I thank God for Men and Women who carry a wisdom and are given a voice to help the maturity of the people of God to come a very good insight for NOW…read on…
The Relationally Grounded Pastor -An interview with Eugene Peterson
It’s been said that if evangelicals were to have a Pope, it would be Billy Graham. Well, if evangelicals were to appoint a Bishop, a pastor to pastors, there would be no better candidate than Eugene Peterson. The pastor, scholar, and author has impacted four generations of church leaders through his writing. Pastor J.R. Briggs interviewed Peterson about the pastor’s vocation and how to lead with your soul.
When you look at the state of the pastoral vocation, what concerns you?
One of the things that distresses me most is how much ambition there is. I’m alarmed that we measure things by what the world counts as important. We’ve lost a scriptural imagination, I fear. It’s so important for pastors to understand the Trinity, because it shows that God is totally relational. There’s no part of the Godhead that isn’t in relationship to the other parts and with us. If we don’t saturate ourselves in that relational reality, the values in this world just crowd in on us.
How did your parishioners shape the way you saw your role as a pastor?
They treated me as a person of prayer, as a person of conversation. When they would come to me with a problem, I really wouldn’t deal with the problem. I got them talking about their lives in different ways, and it’s surprising how many times, after two or three times together, there was no problem. They thought the problem was the only way they could get my attention. And when it didn’t get my attention, at least not in the way they thought, then the conversations would get deeper and more intimate. I think because of the culture we live in, we almost have to disappoint people, at least at the outset, in order to get them to understand who we are and what we’re doing.
A lot of it has to do with paying attention, and listening, and praying in your listening, Lord, what is this person telling me? And then sometimes you’re able to get around the problem and find something more interesting than the problem. You know people have problems because they’re uninteresting. They want people to look at them and feel sorry for them or help them. They don’t need that. They need a friend. And if we let people define themselves in terms of problems then they get defined in our minds as problems. We have to fix them, and that’s just death for a pastoral vocation. A yellow warbler just landed in a tree outside my window.
Can you recall a time when you were able to sidestep someone’s problem to connect with them on a deeper level?
There was a young woman in my church, married with a couple of kids, and she was not well. She kept going to her doctor and he prescribed pills. Finally he said to her, “You should go to a psychiatrist. I think your problem is deeper than what we’re talking about.” She was in the hospital for three or four days at a time. I visited her in the hospital and said, “How would you like me to help you?” And she said, “Would you teach me to pray?” I nearly fell off my stool. Nobody had ever asked me to teach them to pray. And so I said, “Well, I’d love to do that.”
It was a critical moment for me. I decided I’m not going to be a counselor anymore. I’m going to be a man of prayer and invite other people into this. I’m not saying that cured her, but it changed the whole dynamic of what was going on. She was able to get off medication and become a very vibrant woman.
You know it’s a lot more satisfying to solve people’s problems than to teach them to pray, because you can see the evidence immediately. The marriage is saved, the runaway kid comes home. Of course you have a lot of failures, too, but when it works you can see it happen. With prayer you don’t see it happen. It’s something that gets internalized and works out through the years. You don’t know how it happens. Nobody does except maybe the Spirit himself, I guess.
You’ve been critical of what you call a CEO model of ministry. Were you ever tempted to pastor like that?
No, I was never tempted. I’d seen too many of them. I grew up in a church culture that was celebrity-driven. I never had a pastor who knew my name. I got tired of them saying, “Young man, how’s your soul today?” I didn’t even know I had a soul. All I knew is I had hormones.
In some ways I was saved by bad examples. So I was protected from that, which was a good thing because I’m very competitive. In those early years I got my identity through competitiveness, mostly in sports and academics. And that was a big thing for me, to make that transition from the ambition of doing really well to entering into relational reality with my parishioners.
Did competitiveness continue to be a challenge for you as a pastor?
When I started, I had adrenaline and ambition. I worked hard. We raised money and built this lovely sanctuary, inexpensive but still artistic. There was a lot of enthusiasm. But some of the people had quit coming to church. I’d go to see them and say, “Is something wrong? I said something you didn’t like?” And they’d say, “Oh no, pastor, who’d have thought a bunch of nobody’s like us could have built that church?”
I did a lot of fetching, but I never learned how to sit. Eventually I learned to stop asking, ‘How can I perform better?’ and to start asking, ‘How can I fit into what God is doing?’
