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Recovering The Contemplative:
Insights From Eugene Peterson's, Under The Predictable Plant
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
"One by one, men and women are making their moves, beginning to
against the stream, refusing to be contemporary pastors, our lives trivialized
by the contemporary, and are embarking on the recovery of the contemplative."
Eugene Peterson, Under the Predictable Plant, (Eerdmans, 1992),
- His boldness is unmistakable. To some, it is repulsive. To others, it
is prophetic. One thing for sure: once considered, it cannot easily be ignored.
- But, whether speaking directly or parabolically, Eugene Peterson's prescription for
ministerial health lies not in numbers, administrative techniques, leadership training, or
in pastoral career advancement. Instead, it lies in the recovery of the contemplative.
- Soul Wreckage
- For Peterson, the proof of the need to recover the contemplative is two-pronged. The
first--and most urgent--proof of the need to recover the contemplative is the wreckage of
souls. "The soul-wreckage among those who work with souls is appalling" he
states (p. 112).
- Though Peterson offers no statistics, reports from ecclesiastical organizations such as
"Safety Net" indicate that 1300 pastors were forced out of their congregations
in 1997. There is no denying it. The church landscape is littered with
- Why is it that pastoral work is so hazardous? Because, Peterson explains,
- "the very nature of the work is a constant temptation to sin. The sin is, to put an
old word on it, pride. But it is often nearly impossible to identify as pride, especially
in its early stages. It looks and feels like energetic commitment, sacrificial zeal,
selfless devotion" (p. 114).
- As we minister, Peterson continues,
- "it seldom occurs to us that in work that is so purely motivated and well-intended
anything might go wrong. But something almost always does go wrong. In our zeal to
proclaim the Savior and enact His commands, we lose touch with our own basic and daily
need for the Savior.
- At first it is nearly invisible...[but] Along the way most of us end up so identifying
our work with Christ's work that Christ himself recedes into the shadows and our work is
spotlighted at center stage. Because the work is so compelling, so engaging--so right--we
work with what feels like divine energy. One day we find ourselves (or others find us)
worked into the ground" (p. 115).
- Wanted: Contemplative Pastors
- Peterson's second proof of the need to recover the contemplative is the gross lack of
contemplation among ministers. Citing the rarity of truly contemplative American pastors,
Peterson reflects on a "strange indeed" phenomenon.
- "Priests, gurus, prophets, medicine men, shamans, in all the religious groupings
that we have knowledge of have, without exception, understood themselves primarily as
pray-ers. Their business is with God and spirit and soul. Responsibly connected with
everything natural, their reach is toward the supernatural" (p. 111).
- Though he remarks that "it is no more difficult to pursue the pastoral vocation
that any other," (p. 4), the greatest pitfall of ministry is that the pastoral
vocation in America is embarrassingly banal.
- Furthermore, the ministry in America is banal because it is "pursued under the
canons of job efficiency and career management." With stunning directness, Peterson
gives the final reason for the need to recover the contemplative. There is a
"widespread idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and
manage" (p. 4).
- Peterson's Ministerial Maladies
- Throughout his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson outlines the roots
of the ministerial health crisis. Some of the maladies that he suggests plague American
- 1) Vocational Lip Service. "Pastors commonly give lip service to
the vocabulary of a holy vocation," he writes, "but in our working lives we more
commonly pursue careers" (p. 5).
- 2) Inadequate Institutional Spirituality. "I do not find the
emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the
veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something
biblically spiritual--rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ,
soaked in Spirit" (p. 5).
- 3) Hostile Cultural Conditions. "The conditions in which we must
acquire a spirituality for our vocation...are, it must be admitted, not friendly. Our
vocations are bounded on one side by consumer appetites, on the other by a marketing
- Pastoral vocation is interpreted from the congregational side as the work of meeting
people's religious needs on demand at the best possible price and from the clerical side
as satisfying those same needs quickly and efficiently. These conditions quickly reduce
the pastoral vocation to religious economics, pull it into relentless competitiveness, and
deliver it into the hands of public relations and marketing experts" (pp. 3-4).
- 4) Ecclesiastical Pornography. "Parish glamorization," says
Peterson, "is ecclesiastical pornography." "Anyone who glamorizes
congregations," says Peterson, "does a grave disservice to pastors....On close
examination...it turns out there are no wonderful congregations.
- Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won't shut up, furnaces
that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat--and
worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren't bad enough,
they all have sinners for pastors" (p. 17).
- 5) Propagandists. "Propagandists are abroad in the land lying to
us about what congregations are and can be. They are lying for money. They want to make us
discontent with what we are doing so we will buy a solution from them that they promise
will restore virility to our impotent congregations. the profit-taking among those who
market these [programs] indicates pastoral gullibility in these matters is endless"
- 6) Pastoral Boredom And Abandonment. When the propagandist's
"sure-fire" program fails, "Pastors, faced with the failure of the
purchased procedures, typically blame the congregation and leave it for another. The
devil, who is behind all this smiling and lacquered mischief, so easily makes us
discontent with what we are doing that we throw up our hands in the middle of it,
disgusted, and go on to another parish that will appreciate our gifts in ministry and our
devotion to the Lord. Every time a pastor abandons one congregation for another out of
boredom or anger or restlessness, the pastoral vocation of all of us is vitiated" (p.
