Review of The Contemplative Pastor

Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993)

I’ve been meaning to read The Contemplative Pastor for quite some time. It has been recommended to me several times over the years by friends and colleagues that I trust. But like all things that come highly recommended, a person has to decide for oneself whether or not to take the plunge and see what all the hype is about.

After receiving yet another recommendation for the book this January, I finally decided to pick up a copy for kindle. Was it equal to the hype? Well, yes and no.

If you are of a certain personality or mindset, the poetic language of Peterson’s work will no doubt draw you into his story and speak to your soul. Though I enjoy poetry and am a creative professional, I have always struggled with poetic language in pros. So in some ways, it made the book a little bit less accessible to me. It wasn’t an easy read.

On the other hand, that may have been Peterson’s point. The language forced me to slow down, to think through what is being said, to – in essence – become contemplative.

When I think of a book that I would classify as “awesome” I typically think of something I can’t put down, a real page turner. Peterson’s book required multiple sittings for me. I had to put it down, so that I could think about what I had just read. Some parts of it frustrated me, while others spoke deeply to my soul.

The Contemplative Pastor is not the kind of book that I can jump up and down, waving my arms enthusiastically about. It is not the sort of book I can recommend to every casual reader that I meet. But it is precisely the sort of book I needed to read as a pastor, and for those who are seeking to live deeper spiritual lives of service – I can’t recommend it highly enough! You don’t have to be a pastor to gain from this work.

In the first part of the book, Peterson attempts to redefine the role of the pastor. This role has changed drastically in the last hundred years. Pastors are now, more than ever, expected to ‘be all things to all people’. They are preachers, counselors, wedding planners, event coordinators, coaches, theologians, building supervisors, chaplains, personnel managers, and friends, just to name a few. Peterson argues that, while none of these things are bad, the pastor is called to a specific set of roles (not jobs, but identities) that must be made primary for the pastor to fulfill his or her responsibilities.

Peterson suggests that the pastor’s role in the community of faith is, first and foremost, to be: 1) unbusy, 2) subversive, and 3) apocalyptic. And he goes on to explain quite convincingly what these mean and why pastors who allow all of the other necessities of the job to interfere with these three are in danger of burnout, frustration, and failure.

In the second part of the book, Peterson turns to the work and life of the pastor between Sundays; what he calls ordinary ministry. It is what I have previously referred to as ministry in the everyday. In this section, he talks about the importance of remembering our call to “cure souls”, becoming attentive in prayer, and learning to discern what is going on in the deeper recesses of people’s souls, looking past what displays on the surface, and recognizing the realities of everyday life that people face.

Peterson goes on to speak frankly about the reality of spiritual growth, the importance of “small talk” (i.e., living together in authentic relationships daily), and the new way in which modern people are “unwell”. He also takes this opportunity to reflect on his sabbatical year, which prompted this book, talking about the deep trust that was built up between him and his congregation during that time, and the fruits that have arisen from it.

In the third part of the book, Peterson gives the reader a collection of his own poems for consideration. He says that poets and pastors have a lot in common, because of our careful use of words. He suggests that pastors become allies with poets, and in this final section, he demonstrates his kinship with poets through his own contemplative verse.

Altogether, The Contemplative Pastor is a good read that I highly recommend for pastors, church leaders, or anyone who seeks to live a deeply spiritual life of service. It may frustrate or confuse you at times, but it will most definitely stretch you, nourish your soul, and give you incredible food for thought.

Pick up a copy today and get to reading…



Isaac Hopper

Isaac Hopper (PhD, Manchester) is a United Methodist Pastor serving churches in the Indiana Conference. He writes publicly about Christian discipleship, faith, and living the called life. He also writes academically about Wesleyan theology and practice.