Godspeed, Eugene Peterson

Today I read that Eugene Peterson has entered hospice care. Peterson may be the most influential person in my life that I’ve never actually met. Not only have his ideas about the nature of pastoral ministry profoundly reoriented my thinking, his books have introduced me to some of my favorite writers and thinkers, people like Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I am sure that I am not alone in this. I had heard of Eugene Peterson as a young pastor but his greatest influence came when I became a professor training others for pastoral ministry. For over twenty years I have required my students to read Under the Unpredictable Plant,  a remarkable book where he turns pastoral ministry on its head.

Instead of describing the pastor as someone who controls the church and shapes the lives of others, Peterson argues that congregational ministry is the place where God shapes the pastor’s soul. In the process, he takes aim at the culture of careerism which has so infected our idea of ministry. He calls career driven ministry idolatry: “The idolatry to which pastors are so conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.”

Peterson’s criticism came as a great relief. It explained so much about my ministry and my life. “There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” he warns. “The congregation is a Nineveh like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” How many times since have I wished that I had heard this warning when I was first starting out in ministry? But the truth is, I doubt that I would have accepted it. Oh, I might have believed that this was true for other more ordinary sorts but not for me. I was young.  I was gifted. I was destined for great things.

Peterson warns that anyone who glamorizes pastoral ministry does a disservice to pastors. “We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching” Peterson observes. But the real problem is not our ministry but our expectation. We have been pursuing a fantasy. “Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat–and worse.” It cannot be otherwise, Peterson explains. Every congregation is a community of sinners and has sinners for pastors.

I do not think Peterson saw himself as an iconoclast so much as a witness. “It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish” he has written. “At this moment I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and Tarshish is a lie.” For the past twenty-five years, I have tried to add my voice to his.

A few years ago I wrote to Peterson. I hoped that he would agree to write the introduction for a book I had just finished. He declined the opportunity. In a brief handwritten note, he explained that he had reached the stage in life where he had to make careful choices. He said that he was not an expert in everything and needed to stick with what he knew best. He closed with a quote from Wendell Berry. It was the kindest rejection I’ve ever experienced. Godspeed, Eugene Peterson.