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Eugene Peterson has influenced the faith of thousands through his writings on spiritual formation. He has written over thirty books, including his contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message. Peterson's most recent book is a memoir of his life and ministry titled, The Pastor. In this interview, Peterson shares his thoughts on church models, spiritual growth, and the art of pastoring. 

SermonCentral:  Eugene, in your book The Pastor, you describe how important your childhood was in forming you for ministry—specifically your father's butcher shop. Can you elaborate on the importance of your childhood and how it impacted your view of the church and pastoring?

Eugene Peterson:  Well, in the sectarian in which I grew up, there was a very sharp distinction between the saved and unsaved in the church world and the other world, and in that butcher shop, there was no division.  It was all one world, and pastors kind of represented for me an alien world or a world which was very circumscribed.  It just felt tiny to me, and the butcher shop just took in the whole community and all kinds of people in the community.  So I think that was it.  There was sense that God so loved the world.  It’s something embracing, and I got that.  That kind of penetrated my imagination and never left it.

SC: What kind of church models did you experience growing up?

EP: I grew up in a culture which was very entertainment-centered.  Pastors were really good storytellers, and they were attractive people, glamorous.  And then I transitioned to a mainline denomination when I was in university, in seminary, and I wasn’t very attracted to that world either.  It was more religion is a business and keeping good records and making sure everybody was keeping the rules.  So in neither place did I find a model.  I guess I experienced anti-models or non-models, and when I became a pastor, I thought this is what I was born to do, but it didn’t have anything to do with celebrity or entertainment.  It had nothing to do with organization and such.  I had the whole world, the whole field to myself to figure out what was going on, and I did find allies, most of them in the cemeteries.  Pastoral work which has been done for two thousand years that didn’t fit those two stereotypes that I had grown up with or that I experienced.

SC: You often talk about the need for pastors to avoid the pressures of "fast" growth. I'm curious, what do you think about the “church growth” model for ministry? Is it helpful or potentially hurtful to the life of the church?

EP: Well, I don’t want to be too harsh or dismissive.  These are my brothers and sisters doing this, and they’re doing good things and doing things I could never do.  But I do think that the commercialization, making just this slight twist on things so that religion becomes a consumer commodity, really changes the way you look at the church, and it makes you dependent upon money and numbers, and that’s very addictive.  It’s really hard to get out of that.  But it also means a terrific loneliness in the pastoral life.  The pastors who give themselves to this, and many of them, not all of them, but many of them end up with pretty thin lives.  That just grieves me.

SC: You talk about the consumer commodity aspect of church. Could you give me a tangible example—something specific that creates more of the consumer mindset that you’re talking about?

EP:  Well, when the Gospel is presented as a way to get what you want, have peace, or have success, that’s introducing a very distorted view of what Biblical revelation is, and it has become much more American than Biblical. And so that’s what I was hoping, in writing The Pastor or after I got started writing it, that I could give some dignity to a pastoral life which was modest and non-competitive and personal and local, and those are not qualities that are much in evidence.

SC:  You talk a lot about the importance of "place" and ministry context in pastoring. How would you encourage young pastors to better embrace their ministry locale as a part of their formation as a pastor? 

EP: Well, this is where most of the satisfaction comes in being a pastor, in being local and being personal.  The vocation of the pastor is one of the best in which you can learn to find out ways to be intimate with people and to understand the actual location where you live.  This Earth is glorious, and we’re not disembodied—we don’t levitate.  We’re people with our feet on the ground, and who else gets to do this in quite the way a pastor can do?  You know, a doctor deals with bodies who are disembodied from place and relationships, and the businessman is dealing with commercial transactions that have nothing to do with relationships as far as he’s concerned.  But a pastor gets to do it all; the whole thing comes together, and the pastor knows whole entire families and neighborhoods and gets to see the whole thing:  the good, the bad, the indifferent, the sick, the healthy.  I think it’s a glorious vocation to get called into, and it saddens me when pastors eliminate so much of it just by ignoring the actual circumstances in which they live and try to plant something that’s disincarnate and using programs instead of relationships in order to cultivate the Christian life.

SC:  You've written over thirty books, many of them on spiritual formation. In your opinion, does church size matter when it comes to spiritual formation? Are megachurches healthy places to grow?

