Eugene Peterson: The Art of Pastoring

Eugene Peterson: “There’s probably no vocation in which you’re able to be yourself, with your whole self as a pastor.”

Eugene Peterson, best known for his common-language translation of the Bible, The Message, has helped guide the church, through his masterful writing, to a deeper understanding of spiritual formation, pastoral calling and ecclesiology. In this short interview, Peterson discusses his views on vocation, church size and the importance of being “locally” minded in your ministry.    

On the Vocation of a Pastor

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. 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.

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On Church Size

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 tenant 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.

Advice for Young Pastors and Leaders

There are twenty hundred 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 I’ve been given, the experiences I’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.

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It might look really good, but we can’t move in it. It keeps us from being ourselves.