Eugene Peterson has a ‘Message’ for pastors

With his hugely popular Message Bible, Eugene Peterson has transformed worship and Bible-study groups nationwide. Now, he is sharing the pastoral wisdom behind the Message. In Part 1, we recommended Peterson’s new memoir, “The Pastor” and published a short excerpt.
TODAY, in Part 2, Peterson talks about what he’s learned about the role of pastor.

2012 NEWS UPDATE: ReadTheSpirit recommends a new devotional Bible with excerpts of Peterson’s teacings: The Message Study Bible: Capturing the Notes and Reflections of Eugene H. Peterson, now available from Amazon.


DAVID:Early in your book, you declare: “North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor.” That’s a startling statement. What do you mean?

EUGENE: What I mean by a lack of congenial conditions is that we live in a consumer culture and we’re trained from infancy to look for something that will satisfy us—and if we don’t like it, then we change, we buy another product. Unhappily, the church has bought that consumer strategy. Now, instead of staying in a place where you can train people and disciple people to become attentive to God, pastors are told to keep changing the product. America is the primary consumer society in the whole world and now we’ve got all these churches that have turned themselves into consumer churches. This is difficult for all of us, because we’re all trained to be consumers. People expect this. But, if we use consumer methods to develop our congregations, we almost guarantee immaturity.

DAVID: You’re not alone in raising these concerns. Two other scholars we’ve interviewed at ReadTheSpirit—Kenda Creasy Dean on “Almost Christian” and Harvey Cox on “The Future of Faith”—see overwhelming data indicating that American Christians have strayed far from what we might call “orthodoxy.” Many have left their authentic Christian roots and really are searching for self satisfaction now in a consumer-driven way. If I read your new book correctly, you’re raising this same concern, right?

EUGENE: I would agree both with Kenda and Harvey in the way they characterize that. So, how do we respond? Pastors need to train people in a more mature Christianity. But people live in our consumer culture and they expect the pastor to do what they want. The popular view, even in churches, of pastoral work and the Christian faith is that it’s something about me—its purpose is to help me be a better person, richer, happier, more peaceful and more successful. But that isn’t really what the Bible is talking about. That’s not what Jesus is doing. The Bible is calling us to live a life of sacrifice, obedience and compassion—but always in relationship. There is no impersonal Gospel—and yet we’ve got a lot of lonely people in America who need relationship. A congregation is a place where we learn how to become friends. One of the most important things Jesus says to his disciples is: I call you to be friends. The basic thing we are called to work out is this relational model with Jesus and with the people around us.

DAVID: This is tough stuff. When I talk with church leaders either as individuals, or especially in groups, I find that they’re really struggling with this challenge.

EUGENE: You’ve talked to pastors so you know: They’re often the loneliest people on Earth.


DAVID: I want to stress to readers that your book isn’t a downer. Most pastors know full well that they are facing crises. They may not fully understand what’s driving those crises, but they know these are troubling times. But, the bulk of your book tells the story of your own life as a pastor. It’s a memoir and there’s a lot we can learn as we read about what worked for you and what didn’t. One of the big points you make about being an effective pastor is that you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you. This reminds me of the advice from one of the great preaching instructors, the Rev. Dr. William Quick at Duke. Quick always said: “Go into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” He wasn’t talking about political preaching; he was talking about what you call paying attention to what’s going on around us.

EUGENE: When I wrote that, I was thinking about it in the context of leadership. There’s a lot of talk about leadership in the Christian church today: how to be a strong leader. I think a lot of that talk is misguided, taking its cues from the worlds of sports and big business. In those areas, a leader is someone who comes in and gets things done. That’s appropriate in almost every other area of life—but not for pastors in the church. As pastors, we’re not trying to get something done. We’re not looking at people and thinking about what we can convince them to do. That’s not the goal. As pastors, we’re trying to pay attention to what’s going on now, right here—right now. We’re trying to pay attention to what God is doing. And we’re trying to share that in the community. If we get that idea turned around and focus on getting things accomplished, then we turn ourselves into congregations that have bought into this sports-business model. That’s why so many pastors are depressed so much of the time. They try and try—and keep trying—to become these business-style leaders and they can’t make it work in the church.

DAVID: There are a lot of models out there of big, flashy-looking churches that seem to be using all the corporate marketing tools—but the vast majority of Americans don’t belong to that handful of flashy churches. Most Americans attend thousands of small to mid-sized congregations.

EUGENE: That’s why it’s a breath of fresh air for people to find a pastor who doesn’t arrive on the scene trying to manipulate them, trying to recruit them to do something. It’s a breath of fresh air to find a pastor who is paying attention to them just the way they are and who is genuinely interested in entering into the rich life of a community with them.

