Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

For a season now, I’ve been pursuing a spiritual direction, and trying to be a better “director” of people’s souls myself.

I was recently going through Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integritywhich has shaped me as a pastor as much as any other book I’ve ever read—with a friend, and re-read what he has to say about giving spiritual direction.

(Incidentally, I think that “spiritual direction”—or mentoring, or whatever you’d call personal, spiritual influence—is one of the most desperately needed activities in our culture. I think much of 21st century North American culture has no need for a bigger, better, faster worship gathering. We need a more sober, consistent spiritual direction and discipleship for God’s people).

So here’s what Peterson says:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of awe with and for every person you meet with. Every meeting is a privilege, and an opportunity to see God work.
  2. Cultivate an attitude of ignorance. We can make assumptions about peoples’ motives and feelings. Most of the time they are wrong. We do better to assume nothing and ask questions. (This is something I’m trying desperately to grow in.)
  3. Cultivate a predisposition to prayer. Prayer is the furnace, and oftentimes what people really want from us is to learn to run the furnace for themselves. They don’t want our advice; they want to learn how encounter God for themselves.

Between Two Visions

apologize ahead of time for the length of this, but this has been on my mind for a while now, and I wanted to share it. Hopefully it all makes sense. 

I’ve worked for churches now for 14 years.

I know I’m supposed to say something higher, and more important sounding, like, “I received a call into full-time ministry at 29, and have been in vocational ministry ever since.”

I know that’s what I’m supposed to say, but I’m not sure that I can, at least with any honesty. At the very least, I’m not sure that I wasn’t doing ministry when I wasn’t working for a church, and I’m not sure that all the things I’ve done in a given week working at a church were actually ministry.

Does that make sense?

So I’m hesitant to call it more than what I think it is. I’ve worked at churches—on and off, full-time and part-time—for 14 years. During that time, I’ve planted churches, done music, taught, shared sorrows and joys with folks, and had a few hard conversations. I’m sure ministry “happened,” but I’ve always been challenged with my role and activities in the context of a church, specifically….

Am I a pastor? 

Most of the time I think I am. I try to be the best shepherd I can be, and try to counsel, encourage, and challenge people as the Spirit leads.

But I know that there’s this other side to me: the side that is gifted with very public talents (we call them “up front” gifts): singing, playing guitar, teaching.

These two sides of me struggle. One side is bathed in humility; the other is extremely comfortable in a spotlight (did the 1st century church have spotlights? never mind.) 

This is a really important place for me to be—between two visions of my “work”—and I think more than a few of us “in the business” of ministry are there as well. I’ve heard stories lately of a few really gifted church teachers and communicators who have left behind their positions. Some of them have left their church communities entirely, others have merely changed their roles to allow them more time to pursue the creative endeavors that they are amazingly gifted at. They’ve tended to couch their reasoning in language like this, “We want everyone to be free to pursue who God has called them to be; something has been nagging at us for a while, growing inside, and we’ve come to believe that we should be moving into (insert “movie making”, “drawing”, “screen-writing”, “book writing” or whatever here), and we need to follow that call of God on our lives. Since that’s what we believe should be happening with you, we should model that.”

Trust me: I know this language. Deeply. I know that God gifted me to communicate through music, and I’m grateful for the chance to have pursued it. Relatedly, there are things around my church that just “need doing”, and I have to, well do them. I wish I didn’t have to. They have little to do with my “calling”, in terms of talent. If I could get rid of them, I would, in a hot minute.

But there’s this other voice inside of me that rails against this whole paradigm. The “other guy” in my life—the one that believes that sitting across a table in a coffee shop and weeping with someone is one of the highest privileges in life—calls, “foul.” That guy’s conception of his job leans heavily on duty, obedience, faithfulness, and humility: things learned at the feet of people like Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, and folks that just “followed the call”—and in some cases faced down their demons—long before the book deals came (in some cases, they never came). That guy believes that self-actualization and “pursuing who God has created me” can veer dangerously close to an individualized, westernized version of the Gospel.

Does God call us to self-actualization? I’m not so sure.

To be blunt, I wish their announcements would’ve gone something like this:

“Hey everyone. I’ve really valued the time I’ve had to be a part of this community, to lead you, to teach you, to shepherd you. But there’s been something that’s been brewing in my heart, and in my family’s minds, and it’s come to this: I no longer want to be a pastor. I want to go into movie-making/music-making/design, because I feel that there’s vital, important work to do there—even God-breathed, evangelistic work. I’ve valued being your pastor/leader/shepherd. I will never forget it, and you will always be a part of my life, as we will be a part of you. But this season of pastoring is over. We are no longer responding to that call.”

Again, If I’m being harsh, it’s only because I live in this same spot. I know what it means to want to be free to do more of what you naturally want to do.

I’m just not totally sure that’s the gig. 

Eugene Peterson says that a pastor is someone in a community who has been set aside to pay attention. I love that. I try to do that. For me, that’s not really sexy, in fact, it’s not really about me. Contrary to guitar playing, I don’t think I’m very good at “paying attention”. What’s certain though, is that I’m not paying attention to me; I’m paying attention (or truthfully, trying to pay attention) to the Holy Spirit in the community here.

I’m trying to stay faithful.

I’m not sure if God will release me from the call to “pay attention”. Right now he hasn’t, so…

… for now, my eyes are open.

p.s. The following (LONG) excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s Working The Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry has impacted me more than probably any other group of words in terms of what I believe a pastor is called to. It’s long, but there’s true weight in these words (they are couched in a fictional letter from a congregation to a pastor).

If you’re a pastor, read them and see if they resonate with you; if you part of a body of believers, consider what you’re asking your pastors to do.


We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church — and sinned. We see the dancers or the lovers or the singers — at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves — our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives — in our work and play, with out children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vow of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation

My Reading Universe, Pt. 1: Eugene Peterson

The other night at church, someone asked, “Hey Eric, what are you reading?” This is always a very complicated question for me to answer, because I’m using churning through 6 or 7 books at a time, but I thought I’d take a few minutes here and outline the major “pillars” of my reading universe. These are the people that simultaneously, form, shake, and enhance my ministry, my world view, and my creative spirit. There are numerous other authors, of course, but these are my “mainstays”.

So over the next few days/weeks, I’ll outline who these folks are — to me, at least — and why they matter. In short, they are:

  • Eugene Peterson
  • NT Wright
  • Brennan Manning
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Cormac McCarthy

Let’s start with Eugene Peterson. He’s the guy who wrote The Message. When I began my vocational ministry “career” someone — quite randomly — threw his book called Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry at me, and I through myself into the book with the enthusiasm of someone who’d thought they had the whole world figured out (I was soon to find otherwise). I suppose the next thing I read by him was his translation/paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, then after that I devoured 5 or 6 more of his, including Five Smooth Stones and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

I’ll be honest: sometimes, I have no idea what Peterson is trying to say, and even when I do “get” him, the result can at times be a bit, “meh.” But what sings through, much of the time, is the voice of a poet and pastor, who at times just nails the balance of rigorous intellectual pursuit with the gentle voice of an artist-pastor. Peterson was the guy who showed me that you did not have to be a “Type A”, CEO-type in order to be a leader in the contemporary USAmerican church. He also reminds me that “pastoring” comes from a long tradition, with deep wells. We don’t need to “invent” discipleship for people. In so many ways, the same words and disciplines that worked for people in the 13th century still work today.