- Peterson's Prescription
- What are some ways to recover some of the contemplative aspects of ministry? Peterson
suggests the following.
1) Begin Ministry In God's Presence. Begin the ministerial vocation
delighting in the presence of the Lord. Unlike Jonah, we must not flee away from the
presence of the Lord. We must not turn away from our uncomfortable calling to the pagan
Ninevites for a more illustrious calling to Tarshish where we can develop pride and
acquire power. We must be drawn toward, be attracted to, and go where God calls us. It is
there we will find joyful fulfillment of our calling.
2) Stay Where You Are. Citing that it was not unusual for monks to
leave one monastery to set our for another "more challenging" monastery,
Peterson wonders, "Was it really more of God they were after or were they avoiding
the God who was revealing Himself to them?" (p. 20).
Apparently, Peterson is not the only one with valid suspicions. So was Saint Benedict.
To those who were "sure" that if they just got into the right monastery, things
would be better, Benedict said, "stay where you are." Hence, the Benedictine
"Vow Of Stability."
The "norm for pastoral work is stability," Peterson notes. "Twenty,
thirty, and forty year-long pastorates should be typical among us (as they once were) and
not exceptional. Far too many pastors change parishes out of adolescent boredom, not as a
consequence of mature wisdom. When this happens, neither pastors nor congregations have
access to the conditions that are hospitable to maturity in faith" (p. 29).
3) Think "Vocation," Not "Advancement." Citing a
parallel between the monastery and the congregation, Peterson urges pastors to
"detach themselves from the careerism mind-set that has been so ruinous to pastoral
vocations" (p. 21). Begin to see your congregation as a location--the location--into
which God has placed you so that you might have a "spiritually maturing life and
ministry....The congregation is not a job site to be abandoned when a better offer comes
along" (p. 21).
4) Think "Transformation", Not Just "Results." God
may not be so much interested in the numbers, growth, and institutional success of a given
congregation as he is in the spiritual transformation which the numbers, growth and
institutional success hopefully reflect. The focus, however, is always the spiritual
transformation of each individual, encouraging the process of spiritual growth, and
helping the people in the pew find God in their suffering. This transformation must start
with the pastor.
5) Think "Imperfect Church" Not "Perfect Church."
Peterson has much to say of the imperfect groupings of people in God's church. Of the
ancient Israelites Peterson remarks, "Nothing in Israel strikes me as terrifically
attractive....A bare sixty or seventy years after Pentecost we have an account of seven
churches that shows about the same quality of holiness and depth of virtue found in any
ordinary parish in America today. In two thousand years of practice we haven't gotten any
better. You would think we would have, but we haven't. (p. 24)
6) Think "Christ"...First And Always In Everything. That was
St. Paul's advice to the Colossians. "Christ first in everything!" For Peterson,
this means that "every time we open up a church door and take a careful, scrutinizing
look inside we find them there again--sinners. [But we also see] Christ. Christ in the
preaching, Christ in the sacraments, but inconveniently and embarrassingly mixed into this
congregation of sinners" (p. 24).
- 7) Recover The Contemplative Monastic Disciplines. Perhaps this is
Peterson's most radical--but insightful--key for recovering the contemplative ministry. In
Subversive Spirituality, Peterson espoused a fifth theological discipline,
"Ascetic Theology" to be taught in seminaries alongside the disciplines of
Historical, Exegetical, Practical, and Systematic Theology. In Under the Unpredictable
Plant, Peterson espouses a return to "contemplation," a word derived from templum,
meaning a "place for observation."
- In order to develop this penchant for spiritual "observation" (i.e.
"contemplation"), Peterson suggests two things. First, he suggests a
rediscovery of prayer ("askesis") based on the Psalms. Second,
he suggests a return to the fourteen disciplines to develop spirituality in monastic life.
These include "Spiritual reading, spiritual direction, meditation, confession, bodily
exercise, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, dream interpretation, retreats, pilgrimage, almsgiving
(tithing), journaling, sabbaticals, and small groups."
- "Each of us," he continues, "must develop expertise so that we can call
up any one of the disciplines as it is needed and set it aside when it is no longer
needed....there is no one-size-fits-all askesis" (p. 108).
- Reflections And Comments
- 1) Certainly, the basic spiritual and contemplative aspects of the ministry calling need
to be recovered. Peterson is right. The ministry crisis is a crisis of an understanding of
what the calling really entails. As long as both pastors and congregations fail to
understand God's plan for the ministry, the ministerial health crisis will continue its
apparent rampant proliferation.
