In 1983, Leadership Journal published an article: "Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art," that came like a blast on the trumpet. "A reformation may be in process in the way pastors do their work," the already seasoned pastor and writer Eugene Peterson declared. "It may turn out to be as significant as the theological reformation of the sixteenth century."
Since then, Eugene Peterson's call for pastors to return to "the cure of souls" has been amplified in books that have become classics of ministry literature (including Working the Angles and The Contemplative Pastor), and it continues to reverberate in pastoral discussions. In a day when ministry conversations are increasingly digital, disembodied, and focused on numbers, Peterson's 30-year-old call is especially relevant.
Healthcare reform is one of the pressing issues of our day. But we need a reminder of the urgency of continuing and amplifying Peterson's call to a perennial work of healing. With that in view, read and contemplate Peterson's call, and live closely to that good and dangerous Cure of Souls.
A reformation may be in process in the way pastors do their work. It may turn out to be as significant as the theological reformation of the sixteenth century. I hope so. The signs are accumulating.
The Reformers recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. The gospel proclamation, fresh and personal and direct, through the centuries had become an immense, lumbering Rube Goldberg mechanism: elaborately contrived ecclesiastical gears, pulleys, and levers rumbled and creaked importantly but ended up doing something completely trivial. The Reformers recovered the personal passion and clarity so evident in Scripture. This rediscovery of firsthand involvement resulted in freshness and vigor.
The vocational reformation of our own time (if it turns out to be that) is a rediscovery of the pastoral work of the cure of souls. The phrase sounds antique. It is antique. But it is not obsolete. It catches up and coordinates, better than any other expression I am aware of, the unending warfare against sin and sorrow and the diligent cultivation of grace and faith to which the best pastors have consecrated themselves in every generation. The odd sound of the phrase may even work to advantage by calling attention to how remote present-day pastoral routines have become.
I am not the only pastor who has discovered this old identity. More and more pastors are embracing this way of pastoral work and are finding themselves authenticated by it. There are not a lot of us. We are by no means a majority, not even a high-profile minority. But one by one, pastors are rejecting the job description that has been handed to them and are taking on this new one or, as it turns out, the old one that has been in use for most of the Christian centuries.
It is not sheer fantasy to think there may come a time when the number reaches critical mass and effects a genuine vocational reformation among pastors. Even if it doesn't, it seems to me the single most significant and creative thing happening in pastoral ministry today.
WHAT DO WE DO?
There's a distinction between what pastors do on Sundays and what we do between Sundays. What we do on Sundays has not really changed through the centuries: proclaiming the gospel, teaching Scripture, celebrating the sacraments, offering prayers. But the work between Sundays has changed radically, and it has not been a development but a defection.