But in six months our attendance was about half what it had been. I went to my supervisor and said, “What do I do?” He said, “Start another building campaign.” I said, “You got to be kidding.” He said, “That’s the only motivation Americans know. You’ve got to have a goal. If you don’t have a goal, you can’t do anything.” And I said, “We just had a building campaign. We just built a church.” “That doesn’t make any difference. Trust me. A goal will do it.”
Well, I left that meeting knowing I wasn’t going to do that. But I didn’t know what to do, and so I thought, Well, if I don’t know what to do, I’ll just do what I felt comfortable doing: preaching, visiting people, having them in our home. They were all good things, but I was wearing myself out. I remember thinking, I’m like a puppy dog. Somebody throws a Frisbee and says, “Get it” and I run and get it, and come back to do it again. “Fetch” was the one word I know really well. I did a lot of fetching, but I never learned how to sit. Sit. Eventually I learned to stop asking, “How I can perform better?” and to start asking, “How can I fit into what God is doing?”
What practices refreshed your soul while you were a pastor?
One of the things that made a huge difference in my life was I gathered the pastors in my neighborhood every Tuesday for two, sometimes three hours to have lunch together. We did it in my study. They weren’t all Presbyterians. I just invited everybody in the county. It was not a large county, and we had about 17 or 18 pastors. If they were in the community and they were pastor of a church, they were there.
How do you expect people to know you if they haven’t been in your home,
if they haven’t seen your kids and what kind of flowers you grow?
Borrowing a phrase from Calvin, we called ourselves “The Company of Pastors.” And we had an agenda: to help each other get ready to preach on Sunday. But if something was going on or somebody was having a divorce or a church fight or someone was just depressed, we dropped everything and talked. Talked and prayed. And that group was life-giving for all of us. At the end of the academic year, we went on an overnight retreat together where we celebrated the Eucharist at the conclusion. And that group is still going on.
I was reminded at one point of a short story by Thomas Mann. It was about a woodsman who had the same ax all his life. He was 88 years old, still the same ax. Sometimes the blade would wear out and he would replace that, and sometimes the handle would wear out and he’d replace that. But it was the same ax. That was our group. We were Thomas Mann’s woodsman. People would come and go, but it was always the same thing.
A friend I have from South Africa said, “You really don’t know somebody till you’ve been in their kitchen.” How important is it to get out into the places where people live and work?
It’s essential. When I’m on their turf, I’m looking at them, finding out what they do. When they’re on my turf, they’re looking at me, finding out what I do. I have a good friend who became pastor of another congregation, and it was a celebrity church. He started having people in his home, four or five at a time, just for conversation. Over and over these people told him “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a pastor’s home.” I think that’s tragic. How do you expect people to know you if they’ve not been in your home, if they haven’t seen your kids and what kind of flowers you grow?
From the very beginning when we received new members, we had them in our home to get to know them and their stories. Then when they joined the church, we’d meet with them in one of the elder’s homes, not in a church building, not in a place that is sacred or religious. I didn’t know what I was doing, but later saw the genius in it. As a result their capacity for relationship developed.
People ask, “How do you mature a spiritual life?” Well, the one thing you do is you eliminate the word spiritual. It’s your life that’s being matured; it’s not a part of your life. I learned through the years to not use the word spiritual as an adjective. With men, the only way I could usually get them to meet me during the week is to have lunch with them in their place of work or near their place of work.
So we would meet for lunch, and I would be able to ask them enough questions about what their work was, what they were doing, did they like it, what was hard about it, what was good about it, and they would open up. But we were not in the church. We were not in the pastor’s study. We were out in the world that they lived in. People like to be known for who they are, not for what they’re not.
Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you’d like to share with pastors?
There’s nothing in the world that is more contextual, more sensitive than a congregation. Wendell Berry elaborates this in terms of the land, the farm. Every farm is different, and the farmer has to learn his land and treat it with dignity. There’s no vocation, I think, that’s as context-specific as the pastor. So you’ve got two contexts—your congregation and the pastor’s. Every pastor is different and should learn to be him- or herself. And every congregation is different and needs to be given dignity in being itself.
It’s crucial to insist on contextualization—the uniqueness of the congregation, the uniqueness me—instead of thinking, This is what a congregation should do and This is what a pastor should do. Forget it! Learn how to do it out of who you are, and let your congregation be the congregation it can be out of who they are.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.