Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness

by Eugene H. Peterson


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Like Eugene Peterson's other books on pastoring,Under the Unpredictable Plant is full of stimulating insights, candid observations, and biblically grounded prescriptions. Yet this book emanates with a special poignancy out of Peterson’s own crisis experience as a pastor.

Peterson tells about the "abyss," the "gaping crevasse," the "chasm" that he experienced, early in his ministry, between his Christian faith and his pastoral vocation. He was astonished and dismayed to find that his personal spirituality, his piety, was inadequate for his vocation —and he argues that the same is true of pastors in general.

In the book of Jonah—a parable with a prayer at its center —Peterson finds a subversive, captivating story that can help pastors recover their "vocational holiness." Using the Jonah story as a narrative structure, Peterson probes the spiritual dimensions of the pastoral calling and seeks to reclaim the ground taken over by those who are trying to enlist pastors in religious careers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802808486
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/28/1994
Pages: 197
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.55(d)

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Introduction (from pages1-8)

In my thirteenth year and four years into my ordination, an abyss opened up before me, a gaping crevasse it was. I had been traveling along a path of personal faith in Jesus Christ since childhood; in adulthood and entering my life work, the path widened into an Isaianic highway in the wilderness, a vocation in gospel ministry. Who I was as a Christian was now confirmed and extended in what I would do as a pastor. I and my work converged: my work an extension of my faith, vocation serving as paving to make the faith accessible for others who wished to travel this road.

Then this chasm opened up, this split between personal faith and pastoral vocation. I was stopped in my tracks. I looked around for a bridge, a rope, a tree to lay across the crevasse and allow passage. I read books, I attended workshops, I arranged consultations. Nothing worked.

Gradually it dawned on me that the crevasse was not before but within me. Things were worse than I had supposed; this was requiring more attention than I had planned on. Unwilling, finally, to stand staring indefinitely into the abyss (or loosen my grip on either faith or vocation, options that also occurred to me), I entered the interior territory in which the split had originated and found heavily eroded badlands. I searched for the details of discontinuity between my personal faith and my church vocation. Why weren't things fitting together simply and easily? I was a pastor vocationally; I was a Christian personally. I had always assumed that the two, "pastor" and "Christian," were essentially the same thing and naturally congruent. Now I was finding that they were not. Being a Christian, more often than not, seemed to get in the way of working as a pastor. Working as a pastor, with surprising frequency, seemed to put me at odds with living as a Christian.

Like Dives in hell, I was genuinely astonished. I had presumed that the life I had been living personally would issue vocationally into something blessed. Here I was experiencing instead "a great chasm...fixed" (Luke 16:26). Like Dives, I began praying "have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue" (Luke 16:24). Unlike Dives, I received relief—but not in a moment, and not without unaccountably long stretches of badlands waiting. Gradually, and graciously, elements of vocational spirituality came into view. The canyons and arroyos were not so much bridged as descended, and in the descent I reached a bottom from which I could ascend as often as I descended (but only after the descent) with a sense of coherence, the personal and the vocational twinned.

Undercapitalized Vocations

Exploring this territory and praying this prayer, I looked for a spirituality adequate to my vocation. Now, thirty years later, I am ready to give witness to the exploration and the prayer. I do it with considerable urgency, for I come across pastor after pastor standing bewildered before the same or a similar abyss. Sadly, many turn back, abandoning their ordained vocation for a religious job. I don't want any of these men and women, whom I count my colleagues and friends, to turn back. The vocation to be pastor, while not, perhaps, hierarchically conspicuous, is nonetheless essential in the revolutionary gospel work of inaugurating and practicing the kingdom of God. Every time one of our company abandons this essential and exacting work, the vocations of all of us are diminished.

Spiritual leadership vocations in America are badly undercapitalized. Far more activity is generated by them than there are resources to support them. The volume of business in religion far outruns the spiritual capital of its leaders. The initial consequence is that leaders substitute image for substance, satisfying the customer temporarily but only temporarily, on good days denying that there is any problem (easy to do, since business is so very good), on bad days hoping that someone will show up with an infusion of capital. No one is going to show up. The final consequence is bankruptcy. The bankruptcies are dismayingly frequent.