- 2) Peterson's focus on pastor as seelsorger (i.e. one who cares for souls) is
illuminating, accurate, and traditional. The caring of souls does occur when "we
preach the Word and administer the Sacraments, [when] we give pastoral care and administer
the community life, [when] we teach and [when] we give spiritual direction" (p. 21).
- In many congregations, the caring of souls in a personal way goes far beyond what the
pastor can personally do. The challenge for pastoral seelsorgers is to develop
other seelsorgers to serve under the pastor's guidance in an auxiliary manner to
the pastoral office. It this there is a great opportunity for the mentoring of
spirituality to others. Visitation ministries of caring, small group fellowships and
evangelism programs are some examples of such ministries. Indeed, these and other such
programs can provide a marvelous setting to embark on an enriched and deepened spiritual
- 3) Sometimes the church needs to be purified, enhanced, fine-tuned, and given direction.
Especially with larger churches, more organizational programming may be warranted to
address the diversity of spiritual needs. Such changes, however, should not be done simply
for the sake of change. Instead, they should be directed toward specific spiritually
transformative goals related to nurturing faith and trust in the Gospel.
- 4) Contrary to Peterson's suggestion, denominational and para-church resources should
not automatically be discounted and discarded. Certainly there are those organizations
which are frankly, wealthy. Many are professional and have been successful. They have
brought results. The danger is that wholly unawares, these outside influences may build
budgets but not spirituality. Especially when ministry is required from outside sources,
congregations need to carefully consider and discern the spiritual aspects first.
- Important questions need to be asked. Questions such as
- "What spiritual transformations can be expected if such an such organization or
consultant assists us?"
- "Are these helpful--or hurtful--in our greater understanding of God's plan for this
- "Are the principles suggested in conformity with a proper understanding of the Law
and Gospel in our midst?"
- "Does the Gospel pre-dominate?"
- "Is the Law used to provoke guilt-motivation?" and
- "Will this program glorify Christ in the immediate presence, the short-term, and
- Once agreed on, any program ought to be genuinely promoted first and foremost for its
value for the spiritual transformational development of individuals, not for sheer
- 5) Pastors need to quit moving around unnecessarily. Certainly, God does call pastors to
different churches. Increasingly however, interviewing congregations are checking pastoral
resumes. They are looking for various things...including tenure. Many healthy
congregations want and seek a long-term pastor. Conflicted congregations,
accustomed to a new face in the pulpit every couple years (or less) may need one
- Until quality pastors can stay long term in these difficult congregations, the
"disposable pastor" syndrome will continue to dominate their agenda and
congregational life. By changing pastors every 2-5 years, there may be lots of change, but
no transformation. Congregational spirituality needs time and pastoral tenure to lead the
necessary spiritual transformations.
- Since pastors are change agents, and since change takes time, it follows that healthy
change is not likely when pastors keep changing. For this reason, today's pastors need to
counter cultural expectations of "instant results" with a strong dose of good
old patience. A poster at the University of Michigan's Cancer Center is certainly
applicable to pastors. Numquam decadamus, that is, "We never give up!
- 6) Though Peterson's view of the ministry may over-emphasize the spiritual, ascetic side
of the ministry, the emphasis is not bad. Indeed, Peterson may have struck a major key to
recovering the contemplative. If pastors would implement those items in the fourteen
monastic disciplines which are doctrinally and vocationally appropriate to their
respective denominational heritage and scriptural position, perhaps a very necessary
spiritual transformation of American ministry might occur.
- 7) Recovery of spirituality begins with a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It
exudes the joy of being forgiven "in Christ." Such Gospel-centered message is
the inextricable basis and motivation for everything the Christian does.
- 8) Recovering the spiritual is not a panacea. It also avoids potential extremes of
spirituality which may also threaten the church. Whether it be pride of buildings and
programs or pride of spirituality, the common factor is still pride. Thus a balanced
ministry for Jesus Christ balances Law and Gospel, buildings and relationships, corporate
congregational development and personal spiritual development.
- 9) As the Law encourages the external and mechanical and the Gospel flows from the cross
of Christ through the internal heart, soul and mind, perhaps the need for the recovery of
the spiritual is a sign of a church infiltrated with and dominated by the Law.
- 10) By recovering the Gospel and elevating it to its appropriate predominance the
Church, through the Spirit's working in Word and Sacrament, may develop a renewed focus
which looks to the spiritual relationship of the believer exercised through spiritual
disciplines such as worship, prayer, receiving the sacraments, meditation, et al.
- In Closing...
- Properly balanced with a Scriptural understanding of ministry, Peterson's call for a
spiritual perspective of pastoral vocation is refreshing. It is inviting. Most of all, it
gives rays of hope and encouragement to a vocation so severely battered in contemporary
- If you want to challenge your understanding of ministry, read Eugene Peterson's Under
the Predictable Plant or other of his books (e.g. Subversive Spirituality,
et al). If you do, you'll probably never see your ministry--and your vocation--quite the
- Thomas F. Fischer
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:34 PM