The Unnecessary Pastor

a summary of Peterson's take on soul care from chapter 1


If we intend by “soul care” the care of people in communities and the care for the benefice and shalom rhythm of those communities, I am for it :) As Peterson is fond of pointing out, the care of souls is a pastoral and theological endeavor that embraces all of life. The pastoral part is often compromised by technological and managerial matters; the theological part by therapeutic and marketing matters.

I’ve just finished reading “The Unnecessary Pastor,” Eugene Peterson’s work in collaboration with Marva Dawn. It was thoroughly enjoyable. While some of the work is conditioned by the particular context they address.. fairly typical church systems and structures.. it is overall a warm and helpful reflection on the work of caring for and equipping God’s people. Peterson focuses on the letter to the Romans as a pastoral letter. Here is a short summary on the work of the pastor from the first chapter by Peterson.

“The pastoral dimensions of the church’s leadership are badly eroded by technologizing and managerial influences. The theological dimensions of the church’s leadership have been marginalized by therapeutic and marketing preoccupations. The gospel work of giving leadership to the community of the Christian faithful has been alienated from its source. Among leaders, at least, the rationalist mind has taken over in the schools, and the functionalist attitude has prevailed in churches to the extent that pastoral theology, as such, is barely recognizable. Rational and functionalism, both of them reductive, have left pastoral theology thin and anemic.

“I want to identify four elements in Paul’s writing of Romans that contribute to his formative influencein pastoral theology: his submission to Scripture, his embrace of mystery, his use of language, and his immersion in community.

Submission to Scripture

“It becomes clear early on in the reading of Romans that Paul is not an independent thinker, figuring things out on his own. Nor is he a speculative thinker, playing with ideas, searching for some ultimate truth. His thinking is subordinated to all that God has revealed of himself and his purposes in Scripture. Scripture for Paul is the Hebrew bible, what we now designate as the Old Testament… Paul does not use his mind as an adventurer, as a master — he uses his considerable powers of mind to enter into what has already been made known, what God has “revealed through faith for faith” (Romans 1:17).

“It is in his relation to Holy Scripture that we see a primary characteristic of his work as a pastoral theologian: the Scriptures are not so much something to use as the text that furnishes his vocabulary, shapes his imagination, and forms his life.

“A necessary pastor seeks to control Scripture, wielding it for his or her own ends. An unnecessary pastor finds a home and a country within the Scripture and is shaped by them.”

“I want to identify four elements in Paul’s writing of Romans that contribute to his formative influence in pastoral theology: his submission to Scripture, his embrace of mystery, his use of language, and his immersion in community.

Embrace of Mystery

“To Timothy Paul wrote, “Great indeed … is the mystery of our religion.” This sense of mystery is embedded in Romans, where Paul delights in mystery and accepts mystery. His celebrated outburst at 11:33-36 is characteristic.

“One of the things I am trying to counter is rationalism — the reduction of reality to what you can describe or account for. .. It is significant that [Paul’s] reverent but exuberant stance before the God who cannot be figured out or diagrammed comes in the context of some of Paul’s most vigorous reasons (chapters 9-11). By it he is saying, in effect, “I want you to understand this, but you can’t — it’s bigger than you are.” Mystery, for Paul, is not what is left over after we have done our best to reason things out on our own; it is inherent in the very nature of God and His work.

“It takes considerable humility to embrace this mystery, for in the presence of mystery we are not in a position to control anything, to predict or manage, to pose as authorities, to, as we say, “master the subject.” But it does leave room for worship, for there is no worship where there is no mystery.

“Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.

“Necessary pastors operate within the known and the controlled, majoring in explanations and problem solving. Unnecessary pastors need not figure everything out but live in the awe of the God of mystery, glad to know that there is more going on than they can see or get their minds around.”


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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2006