way to be a “successful” minister with a “successful” ministry. 

He writes:

For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses. Course I: Creative Plagiarism. I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom. Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling. We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys an unmistakable aura of sanctity. Course III: Efficient Office Management. There is nothing parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively. If we return all telephone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desks – not too much or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed – we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything we actually do. Course IV: Image Projection. Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community. A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.

(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training for pastors with which I plan to make my fortune. Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me. I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum. The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical – a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion. I’m not laughing anymore.)

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