DAVID: In your book, you write about two poles of the church. At one point, you literally describe some church architecture you worked out—the arrangement of your church—to highlight these two poles. They are: one pole in which God’s Spirit speaks to the people, to the community, through scripture—and the other pole where the people speak with God through prayer and praise.

EUGENE: Right. The whole revelation of God is why we’re there. We’re not there by ourselves. This is a relationship. When a church becomes either all doctrine without relationship—or all relationship without doctrine—then the church is moving to one pole or the other. That’s the glorious thing about being a pastor. We’re working with people in this very interesting and very difficult relationship between these two polarities. The pastor is always living with the tension between these polarities, or perhaps a better word is living with the reciprocity between those poles.


DAVID: Your memoir also is fun to read. You’re honest about both what worked well and what didn’t work out as planned.

EUGENE: When I became a pastor, I wanted to be as clear as I could with myself. I wanted to be a witness to what God is doing, and I also wanted to get people involved in what God is doing. When I started out, I thought the preaching, the worship and the sacraments would be the hard part. I thought it would be easy to get people involved. Our congregation was in suburbia and I thought people would be hungering, if not for God, at least for friends. But I was wrong!

I discovered that nobody wanted to be a community. I had no problem getting people to listen to me about God, but when I started talking about prayer and relationship and loving and entering into a responsive community—that was the hard part. That surprised me. I guess I didn’t know much about suburbia. I had grown up in a small town. I went to schools in metropolitan areas where there was a lot of diversity. And here I was in suburbia, which was quite different from either of those. It took me at least 10 years before the congregational community really started to happen.


DAVID: Ten years! A lot of our readers are going to stop right there and shake their heads. In a lot of congregations, no pastor has a chance to stay that long—and you point out that your own congregation didn’t even begin to work as a community until after your first 10 years.

EUGENE: When I became a pastor, I began meeting with two friends, pastors of other churches. We decided we’d meet every week and read a book. We chose to read the Rule of Benedict, the one who started the great reforming movement in monasteries. One of the things Benedict did was add a vow of stability. At that time, monks were going around and trying to find a better monastery, better friends, and better community. Benedict said: Stop! Take a vow of stability. Stay there and put up with what you’ve found.

Well, there also was a lot of church hopping among pastors when I was starting. We all said we’d take Benedict’s vow of stability—but my two friends were both gone in two years. I did take it seriously. I thought: I’ve got to get to know these people in their homes and their work. I need to develop a relational congregation.

DAVID: This is going to be tough advice for some readers to accept.

EUGENE: I hesitate to be too doctrinaire or dogmatic in saying this because there are circumstances where stability is not a good thing. Some congregations are toxic and can destroy a pastor. People change and sometimes our vocations take a different turn. But, all of the things being equal, I think the longer you can stay the better. The relationships deepen and deepen. It takes a long time in our culture to gain trust from people.


DAVID: Your work on “The Message” appears only at the end of your book, because your full-time work on the Bible was what took you away from the congregation, in the end. However, “The Message” started as a pastoral concern.

EUGENE: Yes, I began retranslating the Psalms for individuals in my congregation. The hardest thing when trying to lead people toward a life of prayer is to teach them to be honest, or to give them the freedom to be honest. For most people, prayer means trying to be nice before God. But the fact is, the Psalms are angry. These are gutsy people who are standing before God and they’re angry about life in many cases. I spent my earlier years as a professor of Hebrew and Greek, so I know the original language. In working with an individual, I would translate a Psalm for them. I would present it to them and say: “This is the way you’re feeling now. This is one way you can express that feeling; and this comes right out of Psalms.” I did that for years, one Psalm at a time. Some of them were published in journals occasionally.

DAVID: Then you translated Galatians. And that circulated more widely. Eventually you got an invitation to do the whole Bible. We recommend that people get your memoir and read the whole story of your work as a pastor. But, I have to ask as you look ahead: You’ve raised some very serious concerns about what often passes for religion in America today, but are you worried? Or do you see hope on the horizon?

EUGENE: If I have to pick a word to describe what I see ahead, I will pick the word: hopeful. I am trying to help people see the value of the pastoral vocation, but I also think: It’s very important work, but it’s not rocket science. We learn this vocation on the job. Anyone with a certain level of intelligence, patience and guts can do this. But I wanted people to see that there’s another image of a pastoral vocation other than the celebrity kind we see in so many places.

And, I am encouraged. I know a lot of younger pastors and they’re doing great work. I have a son who’s a pastor and through him I’ve encountered a younger generation of pastors. There’s a lot of great stuff going on that I think is really healthy in the church. I see a groundswell of recovery out there—more and more people realizing what pastoral work really is.

YOU CAN ORDER The Pastor: A Memoir from Amazon today. If you’ve never read Peterson’s masterwork The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language you can order that from Amazon as well.

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(Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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