Meeting with a Mentor

I’ve been slowly working through one of Eugene Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry called “Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. ” The book is a lot about Peterson’s own journey as a pastor, and how he relates often with Jonah from the Hebrew Bible. Jonah was, in a word, reluctant. He’s the kind of guy you imagine always trying to sneak out the back door before he gets committed to something he’d rather not do. Jonah is famous for trying really hard to avoid the work God called him to, something I think we can all resonate with from time to time.  Anyways, this is all beside the point for the moment, though I must confess I can relate to Jonah’s reluctance and have often named him as the biblical character I most identify with. The real reason I’m writing is because I’ve been getting all kinds of great treasures out of Peterson’s writing. One particular thing that’s stuck with me is this.

Peterson explains that during a really rough time in his ministry, about 10 years in, he began feeling very dry spiritually and began questioning his call (thus Jonah). He searched high and low for mentors, and having found none discovered with delight the Russian author Fyodor  Dostoevsky. He dove head first into Dostoevsky’s writings, and offers some tasty summaries in his own book on a few of the important narratives he came across. Dostoevsky became for Peterson a mentor. He wrote in his daily planner three meetings a week with “FD” for two hours each, and over the course of about 8 months, or so, worked through the Russian’s entire corpus. He writes that Dostoevsky saved his ministry, it was that process of reading such deeply human narratives that sustained his imagination from that point forward.

Of course, what I gleaned from this was the importance of meeting regularly with a mentor, someone I want to emulate and who deeply inspires me.  I already meet with a couple (living) people who I deeply value both spiritually and theologically, but this was encouragement to meet with someone who has gone on before. I spent sometime thinking through who this might be, and whether or not it needed to be just one person, or a series of people. I considered authors like Steinbeck and C. S. Lewis, Chesterton, Kierkegaard, and others but what I decided was that I would start out by reading through the late theologian James Wm. McClendon’s corpus. Reasons for this include I love what I’ve read of his already, his corpus is not overwhelmingly large and thus manageable from my point of view,  he was an academic as well as a pastor, and finally, I love his narrative approach to theology. Currently, the book I am reading, Ethics, has a number of biographies of Christians such as Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jonathan and Sarah Edwards to name a few. These biographies precede whatever theology he sees exemplified in each particular person’s life. In other words, for McClendon, every theology, every confession, every Christian practice must be embodied in real people’s lives if it is to make sense to the church today. It’s great to talk about grandiose theological claims, but it’s quite another to actually live them out. McClendon helps to bridge the gap between these two things.

And so, I’ve begun meeting with McClendon, allowing his words, these narratives, his “baptist” (pastoral) theology to mentor me in these meetings.

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9 responses to “Meeting with a Mentor”

  1. There's something very important in what you've written here. It's not just finding good sources to inspire us, but also making the time to revisit them and even more importantly, allowing them to have some authority for us.

    It's fascinating that you mention McClendon, because he's a theologian I not only re-read, but trust. I have to admit that over time, I've come to trust fewer and fewer writers, but cherish more and more the ones who prove over time to be honest and substantial.

  2. One of the reasons I love Peterson…I tell that story often of him marking that in his calendar and not letting anything get in its way….

    I think I should start with Dostoyevsky…..


    • I considered starting there too but I've been saying I want to finish reading McClendon's stuff for about 3 years now, I figure it's time to buckle down and meet with this guy!

  3. Great post! What's striking to me is how world's collided for me between last night and here. I had a great conversation with a friend last night as he talked about how for him, reading 1 author begets another as they reference each other, and how he'd been interested in reading more Dostoevsky. I swear he also mentioned McClendon as well – then I see Rhett's comment on Twitter about this post and – bam! World's collide. Very cool.

  4. I am struck by reading the first 40 pages of Peterson's book that are available on Google's scan. I'm not a pastor, but sometimes I think I'd like to be. But I am moved by Peterson's assertions that many of these difficulties are true for any vocation. Even as a lay minister, I see the applicability of his cautions and his suggestions to my own life. I have to look for his book somewhere nearby. Thank you very much for writing about it. Sharing our own stories on our blogs IS a form of pastoral care.

  5. Robin I really like Peterson and I think you would enjoy reading his work. I've been very nurtured by some of his pastoral writings so far. And thanks for the tip on sharing stores (on blogs) as a form of pastoral care, good thinking!