Ministry Lessons from the Life of Eugene Peterson

9 church leaders share what they learned through his books, letters, and friendship.
Ministry Lessons from the Life of Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible, frequent contributor to Leadership Journal, and pastor to pastors, passed away on October 22, 2018. Upon learning of his death, we asked several church leaders—some who learned from Peterson’s writing, others who were personally mentored by Peterson for decades—how he shaped their ministries. What lessons from Peterson, we asked, reframed their understanding of the pastoral calling?

Choose your words carefully.

Dean Pinter, rector at St. Aidan Anglican Church in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

Eugene was a poet. Of course, he was much more than that. Like a poet, however, he was careful with his words. He chose them wisely and used them winsomely.

I was one of Eugene’s students at Regent College from 1992 to 1996. My wife’s office at Regent was next door to his. (This helped with our initial connection!) We stayed connected over the years—they visited us in our homes in England and Canada, and we visited them often in their home in Montana.

While his numerous published works attest to the fruitfulness of his words and the congruence with which he wove them into the fabric of his life, these are a few of the words he shared with me personally that continue to sustain my life and ministry.

Resurrection. Amen.

These were the final and fitting two words that Eugene preached at my ordination. The text he chose for his sermon was John 12:20–30. As he reflected on the pastoral implications of the manifestation of Jesus’ glory, Eugene reminded me, a would-be priest, that “glory” means entering into what Jesus wants, not what I want. All the things that are poor and despised by the world, including suffering and death, are backlit by the glory of God. These things appear dark, but if we look at them through the gospel lens and through the story of Jesus, then suddenly they start to look very different. As he closed his sermon, Eugene pointed out that Jesus’ prayer, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28), is the only prayer he prayed in which we are told his Father gave an answer. A voice from heaven replied, “I have glorified it, and I will glory it again” (v. 29). This is a reminder, Eugene said, that we shouldn’t worry that our prayers are not often answered. Jesus only got one! Yet in this, God would glorify Jesus in his own way. God the Father did do it his way. Eugene concluded, “Jesus wrote that gospel into the depths of human pain and disaster and ruin and resurrection. Amen.”

Poetry.

Like many pastors and priests, I find Mondays to be difficult. Most ministers take Mondays off to rest and recover, as Eugene did. Unfortunately, this has never worked well for me, yet I still need a way to ascend from the “Arimathean Tomb” that is Monday. Eugene offered a one-word solution: “Poetry.” He suggested I take an hour or so at the beginning of every Monday to read poetry. So that’s what I do. On one axis of my desk in my parish study sit Bibles, prayer books, and lexicons—the necessary tools to listen attentively and restoratively to God’s Word. On the other axis sit books of poetry—George Herbert, Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Denise Levertov, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and, yes, Eugene Peterson—the necessary tools to listen attentively and restoratively to human words. Poetry, to crib a line from a Wendell Berry poem, helps me to “practice resurrection.”

Relevance is irrelevant.

Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today

I first met Eugene at a conference for young Presbyterian pastors, held at Mt. Hermon in the woodsy Santa Cruz Mountains on the central California coast. This would have been in the mid-1980s. His talks were about faithfulness in the pastorate, and he was exegeting the Book of Jonah to this end. (These talks were the first draft of his later book, Under the Unpredictable Plant.) Simply put, his talks were riveting, a refreshing breeze of biblical interpretation and theological insight for young, tired pastors on retreat.

During one question-and-answer session, a pastor asked Eugene how pastors could be more relevant in our preaching. In those years, we were one and all enamored with the excitement coming out of Barrington Illinois, the home of the then shiny and very relevant Willow Creek Church. So we all mentally leaned forward to hear his answer.

Eugene stared at the pastor for what seemed a minute, although it was probably just 10 seconds. But the silence began to feel uncomfortable. His face did a slight contortion, and then he said, with evident disgust, “Relevance—That’s a Nazi word.”

