Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, by Eugene Peterson

What are pastors (vicars) for?

Eugene Peterson’s contention, in his 1987 book, Working the Angles, is that many of them have forgotten:

What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries (p. 1).

What are they doing instead?

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money (p. 2).

But what should they be preoccupied with?


The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God (p. 2).

The title of the book is a wonderful example of how not to pander to consumerism, as it far from obvious what it is about! Let me try to explain.

Picture a triangle. If you want the lines to fall into place, you need to pay attention to the angles. This (I think) is what is meant by ‘Working the Angles’.

The ‘angles’ in this case are the (three) essential aspects of a pastor’s work (paying attention to God), while the ‘lines’ are the more visible aspects of a pastor’s work.

What are the ‘angles’? They are: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.

The three … constitute acts of attention: prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading Scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment (pp. 3-4).

How do the ‘angles’ and ‘lines’ fit together?

Most of what we see in a triangle is lines … but what determines the proportions and the shape of the whole are the angles. The visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration. The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. … Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long of straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry (p. 5).

What about the subtitle: ‘The Shape of Pastoral Integrity’? The idea of integrity is what makes a job different from a profession:

A job is what we do to complete an assignment. Its primary requirement is that we give satisfaction to whomever makes the assignment and pays our wage. … But professions and crafts are different. In these we have an obligation beyond pleasing somebody: we are pursuing or shaping the very nature of reality, convinced that when we carry out our commitments we actually benefit people at a far deeper level than if we simply did what they asked of us (p. 10).

For those working in professions, these realities are invisible. To have integrity requires that attention is given to these realities, over and above what people might ask for:

for physicians [the invisible reality] is health (not merely making people feel good); with lawyers, justice (not helping people get their own way); with professors, learning (not cramming cranial cavities with information on tap for examinations). And with pastors it is God (not relieving anxiety, or giving comfort, or running a religious establishment) (p. 11).

This is not easy.

It is very difficult to do one thing when most of the people around us are asking us to do something quite different, especially when these people are nice, intelligent, treat us with respect, and pay our salaries (p. 11).

How can we keep our attention on God with all the pressures of ministry?

It requires ‘a trained attentiveness to God in prayer, in Scripture reading, in spiritual direction’ (p. 16). ‘It is hard work’ (p. 17).

So much for the introduction. The rest of the book consists of nine chapters: three each for prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. The chapters are basically self-standing, providing a set of reflections on the theme, rather than a sustained argument. But there is much of value in them. A few notes on each…

First Angle: Prayer

Chapter 1. Greek Stories and Hebrew Prayers. In the Greek story of Prometheus, everything is achieved through effort and technology. ‘Prometheus, of course, does not pray; there is too much to do and there is too little time to do it’ (p. 32). In contrast, the Psalms (which are prayers) have once again been recognised as being at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, and at the heart of the life of faith.

Chapter 2. Praying by the Book. The Psalms are arranged into five books. The five books of the Torah are answered by the five books of Psalms. Prayer is our response to God. We need to immerse ourselves in the Psalms in order to learn how to respond to God. This is especially true for pastors.

Chapter 3. Prayer Time. Sabbath is essential, not the ‘secularized sabbath’, which is ‘utilitarian’ – a ‘day off … at the service of the six working days’ (p. 66), intended to increase overall productivity – but a day set apart to restore the ‘rhythms of grace’ (p. 68) through ‘praying and playing’ (p. 74). ‘We get the rhythms right. And with the rhythms right, we realize that without directly intending it, we have time to pray’ (p. 83).

(For Peterson, parishioners have their ‘sabbath’ on Sundays, but ‘that is not a sabbath for me’, p. 82. I understand this, but it somehow doesn’t quite seem right.)

Second Angle: Scripture

Chapter 4. Turning Eyes into Ears. Peterson labours the point too strongly, but the idea is that ‘reading’ (Scripture) with your eyes, silently to yourself, is often individualistic and pragmatic, and involves exercising control over the text, whereas ‘listening’ with your ears is about placing yourself under the text, in a relationship that leads to obedience and trust. Basically, we should be attentive to Scripture in order to listen to God.

Chapter 5. Contemplative Exegesis. Reading Scripture in a contemplative way is about being attentive to God. We submit ourselves to the grand story of Scripture in order to be shaped by it.

Chapter 6. Gaza Notes. It was on the road to Gaza that Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Scripture reading is a joint venture. The rest of the chapter consists of miscellaneous reflections on reading Scripture.

Third Angle: Spiritual Direction

Chapter 7. Being a Spiritual Director. Peterson has in mind not primarily a ‘formal’ sort of spiritual direction, but the kind of thing that happens all the time in the ‘unimportant’ bits of ministry. These ‘unimportant’ encounters and conversations are often the most important elements of a pastor’s work. It involves noticing what God is doing in people’s lives.

Chapter 8. Getting a Spiritual Director. Every pastor needs a spiritual director: someone who can pay attention to their spiritual condition.

Chapter 9. Practicing Spiritual Direction. This requires humility: recognising that the other person is in the image of God, and that ‘There is so much about this person that I don’t know’ (p. 189). And it requires ‘a predisposition toward prayer’:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (p. 192).

In summary, ‘It is God with whom we have to do’ (p. 192). Keep that in mind, and everything else will fall into place.