Eugene Peterson is one of the best known theologians of our time. Most famous for penning The Message, a contemporary rendering of the Bible, he is also author of many popular books such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. With the release of his memoir, The Pastor, Peterson has begun reflecting on life and the ways in which Jesus-followers can respond to God’s call. Here, we discuss his unlikely call to ministry, the work of a pastor and what, if anything, he wishes he could change about The Message.
JM: In The Pastor, you describe your journey into ministry. How did you first sense God calling you into service?
EP: Well, I never really thought I’d be a pastor because I had so many pastors I didn’t respect. I just assumed I would be in academic work, so I started doing that—I went to seminary and graduate school to be a professor. And then I became a professor at the seminary in New York City where I graduated. But they didn’t pay me very much. Greek and Hebrew professors aren’t very high on the pay scale. So I got a part-time job in a church, because I had been ordained but just to be a professor. I’d never been around a pastor who was a man of God, to tell you the truth.
I was teaching Greek and Hebrew on Tuesdays and Thursdays and after awhile I did this for three years. But after the second year I thought, “Wow, the church is a lot more interesting than the classroom. There’s no ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong.” And in the church everything was going every which way all the time—dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator but being in the game. So I gradually reshaped my sense of what I was doing and became a pastor.
JM: With your experience in both the church and the academy, I wonder what advice you would give to young seminary students today. If you were asked by one to describe what is at the heart of the work of pastoring and shepherding, what would you say?
EP: I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.
The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want. And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.