Peterson: The eternal and the local

You’ll be seeing me writing more about Eugene Peterson over the next several months. Although he is not a United Methodist (no one is perfect), he has been a formative writer for me as I attempt to understand what it means to be a pastor. So, I am revisiting some of  his works on that pastoral vocation.

Today, a quote from Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work:

It is the unique property of pastoral work to combine two aspects of ministry: one, to represent the eternal word of God; and, two, to do it among the idiosyncrasies of the local and the personal (the actual place where the pastor lives; the named people with whom he or she lives). If either aspect is slighted, good pastoral work fails to take place.

As a bi-vocational part-time pastor, these lines sting. I do not live where my churches are located. I do not live among the people there. I am at a distance. For Peterson, like Wendell Berry, place and rootedness are essential elements of good work. But the way our system is structured, such rootedness is very hard to achieve.

Indeed, our originating plan argued against it. John Wesley thought long tenure in single locations was harmful to effective ministry because no individual pastor had all the gifts needed for every person in a place. Moving preachers meant the various needs of the people were met even if it also meant that some needs were always going unmet.

In the 21st century American context, it appears that the primary result of long-tenures is the creation of congregations that reflect the strengths of the pastor. Those who find that pastor irksome or unsatisfactory move on to another place. Those who find connection to God through the ministry of that pastor — or the church structures that pastor has created — stay around. Over time, the church becomes an icon of the lead pastor.

Peterson would probably argue that a grounding in the Word puts a check on such developments, but I would be surprised to learn that his own church did not bear very deep marks of Peterson’s style and personality.

Perhaps this cannot be avoided and should not be avoided. It may be part of the incarnation. God’s Spirit works through human forms, even human personality. Thanks be to God there is more than one form out there. Perhaps this is a reminder to be thankful rather than critical of those forms that do not suit each of us so well.