Marva Dawn & Eugene Peterson: Rediscovering Our Pastoral Callings

     It makes perfect sense: put two writers together who are known for their urgent calls for a deeper faith and faithfulness. Two writers who are top-notch thinkers, but not dry scholars, whose place of scholarship is the local church (not the academy or theology school). Two writers whose gifts and passions include a love for reading, writing, words. Two writers with lots to say and the grace to say it with charm and wit, even the hard words.

     What a book! I’m talking about the brand new The Unnecessary Pastor co-authored by Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson (Eerd-mans, $14). Taking turns, Eugene has chapters on the Pastoral Epistles and Marva reflects on the wider work of God held before us in Ephesians. Together, they help pastors (and, by extension, those in para-church ministry or parish leadership) reclaim their primary callings. To do this, they must first deconstruct some of the common expectations of what pastors are to do and be. Early on, Peterson says that he and Marva “are going to work at building an identity of unnecessari-ness to counter these expectations from culture, ego and congregation.”      This is no new ground, especially for Peterson. Many of us know him for his fantastic reflections on the Psalms (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Where Your Treasure Is and Listening to God) or his spectacular book on “earthy spirituality” via the life of David, Leap Over a Wall. He is renowned for his colorful rendering of the Bible, The Message. You may not know that he is also well-respected in clergy circles for his remarkable quartet of works on what he’s termed “vocational holiness.” Rooted in concrete biblical studies, these books invite pastors to do that which pastors have always done (when not pigeon-holed or pressured into less germane tasks). These essential books, which every CCO worker should know of and talk about with your own pastors and church staff, include The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones (the most rigorous of the four), Under the Predictable Plant (on Jonah) and Working the Angles (start here, I’d say). To the extent that we all do pastoral care and help lead and serve local fellowships, we all could benefit from this sort of professional guidance. Given the youthful age, over-achieving personality traits and hectic lifestyles of many campus ministers, it is long-haul wisdom from an elder that is especially needed.

     This is not the place to review the spirits and trends that have deformed our understanding of authentic ministry, which serves as a sub-text for much of Peterson’s work. I trust that I need not explain the significance of the rise of rationalism (the Enlightenment) and technology (the Industrial Revolution) or the triumph of the therapeutic (think Freud, et. al.) and the subsequent rise of management and marketing techniques in the church. Still, calling these to mind is helpful; we are dreaming if we think that these pivotal paradigm shifts have not influenced our own worldviews and consequent notions of church, personhood, ministry, spirituality and the like. Try as we might (and I know some of us are trying hard), our very view of our calling into ministry and the form of that ministry is often colored more by culture and/or churchy subculture than by biblical revelation. These two fine authors, both of whom are knowledgeable of the CCO, by the way, are among our best allies in fighting this particular fight.

     To understand just how fully biblical this team wants us to be (“miles away from what is current,” Peterson says), and how convicting their perspective can be, one must read just a couple of pages. Peterson, nearly as an aside, mentions his “allergy” to using mechanistic secular terms like “dysfunctional,” referring better to machines, rating their efficiency. when referring to people we are called to love. Or recall Marva’s delightful and serious insistence on opening her talks with us last December with a communally spoken duo of phrases, “The Lord be with you, And also with you!” She explains why this is important in the first paragraph of her first essay. It speaks volumes of her wise and radical effort to keep God central (His blessing and Spirit, not her own) and the community engaged and embodied. My, this is rich, wonderful stuff, with each page packed full of insights, commentary, stories and vision. Originally given to a group of pastors and pastors-to-be at the always interesting Regent College, these are so, so important and a much-needed gift to those of us struggling to make sense of ministry in this new millennium.