My memory says one or two gasped aloud in disbelief. One pastor may have let out a brief laugh, perhaps because he agreed, or maybe to ease the awkwardness of the moment. All in all, we were in a state of shock.

Eugene went on to explain that pandering after relevance is a sure way to destroy the integrity of the church. In the early 1930s, Germans suffered from severe low self-esteem after being humiliated by defeat in World War I and the subsequent Versailles Treaty. The Nazi party made these disconsolate citizens once more feel proud of being German. The party clearly met felt need. Their message was very relevant at the time. Instead, Eugene exhorted us to faithfulness—as he did in his entire ministry. (Anyone who heard Eugene preach knows what it meant when Eugene exhorted his listeners.) For Eugene, faithfulness was first and last.

During the coffee break afterwards, we chatted vigorously about what he had said. Some remained unconvinced about the irrelevance of relevance. But I was one who, from that day forward, held the maxim of our era in less and less esteem.

Pastoral ministry is serious, consequential work.

Trygve Johnson, Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope College

I first heard the name Eugene Peterson in college. My chaplain, after listening to me wrestle with a sense of calling, squinted like a doctor making a diagnosis, pulled a book from his shelf, and handed me The Contemplative Pastor. “Read this!” he said. I did. In Eugene’s words, I found a vision for pastoral life I had always hoped existed but did not know how to articulate.

Years later Eugene befriended me. He had recently retired to Montana. I was a young aspiring pastor, and he took me on, inviting me into a mentoring relationship through letters, conversations, books, and pilgrimages to Flathead Lake. This invitation changed my life and my ministry.

Eugene gave me a vision and a language for who I could be as a pastor. He restored honor and dignity to the calling of the pastor. Eugene revived a vision of a pastor as someone serious, intelligent, savvy, creative, playful, and prophetic. Eugene encouraged those in ministry to resist the seductive sirens of the pragmatic pastor, in favor of a ministry animated by the patient and cruciform witness of a long obedience in the same direction.

Through this encouragement, Eugene pulled me into a larger world of consequence. His words and vision helped me see and experience the wide-open country of salvation. Here, Eugene invited me to explore the geography of the Trinity, which expanded my imagination and bent my reason back into shape. The use of cliché or paint-by-numbers theology was unworthy of the work. The pastor, Eugene counseled, required a charged imagination, an earthy piety, with a double shot of humor! He showed me that a ministry at play in the expansive fields of the Triune God was a more interesting place to spend the day.

The key to this larger world was the Bible. Eugene showed me how to read with a scriptural imagination. He taught me that the goal of reading Scripture was not to know more, but to become more. His great lesson was that Scripture had everything to do with the neighborhood, because the neighborhood is where Christ shows up.

Maybe Eugene’s greatest legacy on my ministry was that he taught me to love by simply loving me. Eugene gave me time. He always wrote back. He never refused a call. He always welcomed me into his home. Never was I treated as an abstraction or a project to solve. He treated me as a friend. He showed me that healthy ministry requires, even demands, relationships where we can be known and understood.

Receiving the news of Eugene’s death feels like what the Fellowship of the Ring in the Tolkien novel of the same name must have experienced when they lost Gandalf. What do you do when your guide is gone? But Eugene taught us well, for he reminded us to practice resurrection. And so we carry the Message on!

There is no ministry in the abstract.

Marshall Shelley, former editor of Leadership Journal, and now director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary

Many scholars revel in abstractions. I never met a more scholarly man than Eugene Peterson, who once wrote an article on the middle voice in Greek grammar and its implications for our understanding of prayer.

But I also never met a man who was more insistent on the concrete embodiment of biblical truth. Never content to merely grasp the principle, he pressed on to specific application.

One example: when his church in Maryland grew beyond the point where he could know everyone’s name, he stepped down because he didn’t want to be pastor in name only. He insisted that pastoring, shepherding, is personal, and when the church grows beyond the point of knowing everyone personally, he refused to accept the abstraction of “pastor.”