The conditions in which we must acquire a spirituality for our vocation—an interior adequate to the exterior—are, it must be admitted, not friendly. Our vocations are bounded on one side by consumer appetites, on the other by a marketing mind-set. 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.

It is no more difficult to pursue the pastoral vocation than any other. Vocations in homemaking, science, agriculture, education, and business when embraced with biblically informed commitments are likewise demanding and require an equivalent spirituality. But each requires its own specific attention. What is essential for pastors is that we focus on our particular "pestilence that stalks at noonday." In our eagerness to be sympathetic to others and meet their needs, to equip them with a spirituality adequate to their discipleship, we must not fail to take with full seriousness our straits, lest when we have saved others we ourselves should be castaways.

Vocational Idolatry

Why do pastors have such a difficult time being pastors? Because we are awash in idolatry. Where two or three are gathered together and the name of God comes up, a committee is formed for making an idol. We want gods that are not gods so we can "be as gods."

The idolatry to which pastors are conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.

Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed. But it is both possible and common to develop deep personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. If the pastor is devout, it is assumed that the work is also devout. The assumption is unwarranted. Sincerity in a carpenter does not ensure an even saw cut. Neither does piety in a pastor guarantee true pastoral work. My impression is that the majority of pastors are truly good, well intentioned, even godly. But their goodness does not inevitably penetrate their vocations.

The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol—a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.

Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.

Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was not adequate. 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.

The Jonah Story

It is not easy these days to figure out what it means to be a leader in Christ's church. Anti-servant models are promoted daily among us as pastors, teachers, missionaries. In the crisscross of signals and voices I pick my way. William Faulkner once said that writing a novel is like building a chicken coop in a high wind—you grab any board you find and nail it down fast. Being a pastor is also like that. Recently I came across the Jonah story and grabbed. He has turned out to be wonderfully useful in this vocation-clarifying task.

For years I have searched the scriptures for help in pursuing my life as pastor. Time after time I have come upon rich treasures, but somehow I missed Jonah. I missed, it turns out, three of the most provocative and amusing pages in the scriptures for my purpose. The Jonah story is sharply evocative of the vocational experience of pastor. Story incites story. Storytellers swap stories. As I tell this story among my friends, listen to them tell theirs, and in turn tell a few of my own, the stories develop images and metaphors that give shape to a spirituality adequate to pastoral work. Stanley Hauerwas argues, convincingly to me, that if we want to change our way of life, acquiring the right image is far more important than diligently exercising willpower. Willpower is a notoriously sputtery engine on which to rely for internal energy, but a right image silently and inexorably pulls us into its field of reality, which is also a field of energy.

The book of Jonah is a parable at the center of which is a prayer. Parable and prayer are biblical tools for bringing a sharp personal awareness of truth to people whose spiritual perceptions are dulled by living habitually in an overtly religious context. Since pastors operate almost exclusively in exactly that context, the Jonah story with its parable and prayer is made to order.

I take it as a given that all of us would prefer to be our own gods than to worship God. The Eden story is reenacted daily, not only generally in the homes and workplaces of our parishioners but quite particularly in the sanctuaries and offices, studies and meeting rooms in which we do our work. The only difference in the dynamics of the serpent's seduction in the explicitly religious workplace is that when pastors are seduced, our facility with the language provides us with a thesaurus of self-deceiving euphemisms. Our skill in handling religious concepts gives us above-average competence in phrasing things in such a way that our vocational shift from tending the Garden to running the Garden, our radical fall from vocational holiness to career idolatry, goes undetected by all but the serpent.

But parable and prayer obliquely slip past these facades and expose the truth. "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant" was Emily Dickinson's counsel. Subversion. Parable and prayer are subversive. The Jonah story is subversive. It insinuates itself indirectly by comedy and exaggeration into our culture-sanctioned career idolatries, and while we are amused and laughing, our defenses down, it captures our imaginations and sets us on the way to the recovery of our vocational holiness. Caught by parable, caught by prayer—caught hesitating at the edge of the abyss—we are led gently but surely into the depths where we can develop a spirituality adequate to our calling.

Table of Contents


I. Buying Passage to Tarshish

  1. Jonah Disobedient
  2. II. Escaping the Storm

    III. In the Belly of the Fish

    IV. Finding the Road to Ninevah

    V. Quarreling with God under the Unpredictable Plant

    1. The Stunned Imagination

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