What I Learned from Eugene Peterson

Like many people, I was saddened to hear last month of the passing of Eugene Peterson. I first became aware of him in college, when his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society was recommended to me by our InterVarsity staff worker. Later, when I began my studies at Regent College, it was six years after he had left his post there as professor of spiritual theology, but his spirit still suffused the place.

When I was there taking courses toward a Master of Divinity degree, I would freak out from time to time. It would happen when I would go to a class or series of classes where I was told about all the things pastors had to know and do and be, and I was not sure that I could not do it. I don’t have anything against my professors; they wanted to instill in us that being a pastor is a high calling.

But in those times of feeling discouraged and inadequate, I learned to return to Peterson’s writings for a dose of sanity when it came to the calling of pastor, especially his book The Contemplative Pastor. The end of chapter 12, “Lashed to the Mast” (also printed here as an article), still sticks with me all these years later:

Century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.”

Yes, their actions will often speak different expectations, but in the deeper regions of the soul, the unspoken desire is for more than someone doing a religious job. If the unspoken were uttered, it would sound like this:

“We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant. …

“There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination, we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.”

When I had graduated from Regent and was looking at pastoral job postings in my denomination, I continued to freak out occasionally. Many of the postings I saw were looking for a kind of Superman, not the kind of pastor I wanted to be or thought I could be. (It was also the middle of the financial crisis, and there just weren’t that many available positions at the time.) Again I returned to Peterson to help me feel that I was not crazy to believe that pastors’ main job is to keep people attentive to the work of God in the world.

I ended up not becoming a pastor. I did an internship at my church while I was looking, then took a job at Logos Bible Software (now Faithlife). When they began their publishing imprint, Lexham Press, I moved to that department and became an editor. I enjoy the work I do, and have not seriously considered becoming a pastor for a long time, but Peterson’s vision of what a pastor, and a church, should be still shapes me. The two most recent books of his I read were his memoir, The Pastor, and his collection of sermons called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Now, my church’s pastor is about to retire, and I happen to be church chair and on the search committee. Our work as a committee is just getting started, and I don’t know yet what kind of pastor will be best for our church. But I do know that I don’t want to create a job posting that is looking for Superman: someone who will use the latest techniques to efficiently to do a religious job, who will entertain us and relieve us of the responsibility of being Christlike ourselves, who will project an air of omnicompetence, who will be lured by the siren song of Christian celebrity culture and see our church as little more than a platform from which to launch their own larger ministry. I want someone who will love us, who will help us to be as healthy as we can be, who will help us to be attentive to the ways that God is moving in our congregation and our community, who understands in their deepest self that Jesus is the head of the church and not them, and who will be lashed to the mast of Word and sacrament.

That’s what Eugene Peterson taught me—or rather, what he reminded me was still true when I was afraid it might not be.