He was intensely practical. On one of my visits with him during his pastorate in Maryland, he introduced me to the works of philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry. For instance, he read to me this excerpt from Berry’s book The Gift of Good Land: "Charity is a theological virtue and is prompted, no doubt, by a theological emotion, but it is also a practical virtue." It cannot be practiced "by smiling in abstract beneficence on our neighbors. … It must come to acts, which must come from skills."

How can you love your neighbor if you don't know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply or your poison out of his air? How will you practice virtue without skill? The ability to be good is not the ability to do nothing. It is the ability to do something well—to do good work for good reasons.

With Berry, as with Peterson, commitment and love are not simply a mental attitude; they mean developing an ability to improve the situation, to further the cause you're committed to.

Yet while deeply committed to people and community, Eugene wasn’t sentimental about them. He wrote,

When I became a pastor, I didn't like much about the complexities of community in general and of a holy community in particular. I often found myself preferring the company of people outside my congregation, men and women who did not follow Jesus. Or worse, preferring the company of my sovereign self. But I soon found that my preferences were honored by neither Scripture nor Jesus.

I didn't come to that conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it. There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting for living the Christian life.

As a scholar, pastor, and Bible translator, Eugene Peterson saw with vivid clarity the world around him. And guided his students and readers into personal engagement with life and the Author of this world and the world to come.

Every step is integral to your journey.

Dante Stewart,student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Augusta, Georgia, where he teaches Bible at Heritage Academy Augusta

I remember like it was yesterday. I sifted through people’s ragged, throwaway books in the free bin at the bookstore, and there it was. No marks, no scuffs, as if it were waiting eagerly to be picked up by me. It was Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. In some providential way, God was saying, “Eugene, Stew. Stew, Eugene. I’ve been wanting to introduce you to one another.” As I reflect on the legacy of Eugene Peterson, I can honestly say his life changed my life.

One of the things brother Eugene showed me was that everything is interesting—in the words of Denise Levertov, “every step an arrival.” As I made my way through The Pastor, I felt as if I were living alongside him. Whether it was the story of his formation as a pastor, his Pentecostal roots, the humorous story of his first “convert,” it was clear that he had a deep awareness that every step was integral to his journey, one step closer to being who God called him to be. Events mattered. People mattered. The Resurrection mattered. My spiritual formation mattered. Through him, I’ve been able to make sense of my own steps. When I read about his mother, I saw my own mother. When I read about his Pentecostal roots, I saw my own. When I read his life, I saw my life.

I’ll never forget how moved I was by the story of his father’s butcher shop; it changed the way I viewed my job as barista and an aspiring pastor. The shop was his introduction to the world of congregation, a place of safety where everyone felt welcome, his eventual workplace as a pastor. Each person had dignity. Through him, I’ve come to see my coffee shop in the same way.

I spend a lot of time with coffee. In the spirit of brother Eugene, I was reflecting on the roasting process. It is slow. It is intricate. It is tough and rough. It is specific to the bean. It is communal. Yet, I realized that it’s not much good for anything if it’s not poured out for others. No one roasts a batch of coffee and leaves it on the shelves. Likewise, life and living is not much value if it is not poured out for the good of others. It does not care about the “who” like we do. It only cares to produce real good for real people. That is its value. And this was the value of Eugene: his life and ministry were wholly devoted to being poured out for others. He showed me that every cup is a story and every story is a sermon. And for this, I’m eternally thankful.

Christ is all we have to offer.

Kyle Strobel, teaches spiritual theology for Talbot’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and preaches at Redeemer Church, La Mirada, California

The first time I met Eugene, he was speaking to about 50 pastors. I had never seen such a broad range of pastors come to hear someone before. One’s theological background seemed insignificant; no one questioned that Eugene brought immense wisdom to pastoral ministry. But many of the pastors left feeling a bit empty. They had come hoping Eugene would solve pressing problems they believe they had, but he wasn’t selling quick solutions or simplistic ministry tricks.

