Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson

Introduction. In his book, Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson identifies the work of the pastor or leader by drawing on the geometric imagery of a triangle. “The visible lines of pastoral work,” says Peterson, “are preaching, teaching, and administration” (Eerdmans Publishing, 1987, 5). This is often how pastors identify themselves, that is, primarily as the preacher, teacher, or church administrator. Before reading his book, one of, or a combination of these three duties is how I often envisioned myself in future ministry opportunities. But these three important straight lines are at the mercy of the three angles that actually form the triangle. To this Peterson writes, “Most of what we see in a triangle is lines. The lines come in various proportions to each other but what determines the proportions and shape of the whole are the angles” (5). The lines are the visible and the expected of the pastor’s duties, but the angles dictate everything. “The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction,” Peterson continues (5). Without these angles, the lines hold little shape or semblance of meaning.

This is not a book review. Rather, what follows is a self-reflection. This is an evaluation of my prayer life, study of Scripture, and present spiritual direction through my understanding of Peterson’s book. I will offer my thoughts and ideas about the concepts of Working the Angles, through the same structure as the book. Peterson breaks his book down by three sections following the same focus of each angle: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. I will do the same for this post.

Upfront I can say that I feel that two angles of my triangle are developing well and are a strong part of my life; but one angle is the regular subject of my prayers and is in need of serious help and growth. In addition, I have been working though a difficult decision regarding the Army chaplaincy and this book has greatly helped guide my decision away from that direction.

Prayer. Peterson expresses that prayer is of the utmost importance for every pastor and leader. Everything should always come down to prayer, always. Prayer is not simply for getting things started at secular gathering and meetings, as if it is the starter pistol of a track race. And it should not be a token thing; it is powerful and dangerous, significant. The pastor or leader’s life, according to Peterson, must be strongly identified through a life of regular, honest, meaningful prayer.

As I read though the significance of prayer, I found myself in strong agreement. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in a time of need” (ESV). Because of this passage and others, I feel confident to boldly approach God in prayer; and as I read Psalm 139, I know that God knows me thoroughly. Therefore, my personal prayers can be honest and guttural. While I confess, at times I selfishly ask for God to bless me in this way or that, much of my prayer life is my desire to draw nearer to God to know him, myself, and my relationship with Jesus so much better. I wake with prayer, pray in the shower, when I’m shaving and brushing my teeth, walking past neighbor’s homes, riding the bus, working, after meeting with co-workers, when I'm studying, and before I go to bed. I pray at any moment I can, even when I am using the restroom. Yet, sometimes I will forget to prayer and go for hours without talking with God. There is loneliness, but then again I am drawn back to him to share joy and pain, confusion and understanding.

However, I am coming to realize that I often shelter my relationship with God by avoiding the deeper approach toward God when I pray with others, sometimes even when I daily pray with my wife and children. It is my prayer that I feel comfortable to boldly approach God with them too.

I am in the process of re-entering the military as a chaplain; or I should say I was in the process. Much of my concern with the chaplaincy falls squarely in the three angles of this book. There is debate about the chaplain’s ability to pray honest prayers to Jesus, in his name. While I do not think it is absolutely necessary to end a prayer specifically, “in the name of Jesus” as a recently removed Navy chaplain does, I do believe prayer should not be that token thing to hold on to tradition. Thinking back to my eight years in the military, I cannot recall a chaplain’s public prayer that was not simply a cursory prayer to “get things started.” It is as if having the chaplain open a ceremony with a prayer is the Army’s way to appease some and hold on to tradition. After reading Peterson’s book, I am no longer confidant that I can be a participant in the capacity required by the Army. And if prayer is a significant angle (which I believe it is), than it stands to reason that counseling sessions and various other aspects of the chaplain’s duties with soldiers should include honest prayer. However, the last four decades have seen a shift away from Christian prayer in the chaplain ministries (with the exception of Sunday services), in many cases actually preventing prayer in this capacity.

Scripture. The pastor or leader should be a man (or woman) of the Book. If the Bible is to be understood as God’s written word to us—and I believe it is—than the pastor should know the material inside and out. There should be a strong desire to read and hear from God often. But as Peterson explains, knowing the material is not just the ability to regurgitate a passage as needed or achieve high marks on a test, it is to breath it in, live it, understand it, deeply know it. It should sustain life and shape how the leader understands everything. I believe my approach to the Bible (as God’s Word) is an honest approach to getting closer to God, hearing from him, and infusing the Scripture into the core foundations of my life. Like Eugene says should be the case, my “office,” where I most often read, is actually called my “study.” Although I also listen to Scripture when I am commuting to work and on occasion I will read from my iPhone when I’m standing in line or passing time.

I typically start my time in Scripture with prayer. I read from a daily reading plan, and I journal. At times, I will read large portions of the Word for a broad overview or to capture the meta-narrative. Other times, I will read one verse repeatedly, chewing on it, praying it, trying to make it a part of me like a blood transfusion. I read from many translations and sometimes I will read from the Greek (although I still greatly struggle with this). Sometimes I read and study at the “101 level,” that is, the devotional reading for peace and enjoyment. Other times my reading is a deeper study, exegeting passages and examining words; and still other times I involve commentaries to seek out a much deeper or more academic understanding. Scripture is the focus of most, if not all of my reading. My purpose for reading Scripture is to hear the word of the Lord and to know him more. And Scripture is the measuring stick of how I come to understand everything else.

Spiritual Direction. As I hinted in the introduction, one life area is in dire need of improvement. It is this area—spiritual direction. At times over the past three years, I have acted as a spiritual director or mentor for others; but through much of that time, I have been void of a serious, dedicated spiritual director. I have two or three guys I can go to for prayer and help with big decisions, but I do not feel like I have a go-to guy for the little things, the mundane, who will call me out when I need it most and stick with me as I work through my junk. It is often my prayer that God will bring this man into my life, and soon.

As Peterson says, every person needs a spiritual director in his or her life, throughout the entire lifetime of the believer. I absolutely trust he is correct. When we are hermits, that is, when we are not deeply known by other believers, we tend to see ourselves as 'amazing,' much better than reality would state. But when we have a spiritual director, there is an honesty that is not present otherwise. There is humility and growth and help and honesty about us, pointing us toward repentance, sanctification, and a better relationship with God. I do not, at present, have this level of support, which is why entering the chaplaincy is risky at best, irresponsible, and unwise. Peterson’s section on spiritual direction is a stark reminder of something that has been a long struggle for me. Peterson also struggled with the lack of a spiritual director. He said it was because he did not want to give up control. This is somewhat true for me too. And I am struggling to find a willing, capable mentor that I trust and feel I can be open with. I see that I need to repent and work through this issue. I realize, as Peterson eventually did, that the reason I do not have this man in my life is due to problems I am struggling to deal with and embrace in a repentant, honest manner. (The level of frank honesty might be a bit high for this post, but is this not somewhat the point of the final section of the book?) So, I keep praying, waiting, and watching.

Conclusion. I found Peterson’s book informative and convicting. Ultimately, I was questioning my readiness to enter the chaplaincy and Working the Angles acted as a conformation that I am not yet there. I need to continue to pray and listen to God’s word and guidance through reading Scripture. I need to open my life up to a spiritual director. Until I can get the angels resembling a triangle, the lines of preaching, teaching, and administration will not connect, leaving me with a haphazard and unfruitful ministry.

* I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.