Deep Montana roots. Six years living in spiritual “badlands.” How to be “unbusy” in ministry. These are just a few of the intriguing life chapters Eugene Peterson chronicles in his memoir, The Pastor. Author William Young notes that it is the perfect book for anyone who is a pastor, wonders if they will be one, or anyone “who has one.”
Peterson is perhaps most well-known as writer of The Message, a contemporary version of the Bible. Yet that endeavor came after decades in ministry. A Pentecostal, small-town upbringing, education at a New York City seminary, a long-time Presbyterian pastorate, and 15 years as Regent College Professor of Spiritual Theology provided rich experiences that shaped his biblical scholarship.
The largest portion of the book is devoted to Peterson’s work as pastor. He and his wife Jan started a church in the basement of their Baltimore home in 1962, and devoted themselves to it for some 30 years. In his words, “The exterior entrance to our sanctuary was down eight steps of a cement stairwell. The floor of the room was cement. The walls were cement blocks. There were six horizontal narrow exterior windows bordering the top of two of the walls at ground level. After we had been worshipping in this bare, unadorned basement for about four months, Ruth, a vivacious 16-year-old, said to me, ‘I love worshipping in this place! I feel like one of the early Christians in the catacombs.” Hence, Catacombs Presbyterian Church was born.
So began Peterson’s vocation as a pastor. He observes, “I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor. I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived … it was like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly—a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life … but it took a while.”
One of the most notable and delightful elements of The Pastor are the many people and places Peterson poignantly portrays, life events God used to mold, challenge, and encourage him. At times they are warm and even humorous, but others reflect the pain woven into the fabric of ministry. For example, Peterson shares touching stories of his mother, who took him along when she shared the Gospel with laborers in their small mountain community.
“It was high adventure, especially in winter driving and an aura of huddled coziness in the bare halls heated by barrel stoves … I loved being in the company of those rough-hewn men who seemed to have just stepped out of a Norwegian folk tale. I loved being with my passionate mother, who was having such a good time telling lumberjacks and miners about God.”
His father was a butcher, and in his child’s mind, the meat cutting shop provided a perfect place to imagine Old Testament priests and blood sacrifices. He reflects, “That butcher shop was my introduction to the world of congregation, which in a few years would be my workplace as a pastor. The people who came into our shop were not just customers … Everyone felt welcome.”
Peterson pulls back the curtain on the ups and downs of pastoral life, letting readers glimpse the more personal and “human” side of ministry. He is honest about the struggles, but hopeful in recognizing God’s grace in the journey. In one especially revealing section of the book, he tells of a time period following a successful building program, when the congregation moved out of the basement into a stunning new sanctuary.
The church changed its name to Christ Our King Presbyterian, and Peterson had anticipated a glorious progression of further growth and outreach. What he encountered instead was a six-year period marked by malaise, frustration, and questioning.
He says, “How could I re-capture the spirited purpose that had infused so much energy into the formation of our congregation … a fresh expression on Maryland soil of this magnificent story of salvation, following Jesus as if for the first time on the roads and sidewalks of this suburban wilderness? I had no way of knowing it at the time, but I was entering a time of my life that I later named the ‘badlands.’ And I had no way of knowing how long I would be there. It was going to last six years.”
As part of persevering through those days, Peterson and his wife established a Sabbath pattern that believers would do well to consider for themselves. They set aside Mondays as their “day off,” but more than that. They incorporated a regular pattern of spending time outdoors, solitude and shared discussion. They engaged the congregation in their endeavor, with Peterson writing a letter to church members:
“We need your help … Jan and I are ready to respond to you any time of day or night, on any day of the week—death, accident, crisis. Don’t ever hesitate to call us. But if it can keep until Tuesday, call us on Tuesday. We will do our best to protect Sunday as a day of rest and prayer and leisure for you … Help us keep a Monday Sabbath.”
Peterson also helps readers gain a realistic understanding of pastors’ families. He tells of his daughter Karen, five years old at the time, asking him to read her a story. When he declined because he had to attend a meeting she said, “This is the 27th night in a row you have had a meeting.” Peterson notes, “The meeting I had to go to was with the church’s elders … In the seven-minute walk to the church on the way to the meeting, I made a decision. If succeeding as a pastor meant failing as a parent … I would resign that very night.”
When the meeting began, he told the elders of the interaction with Karen. He resigned then and there, but went on to talk about how over-commitment had led to frustration in multiple realms, permeating and stifling his soul. One of the elders, whose father had been a pastor, asked, “So what do you want to do?” After listing several areas that needed attention, Peterson stated, “I want to be an unbusy pastor.”
The elders agreed, thus initiating a foundational shift in approach and attitudes related to leadership. Much of the day to day operation of the church was delegated to capable church members, freeing Peterson to cultivate the “invisibles” of relationship, and a healthy rhythm of activity and rest.
He observes, “As we did this together, the conviction spread through the congregation that one of the most soul-damaging phrases that had crept into the Christian vocabulary is ‘full-time Christian work.’ Every time it is used, it drives a wedge of misunderstanding between the way we pray and the way we work, between the way we worship and the way we make a living.”
The book concludes with “Letter to a Young Pastor,” a gentle yet direct missive to individuals seeking to “find their way” as pastor. In it, Peterson offers wise counsel born of a lifetime. It is a fitting conclusion to the treasury of wisdom found in his memoir.