I can still feel the desperation in the questions, yet Eugene refused to respond with anything other than Christ. “We have no Plan B,” he told them, because offering Christ is all we truly have. Characteristically, it was through a meditation on Winnie the Pooh that Eugene encouraged these pastors with Galatians 6:9–10: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Do not grow weary. This was the message he brought that day, a message almost impossible for pastors to hear.

From that day on, I started writing letters to Eugene, an ancient pastoral practice he continued to imbue with life. He stood against the quest for power, significance, and notoriety from within the pastoral office itself and served for decades as a signpost for another path. He refused to see other churches and pastors as competition, to embrace something because it was a sign of success, to embrace ambition in ministry. He rejected celebrity. That meant cultivating a certain kind of life, not merely a strategy for ministry. It meant embracing deep relationships, and recognizing that ministry is always to other people, never wielding a platform for significance. Because of this, Eugene models for the church today the cultivation of a pastoral ministry by faith alone, not by sight. Sight can allure by seducing us to numbers, to the grandiosity, and to the perception of significance, but ministry by faith is allergic to all of this. This meant, for Eugene, never functionalizing relationships, but trusting by faith that personal relationships were truly powerful in the kingdom of God.

This is the path he witnessed to, and this is what I am sitting with after hearing of his death. His way was the way of the Lamb, and by faith he recognized that the temptations in ministry are Legion. Today, more than ever, we need to remember that the way of faith is the way to be powerful in the kingdom of God.

Reject grandiosity.

Jamin Goggin, pastor at Mission Hills Church in San Marcos, California

Eugene Peterson provided a beautiful and compelling vision of the pastoral vocation when I needed it the most. Only few years into pastoral ministry, I had arrived at what felt like a breaking point. The initial sturdiness and adventure of my calling was being choked by a prevailing set of expectations defining “success” in ministry, leaving me discouraged and disillusioned. Eugene’s words met me in that place. His words saved me from the temptation to abandon my post. They gave me hope.

As I devoured books like Working the Angles and Five Smooth Stones, I discovered a vision of the pastoral vocation that put words to what I had so longed for in ministry, but didn’t quite know how to articulate. The Lord used Eugene’s words to expose temptations of my heart toward grandiosity and power in ministry. More than any other person, Eugene Peterson shaped the way in which I pastor. Eugene taught me that the pastoral vocation was a call to be relentlessly personal. It meant unhurried conversations marked by listening. It meant preaching to people, not an audience. It meant loving people, not using them. It meant hours of prayer for people and with people.

A few years after reading Eugene’s books, I began to write letters back and forth with him, and after a couple of years, those letters turned into an opportunity to spend time with him at his home in Montana. In his house beside the lake, I experienced being pastored by Eugene. I encountered a man of integrity, whose way of life and relating was exactly what I expected from his writing—perhaps the most profound truth I can speak of his character. In my time with Eugene, I was graced with a vision of pastoral ministry not merely in written form, but experienced through the course of prayer, unhurried conversation, and shared meals. He opened his life to me and took a profound interest in my life. Eugene not only taught me how to pastor, he pastored me.

When I heard the news of Eugene’s passing I was standing in front of the home where Ernest Hemingway was born. I was pondering the profound impact Hemingway had on many generations of authors inspired by the brilliance and beauty of his corpus. As I stood on Hemingway’s porch, I remembered the back deck of Eugene’s home. I remembered him telling me stories of the trolls that lived in the lake below with a warm grin upon his face. I remember the way he spoke of his journey as a pastor, the joys and challenges. Eugene stands as a Hemingway of the pastoral vocation. His long pastoral obedience has provided a body of work that will define the shape of pastoral work for generations to come. It will certainly define the shape of my pastoral work until I finish the race.

Thank you, Eugene. I look forward to continuing the conversation after your liturgical nap.

Sabbath is a gift.

Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York City

Through his writings and witness, Eugene Peterson taught me how to be a pastor. My life in Christ has been enriched beyond measure through his life. My thoughts and practices on prayer, preaching, and pastoring have his fingerprints all over them. What I’m most grateful for, however, is the intentional Sabbath rhythm he built into his life.

