Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/26 2018

Eugene Peterson: A Pastor to Pastors

Today I feel like I lost a friend and mentor that I have never met. Author and pastor Eugene Peterson died earlier this week at the age of 85. According to reports, Peterson was put in hospice last week with dementia and congestive heart failure. Some of his last words as he looked up to heaven were, “Let’s go.”

He is probably best known for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. I have heard critiques of this, with people saying it is not a good translation of the Scripture. It is not a good translation, but it was never meant to be. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased his sermon text every week for his church, he started the work of The Message. He would take the text for Sunday and put it in words that his congregation could understand. He even wrote portions of the book while in residence at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

That was the kind of pastor that Peterson was. He labored for his people and worked to teach them the Bible. You can see that kind of effort in his recently published sermon book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire. He had a way of diving into the Bible with an eye for story and mystery and inviting those that heard (and read) his words into that way of thinking.

Pastor to Pastors

For many pastors, Eugene Peterson was their pastor—a pastor to pastors. He taught many of us what it means to be a pastor, how to love our people, and how not to get caught up the in glamour or career possibilities of ministry. His memoir The Pastor will be a treasure to many generations of clergy. His lesser known book Under the Unpredictable Plant gives a biblical understanding of what it means to follow God’s lead faithfully as a pastor and is the theological underpinnings of his memoir. I try to read it again every year.

I have been sad today at the loss of Eugene Peterson—sadder than I expected. On reflection, I think it is in part because of how formative Peterson has been for me. Many of my thoughts about what it means to be a pastor and the importance of the Bible in ministry come from him.

Spiritual Giants

But I am also mourning the loss of many other leaders. In the last few years we have lost important pastors and preachers, such as Billy Graham, Haddon Robinson, Fred Craddock, Robert Schuller, Gardner Taylor, and R.C. Sproul. We have said goodbye to great thinkers and writers, such as Phyllis Tickle, C. Peter Wagner, Kenneth Bailey, Thomas Oden, and Lyle Schaller. At the same time, numerous other leaders have retired, such as Walter Brueggemann and Timothy Keller. Others are retiring soon, such as N.T. Wright.

What I am mourning today is not just the loss of Eugene Peterson, though that certainly stings, but what I sense is a growing gap in leadership for the church today. Yes, other voices are stepping up, but I worry that many young leaders do not have the spiritual depth, personal class, and love of Scripture that the generation we are losing had.

I pray that more leaders will rise up. I hope that the church of the future will be guided by pastors like Eugene Peterson. I also look for more diversity in our leadership in the future—that the pastors of the future will have more women and minorities to look up to.

As Elijah and Moses were taken up, and as those who have fought the good faith are receiving their reward and entering the resurrection so long spoken of . . . as our church stands in need of influence, may we all step up and play our part.

Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in New Castle, Pa. Previously he served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.

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10/22 2018

A Pastor’s Proper Work: How I’ll Remember Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson quoteI only met Eugene Peterson once.

In 2014, a friend and I published a collection of essays by a number of pastors and scholars engaging Peterson’s vision of the pastoral life. In the fall of that year, Western Theological Seminary hosted a conference based on the book, and they invited Peterson. To my surprise Peterson—in his early 80s and largely retired from public appearances—agreed to attend.

The conference fell on his 82nd birthday.

At dinner on his birthday, I sat at his table. I remember our deference to his age and wisdom. I remember listening to his stories. I remember how he made us laugh. I remember how he smiled as we sang Happy Birthday.

But by that point in my life, Peterson had already made his mark on me. Having dinner with him was just the icing on the cake.

 

Pastoral Defection

Years earlier I’d been struggling as a pastor to turn a church around. I was convinced that the power of my leadership, the profundity of my preaching, and my winsome and gregarious personality, not to mention my humility, were enough to right a listing ship. I tried hard to be the visionary leader my bishop convinced me I should be.

And I experienced modest success—which made everything worse.

I was tired, and I had a gnawing sense that this was not how ministry should be. That’s when I discovered Peterson, or at least when I woke up and listened to what he had to say.

In some of his books Peterson comes across as angry, berating his pastoral colleagues for abandoning their proper work, for defecting. He believed pastors in America had stopped being pastors and had started being CEOs and managers. They’d started “running churches” rather than pastoring them. They had begun using language to convince, persuade, and cajole rather than proclaim, pray, and heal. They’d forgotten that the church belongs to God, and started believing it was their job to fix it.

When I read that I knew—that’s how I was trying to pastor.

 

Our Proper Work

Again and again in his books, Peterson used the phrase “proper work” as shorthand for an alternative—for what he believed constituted the heart of the pastoral vocation.

And his alternative was salutary. Let’s imagine that God is at work in our congregations, he suggested. Let’s imagine that the initiative doesn’t belong to us, but to God. Let’s imagine our job is to discern what God is doing and step into the stream of God’s gracious work.

Peterson said that when we imagine ourselves running a church, we ask questions like, “What do we do? How can we get things going again?” But when we’ve rediscovered our proper work—to lead a congregation to discern what God is doing and then respond—a different set of questions guides us: “What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on?”

Peterson invited pastors to walk what he believed was becoming a road less traveled.

In his perspective, our congregations are not problems to be solved, but playgrounds of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to discern what the Spirit is doing and respond in faith to the Spirit’s invitation to play.

 

Remembering Peterson

I’ve already forgotten aspects of that conference in 2014. I don’t remember the story Peterson told to make us laugh. I don’t even remember what I said in the paper I gave at the conference, or Peterson’s response.

But I will never forget how his vision of ministry reframed mine. How he invited me to stop thinking I was the only one doing the work. How he reminded me that there was Another in our midst working as well, and that my job as a pastor was to help a congregation discern how to get in on what that One was doing.

How he called me back to my proper work.

 

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDivDoctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century. His latest work is Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife (Church Publishing Inc., 2019).

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