EP: It’s very difficult to develop maturity in a place where the size is so huge.  I’m thinking particularly about pastors. How can you preach to people you don’t know?  The sermons become, and the church is run, primarily through programs, which are inherently depersonalizing.  And so you’re choosing a way to have church which makes it very difficult to be at church.  Of course, there are many good things that happen.  You can have mission projects and world influence in what’s going on, and you can certainly say what needs to be said.  You know, our primary theological tenet is the Trinity.  God is personal, and He’s interpersonal.  There is nothing God does that doesn’t come from a Trinitarian sort of an operation, and when we start to develop strategies that bypass the personal, the local, then it seems to me we’re just hamstringing ourselves. 

SC: What are the major things you would encourage young leaders and pastors to be involved in on a daily and weekly basis in their ministries?

EP: I think one of things I think I’d like to convey is that there are hundreds of different ways of being a pastor, and there’s probably no vocation in which you’re able to be yourself, with your whole self as a pastor.  And I think it’s important for each of us to say, “What’s gone into the making of me as a pastor?” and use the strengths that we’ve been given, the experiences we’ve been given to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.  But I think local and personal is very important.  There are a lot of different ways to preach a sermon or teach a class or visit somebody in the hospital, but if we try to take somebody else’s mantle and put on us, it’s like Saul’s armor.  It just doesn’t work.  It might look really good, but we can’t move in it.  It keeps us from being ourselves.  So I think that’s what I’d say.  Pastors I’ve known and who have been important to me have kind of done it out of their own skin, have tried to be modeled by somebody else.

Eugene Peterson was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. He also served as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. A prolific author, he is probably most well known for The Message, his translation of the Bible in the language of today. Now retired from full-time teaching, Eugene and his wife Jan live in the Big Sky Country of rural Montana.

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Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C

commented on Jul 26, 2012

isn't it really all about the walk on the road to Emmaus

Stephen Webb

commented on Jul 27, 2012

Thank you Eugene Peterson for making my calling seem a bit more worth while in this interview. I am way more comfortable being me in the ministry, getting to know my community and the people who live there than I would be in a large situation where I couldn't form relationships with those God has called me to serve.

James Dale

commented on Jul 27, 2012

I really wish people who speak about Pastors would do some research on the word and realize how it is misapplied today. The word pastor is found one time in the NT and it is in Eph. 4:11, "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers," The Greek word, which is translated pastor is poimen. This word is defined as herdsman or shepherd. It is also found in 1Pet. 5:2 and refers to the work of an elder, not a title. Elders (plural, Titus 1:5, 1Pet. 5:1) are to shepherd (poimen) the flock of God. This is not really a difficult study. People have just accepted the pastoral view (one man over a flock) of the church, which is not supported in the scriptures. People often refer to the evangelist as the pastor, which is wrong. The shepherds (poimen) and evangelist carry out different functions or works for the church. Although some works cross over there is a distinction, Eph. 4:11ff. Paul was an evangelist. Peter was an elder, one who was a shepherd, 1Pet. 5:1. The word pastor is a hold over from Latin and really should be dropped from all translations. The word pastor in Eph. 4:11 should be translated shepherd as is most often the case. Imagine if that one Latin word had not been carried over, how would we define shepherds today? In a Biblical way I would hope. Here is a test for you. Ask your members to give a definition for Pastor. Then ask them to define the word shepherd. See if they give two different definitions. If they do then your flock doesn't understand the Biblical work of an elder. Have them read over 1Pet 5:1-5 and then remind them that the word shepherd in 1Pet. 5:2 is the same word used in Eph. 4:11 translated pastor.


commented on Jul 29, 2012

Shepherd may have been descriptive in the very early days - we'll never know - but that term does not fit our culture. (How many shepherds do you know?) Sheep are not very bright and need someone who is doing all their thinking for them. We live in a different world and need to be relevant to the world and its culture. I prefer the image of outfitter instead.

James Dale

commented on Aug 5, 2012

#4 Actually we need to be Scriptural because Scriptural is always relevant. According to Eph. 4:11 the shepherd does outfit the flock. We don't need people thinking they have a better way than God, Isa. 55:8,9. What do you mean. "we will never know?" Open up a Greek lexicon or just read the text. God tells you what His elders or shepherds are supposed to be doing. Or, you can do like so many others and just make up something you prefer. Here is a novel idea, you could always explain to people what God's shepherd's are supposed to be by using the Bible, His word.

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