[This post follows another inspired by an article at Gospel Coalition by Douglas Sweeney.]

Pastor, or Pastor-Theologian? 

A number of the most helpful books on the pastor’s life and work that have weighed in my hands have been written by Eugene Peterson.  I recently finished his memoir which recast the wisdom and insight I have learned from books like Under the Unpredictable Plant or The Contemplative Pastor into a narrative structure.  Roughly three decades of service in a local parish, another handful of years devoted to serving as theologian at Regent College, a decade and more devoted to translating the Bible from its original languages into the lingua franca of the parish and workplace alike—few ministers embody the vocational vision of the pastor-theologian than Peterson.

Yet his memoir is entitled The Pastor [1], not The Pastor-Theologian or The Pastor-Scholar.

In the previous post, I asked if aspiring to work as a “pastor-theologian” rather than as your run-of-the-mill “pastor” was pretentious.  My motivation in framing the question this way is to express a degree of sensitivity to the church-academy divide that haunts many a heart and many a pew.  The university is a threatening institution for a large number of believers when it comes to matters of faith; seminaries, divinity schools and Christian colleges/universities are often tainted by their academic associations and viewed with some suspicion.  The hyphenation between “pastor” and “theologian” can seem counter-intuitive.

But I believe mightily in the vocational role of the pastor-theologian.  The question for this post is whether or not we should use the hyphenated term or simply re-adjust and reform the vocational identity of “pastor.”

That is what I believe Peterson is doing in his memoir.

He acknowledges that you cannot flip to such and such a chapter in the New Testament to learn who a “pastor” is and what a “pastor” does.  Though a range of ecclesial positions and leadership principles are certainly featured in the New Testament (the Pastoral Epistles particularly come to mind) our contemporary post of “pastor,” though certainly not novel, is a vocation that developed after and in the wake of Scripture’s prescriptions for and descriptions of church heirarchies.

Peterson recounts angst and frustration over the lack of resources for defining and guiding his work as a pastor.  A momentous breakthrough seemed to occur when he and a company of other local pastors decided to stop letting non-pastors tell them how to ply their craft.  They met regularly year after year (that “company” is still meeting, as I understand it) to sort out the pastoral vocation together (pp 130-60).

Another breakthrough occurred in a church business meeting of sorts when Peterson tendered his resignation.  When pressed as to why, he offered an impromptu speech which encapsulated his vision of the pastoral identity (pp. 277-282).  The church decided they were quite pleased with that pastoral model and asked him to stay on and put it into practice.  And so he was freed to pursue the path of a “contemplative pastor” as opposed to the “competitive pastor,” a model getting more press at the time—and perhaps even now (p. 214).

The “competitive pastor” seems much more pretentious than Peterson’s model of the “contemplative pastor.”  The former employs an impressive skillset and perhaps also a charismatic personality to perform pastoral wonders.  The latter must acknowledge that those “competitive skills and achievements [are] virtually worthless.  Worse than worthless: actively destructive” (p. 208).

Distinguishing Pastor from Pastor-Theologian

But most pastors are not going to write 30 or so books and translate the entire Bible.

Peterson’s memoir is not just a narrative about his life.  It is an untidy, reflective re-forging and re-casting of the vocational identity of the pastor.  But his “contemplative” model is not a cookie-cutter mold.  Clearly, he challenges the culturally-mandated formulations of the pastoral way of working and being, but he is not urging all pastors to conform to a well-honed image of his own example.

Not all pastors are inclined to read poetry and Barth, Melville and Dostoyevsky.

So in this reworked vision of the “pastor,” should all pastors really be pastor-theologians?

I think the notion of “contemplative pastor” should be universally embraced for ministers.  But in this spacious vocational identity there exists also the notion of a “(contemplative) pastor-theologian” for whom the daunting labors of theological study hold an even greater urgency (I say “an even greater” because theology must be of rigorous urgency for any pastor, in my view).  Writing certainly seems to be a distinctive mark as well (though one of the most brilliant, theologically-inclined pastors I know reads more commentaries than I do as a NT doctoral student but simply dislikes writing).

Do these distinctive inclinations of pastor-theologians render them more or less helpful in the parish?  Are churches willing to take on an “unbusy pastor” (p. 277), a contemplative pastor, a contemplative pastor-theologian?

Re-forging the pastoral vocation requires more than pastors figuring out who they are and what they do.  It means helping churches understand, appreciate, and endorse the contemplative model.  And the pastors need to be learning from the churches themselves about their roles—as Peterson found when he once tried to resign, the flock may already know the role of the shepherd better than the shepherd.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

4 thoughts on “The Vocational Identity of the Pastor-Theologian (part 2): Peterson’s “Contemplative Pastor””

  1. I cannot say how much I loved reading this. You have basically summarised my Masters thesis which is being written on Eugene Peterson’s understanding of the pastoral vocation and the challenges it faces in modern ministry.

    I would like to say, like you I found the Memior to be clarifying, especially of his writings. For Peterson, I believe, the pastor as theologian is very different to that envisioned by Piper and Carson. For Peterson the work of theology as it relates to the pastoral vocation is always local and grounded within the context of the pastors’s ministry.nhe also believes in Scripture as relational and liveable, hence you won’t find him making bold doctrinal or systematic claims. Peterson is far more narrative based. The narrative of scripture and the narrative of the parish. This is where I like his contemplative model, it offers a spiritual approach with a foundation of prayer that works out of the scriptures.

    Once again, thanks for the post.

    Mark Stevens
    Pastor, Happy Valley Church of Christ.

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