Christianity Today once described Eugene Peterson this way: "If Eugene H. Peterson were not a Presbyterian, he might be a monk. … He is bearded, balding, and thin. He has a quiet, raspy voice that sounds as if it belongs to a man who has weathered many dark nights of the soul. … When he speaks, the coarse, gentle words seem to rise from a genuine depth."
This article, which debuted in Leadership a decade ago, was judged by many readers as "coarse, gentle words rising from a genuine depth." Eugene probes a common problem—the expectations people place on ministers—and doesn't stop until he reaches the essence of ministry.
Ann Tyler, in her novel Morgan's Passing, told the story of a middle-aged Baltimore man who passed through people's lives with astonishing aplomb and expertise in assuming roles and gratifying expectations.
The novel opens with Morgan's watching a puppet show on a church lawn on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes into the show, a young man comes from behind the puppet stage and asks, "Is there a doctor here?" After thirty or forty seconds with no response from the audience, Morgan stands up, slowly and deliberately approaches the young man, and asks, "What is the trouble?"
The puppeteer's pregnant wife is in labor; a birth seems imminent. Morgan puts the young couple in the back of his station wagon and sets off for Johns Hopkins Hospital. Halfway there the husband says, "The baby is coming!"
Morgan, calm and self-assured, pulls to the curb, sends the about-to-be father to the corner to buy a Sunday paper as a substitute for towels and bed sheets, and delivers the baby. He then drives to the emergency room of the hospital, sees the mother and baby safely to a stretcher, and disappears.
After the excitement dies down, the couple asks for Dr. Morgan to thank him. But no one has ever heard of a Dr. Morgan. They are puzzled—and frustrated that they can't express their gratitude.
Several months later they are pushing their baby in a stroller and see Morgan walking on the other side of the street. They run over and greet him, showing him the healthy baby that he brought into the world. They tell him how hard they had looked for him, and of the hospital's bureaucratic incompetence in tracking him down.
In an unaccustomed gush of honesty, Morgan admits to them that he is not really a doctor. In fact, he runs a hardware store. But they needed a doctor, and being a doctor in those circumstances was not all that difficult. It is an image thing, he tells them: You discern what people expect and fit into it. You can get by with it in all the honored professions. He has been doing this all his life, impersonating doctors, lawyers, pastors, counselors as occasions present themselves.
Then he confides, "You know, I would never pretend to be a plumber or impersonate a butcher—they would find me out in twenty seconds."
Morgan knew something that most pastors catch on to early in their work: the image aspects of pastoring, the parts that require meeting people's expectations, can be faked. We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor. The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can't get by with it within ourselves.
At least, not all of us can. Some of us get restive. We feel awful. No level of success seems to be insurance against an eruption of angst in the middle of our applauded performance.
The restiveness does not come from puritanical guilt; we are doing what we're paid to do. The people who pay our salaries are getting their money's worth. We are "giving good weight"—the sermons are inspiring, the committees are efficient, the morale is good. The restiveness comes from another dimension—from a vocational memory, a spiritual hunger, a professional commitment.