During my mid-20s, I was a pastor overseeing college students and young adults at a megachurch in New York City. During one of the church staff meetings, a visiting pastor who was on sabbatical shared that, during this season of rest and recreation, he was visiting churches. I was not impressed. I thought, This man must be in some kind of moral failure, or he is too weak to do the work of pastoring. I had no framework to see the practice of sabbaticals, let alone weekly Sabbath-keeping, as core to my pastoral calling. Soon after this occasion, I came across a book from Eugene Peterson: Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.

In this book, I was given a vision to see pastoring as the interplay of resting and working. I was taught to see Sabbath-keeping not as a burden to bear, but as a gift to receive. Eugene defined Sabbath as,

Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.

Quieting the internal noise so we hear the still small voice of the Lord.

Uncluttered time and space to detach ourselves from the people around us so that they have a chance to deal with God without our poking around or kibitzing.

As I read those words, something in my soul opened up. He was describing the kind of rhythm that flowed out of worship, the embracing of limits, and the presence joy rather than a kind of non-stop, anxiety-ridden pastoral life built on proving myself to others.

I realized I needed a new paradigm to be faithful to Jesus, to steward my life well, and to love my family and congregation. This paradigm required a weekly, sacred space and time fashioned amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city. For a few years, I struggled to apply the practice of Sabbath into my life, but in 2008, I joined a church in Queens whose pastor was shaped by Peterson as well.

In my interview for the assistant pastor job, the senior pastor, Pete Scazzero, sat across a table filled with fries and grilled cheese sandwiches and said to me—in what I thought was hyperbolic language—“Rich, there’s only one way to get fired at this church.” I sat up straight waiting for him to give an example of some kind of moral failure. He said, “If you don’t keep Sabbath you will get fired, because you won’t have the kind of life that will sustain you for the kind of work pastoring entails.” Later that day, I thought about Eugene. His writings prior to that conversation gave me a vision for what pastoring could and should be.

Anyone seeking to have a long obedience in the same direction needs a regular rhythm of stopping. Otherwise, we won’t make it. I’m grateful Eugene gave me a vision of what faithful pastoring could be.

Thank you, Eugene. Enjoy the fullness of your Sabbath rest.

Nurturing souls is worth the sacrifice.

Libbie Weber, co-rector of The Fellowship of St. Barnabas in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Because of Eugene Peterson I lost my job.

I didn’t know him well, but he was my thesis advisor at Regent College. By taking his writing seriously—and with a huge sense of relief at his shattering of the blustery business mindset that has overtaken many churches in the US—he brought me sanity and joy. I’ve used his Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work as a standard for pondering how a particular year went in the life of the parish: how did we do in terms of Prayer-Directing, Story-Making, Pain-Sharing, Nay-Saying, and Community-Building? Some monthly and annual numbers are important, but our real work as pastors is in relationship building, founded in the Holy Trinity, who invite us into their community. But in churches where an entrepreneurial and marketing mindset prevails, this is not always understood.

My husband, also an ordained minister, and I helped to establish a new Anglican parish several years ago and began to experience pushback for the ideas on which we preached and taught. We referenced Eugene’s writing often, and when I read Amos 5 from The Message in preparation for one sermon, I knew he understood both Amos and our culture today. Verses 21–24 say,

I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?

All of this did not go over well with many of those seeking to influence the direction of our parish. Eventually we had to offer our resignations under great duress. It was painful and continues to wound even now. We lost our lives, in a sense, and many friends. Yet we have grown deeper in Christ through this turmoil. I bought As Kingfishers Catch Fire this past week, and I knew I was back at home when I read this in the preface: “As time went on, I found myself increasingly at odds with my advisors on matters of means, the methods proposed for ensuring the numerical and financial viability of the congregation but without even a footnote regarding the nurturing of souls.”

That’s what I want to major in: the nurturing of souls.

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