Getting to Know Eugene Peterson

All of us have influencers in our lives, people who have had a transformative effect. Somewhere around the late 80’s, as a young and rather desperate pastor, I read Working the Angles. I was still getting my bearings for this thing called ministry, and Eugene Peterson’s work drew the lines and the worked out the angles. It is perhaps his most distilled description of pastoral work. Prayer, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction give shape and integrity to ministry. They are the angles that inform the lines–preaching, teaching, and administration.

It was a helpful corrective, for it is easy to distort ministry. Contemporary American culture does not offer a congenial condition in which to live out the pastoral vocation. Back then, many of us pastors in small and mid-sized churches were in awe of mega church ministries, and we went to conferences that held these models up as the markers of success. Peterson, who pastored a mid-size church in Maryland for nearly thirty years, warned that too many pastors have left their calling to be CEO’s. Churches have devolved into ecclesiastical businesses with a mission to market spirituality to consumers. To put it another way, the vocational call to holiness has been replaced by religious entrepreneurs busy about strategic business plans. I needed these warnings.

My first church was not my dream calling. It was in a rough area, and it had been adrift, an eighty year old church set in its ways.  By my estimation, it would never be this innovative church growing out of space and needing to move to some dynamic new area. There were barriers and walls, and at times I desperately wanted out.

But then God led me to Under the Unpredictable Plant, a book Peterson wrote five years after Working the Angles. It is a creative approach to Jonah, and I realized I was much like Jonah. I was taking repeated trips to the travel agent (aka District Superintendent) to find a ticket to Tarshish (aka a new, exciting and exotic ministry). I was trying to flee Nineveh, but Peterson’s words helped me to be obedient and serve where God called me–and here I served ten years.

At times, be it in a church in Southeast Portland, or The Hague, The Netherlands, or Beaverton, Oregon–when my ministry has needed centering–I have turned to Peterson and others–but especially Peterson and his works. Coming up to the Pend Oreille, my summer wilderness escape, I usually add Peterson’s The Pastor, his memoir, to my stack of books.

This summer, I asked Eugene if I could travel over to his home in Montana, and he graciously said yes. Montana has been this “sacred ground” that shaped his early life. I wanted to see it. So Heather and I got on the road and traveled the wide open Montana space for places I had read about. We spent about two hours with him over lunch at a nearby restaurant next to Flathead Lake, and much of our discussion reinforced what he has written over these years.

Like me, his journey to becoming a pastor and a theologian has been haphazard and intentional. Like me, he initially had little interest in the pastoral vocation. Being a pastor was “one step from being unemployed.” But God changed his heart, and thankfully he has become a pastor’s pastor. And thankfully, God changed my heart, and by the time I finished my seminary work, the only thing I wanted to be was a pastor. Peterson gave legitimacy to this decision. He still does.

 

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.