     Those who bought some of Marva’s books at the December event will know of her winsome writing style, which is nonetheless radically biblical, culturally-informed and quite serious-minded. Her Ephesians study here is similar. Can’t you just imagine what she’ll do with the glorious doxology of Ephesians 1? And who better than she to walk us through a cogent chapter on the principalities and powers of Ephesians 6? She wonderfully shares her most simple efforts at fidelity (like dressing with the liturgical colors in mind) and yet offers incisive cultural analysis. Like one of her academic influences, Jacques Ellul, she has a profound grasp of the evil importance of Mammon on the arrangement of our society. From the personal (how much tip should you give?) to a substantial critique of the demonic influences in technology and the media, she calls us to form communities which triumph over the principalities and powers. These chapters are vintage Marva D. and we need her now more than ever! Peterson’s excellent work is thoughtful and, as always, spiritually rewarding and useful; useful, that is, in a Kingdom sense. (Indeed, it is “un-useful” if you want 7 habits or 21 indispensable qualities or 12 keys, etcetera, etcetera.) His commentary is useful in forming our sensibilities, pointing us toward biblical mentors, colleagues who have gone before, from whom we can take our clues. It is useful in the basic task of placing ourselves in the Biblical Story, allowing God and God’s purposes to shape our lives. It reminds us that “church workers” not only serve the church, but are called to love the world. No privatized faith here, no idolatry of denominational territory, no overly pious churchiness. We are to be about, as his Presbyterian ordination vows have it, “the reconciliation of the world.” Amen!

     Specifically, then, Eugene give us three “unnecessary” pastors. First, Paul, finishing up in Rome. Paul, nearing the end of his pastoral vocation, willingly and graciously lets go of his authority and position. Pastoral vocation is not located in him. He demonstrates a leadership of humility.

     Then, Timothy, taking over in Ephesus. Timothy enters into a congregational mess with the mandate to straighten it out. He inherits both the legacy (of Paul) and the problems (of Hymeneaus and Alexander) for which others were responsible. Pastoral vocation doesn’t begin with a clean slate. Suffering is inherent in the work. Timothy reforms a corrupt church.

     Finally, Titus, starting out in Crete. Titus, in the newly evangelized island of Crete, lays the foundations for Christian community in a culture that doesn’t know much about spiritual community or a life of discipleship. Titus is sent to establish a firm foundation. (pages 18-19)

     Are these the sorts of jobs you find yourselves doing? Are these the sorts of Christian leaders you desire to be? Over the next year or so, you should read the whole body of work by Peterson and Dawn, but start with this one. It is not unnecessary.

      My only mild concern of Marva and Eugene (and, for the record, it is not as much with them as with how some interpret and pursue their suggestions) is that it may be that they are so frustrated with the shallow accommodation of some churches with pop culture that they seem to sometimes give a “Christian against culture” vibe. Marva is more likely intentional about this, mentored as she was by the likes of Stan Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. To counter any potential high-brow ecclesiastical-isms, keep reading the provocative Leonard Sweet (and listen to his tape, SoulTsunami). Try to figure how Peterson and Dawn would react to Sweet’s stimulating book on envisioning new pastoral arts (AquaChurch).

     Culture Shift: Communicating God’s Truth to Our Changing World by David Henderson (Baker, $18.95) is a very readable book on the dramatic shifts in culture which may be moving the world out of reach of the traditionally- explained gospel message. Henderson doesn’t “do postmodern” the way Sweet does, but he does try to answer the practical question his important subtitle raises! For a bigger, deeper answer to how to respond to our new postmodern landscape, reread the second half of Walsh & Middleton’s Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, which insists on the narrative of the Bible being the answer to the brokenness of our strange, new world. So, then, to come full circle, back to the biblical text, you should know that Eugene Peterson has just published his first formal commentary, First and Second Samuel, in the very accessible Westminster Bible Companion series. It is, as you can guess, wonderfully written and a great asset for understanding not only the cycle of David stories, but the reverberations that are set up between the Samuel/David story and the gospel story of Jesus. Im amazed at how few commentaries we sell; this would be a good one if you aren’t in the custom of doing that sort of serious, attentive reading of the Word.