Eugene Peterson and “the Faulty Job Description” of the Pastor

I’ve been slowly reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles again. If and when a church calls me as a pastor, I want a paradigm I can go to when the pressures come. My assumption, based on my experience in vocational ministry is that what I’m supposed to do will constantly be questioned and challenged. I need to be able to say to myself and others (with gentleness) what my calling is and is not. The following quote is helpful to that end. It’s not helpful simply because of what I want to do. It’s a good reminder of what’s in my own heart. I am subject to the temptation of feeling a passage or sermon is not useful if it was not what I wanted.

The faulty job description has been written by customers in a consumer society. Historically, a unique thing has taken place in our society. The causes are multiple but the effect is single: everyone is a customer. We have been trained to think of ourselves and then to behave as consumers. We are known by what we buy. We measure the health of our nation and the success of our lives in terms of per capita income and gross national product. If people save what they earn instead of spend it, the nation gets sick. If we devote too much time to creating something enduring and beautiful without calculating its cost-efficiency, we damage the economy. If we look too long without buying, we retard progress. If we give away too much without counting the cost, we interfere with the market. If a politician running for office asks the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” everyone interprets that “better off” in terms of what money they have on hand to spend. I am worth what I spend.

No pastor is exempt from this conditioning. Our educators train us superbly in the acquisition of goods. Marshall McLuhan often remarked with dismay that the advertising budget of our nation exceeded by several times the school budget, and that the people who ran the advertising agencies were, with a few exceptions, far more able than those who ran the schools: “The classroom cannot compete with the glitter and the billion dollar success and prestige of this commercial education…disguised as entertainment and which by-passes the intelligence while operating on the will and the desires.”

If I receive my primary social identity as a consumer, it follows that my primary expectation of the people I meet is that I get something from them for which I am prepared to pay a price. I buy merchandise from the department store, health from the physician, legal power from the lawyer. Does it not follow that in this kind of society my parishioner will have commercialized expectations of me? None of the honored professions has escaped commercialization, why should the pastorate? This has produced in our time the opprobrious practice of pastors manipulating their so-called flocks on the same principles that managers run supermarkets.

The question operates subliminally, shaping my behavior: what do people want from me, their pastor? Something surely along the order of a better life: encouragement, insight, consolation, formulas that enable them to get along better in a difficult world, uplift them (a friend calls this “brassiere theology”). We, of course, are conditioned to comply. Why should we not please the people who pay our salaries if we can do it with good conscience? And why should not our consciences be good, ratified as they are by the vote of congregation after congregation? This consumerism shapes us without our knowing it. There is nothing in our lives that it does not touch in one way or another.

This acquisitive mode is so culturally expected and congregationally rewarding that it cannot fail to affect our approach to the Scriptures. When we sit down to read the Scriptures we already have an end product in view: we want to find something useful for people’s lives, to meet their expectations of us as pastors who deliver the goods. If someone says to me, “I don’t get anything out of reading Scripture” my knee-jerk response is, “I will show you how to read it so that you can get something out of it.” The operative word is “get.” I will help you be a better consumer. By this time the process is so far advanced that it is nearly irreversible. We have agreed, my parishioners and I, to treat the Bible as something useful for what they can use out of it. I, a pastor shaped by their expectations, help them to do it. At some point I cross over the line and am doing it myself—looking for an arresting text for a sermon, looking for the psychologically right reading in a hospital room, looking for evidence of the truth of the Trinity. The verb looking has taken over. I am no longer listening to a voice, not listening to the God to whom I will give a response in obedience and faith, becoming the person he is calling into existence. I am looking for something that I can use to do a better job for which people will give me a raise if I do it conspicuously well enough.

One thought on “Eugene Peterson and “the Faulty Job Description” of the Pastor

  1. pastorjeremiah April 14, 2014 / 7:44 pm

    I love “Working The Angles” I love that so many years later it seems more relevant than ever. I have over the last few years become so disillusioned with the “Ministry” and his writings have been a balm and a word from God to me as I learn to be a pastor… It has dismayed me how little of my ministerial training actually taught me how to pastor.

    Also my Aunt studied at Regent for her Masters and got to be a part of a home group led by the Petersen’s… followed by doing a Ph.D at St.Andrews in Scotland where her doctorate advisor was N. T. Wright… her sole purpose in life is to challenge my capacity for jealousy.

    That has nothing to do with anything… I just needed to purge.

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