I knew he couldn’t live forever. But I sure hate to see him go. I’m writing about the best pastor I ever had but never met: Eugene Peterson. He died on Monday. And here’s the irony of that for me: I was leading a pastors’ conference and giving away some of his books on pastoring. I preached that day on the pastor as shepherd and quoted him twice in my sermon. And here’s another irony: I’ve written a book for pastors (The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of our Shepherd Lord) that should be released in a few days. And in the introduction, I wrote these words:
While I have learned from the pastors I served with on staff and from some of my pastor friends, two key mentors have kept me grounded in my pastoral work across more than three decades. The first is a Presbyterian named Eugene Peterson. He, more than anyone else, has taught me what it means to be a pastor. Peterson’s books should be essential reading for every pastor and everyone who feels called to become a pastor. (If you have never read one of his books, you should put this one down and go read one of his first.)
I learned a lot from and am forever grateful to the handful of men who pastored me until I became a pastor in 1982. But no one taught me more about pastoring than Eugene Peterson. Peterson founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and pastored that church for 29 years. He retired to teach Spiritual Theology at Regent College for another six years. He wrote a lot across the years. I’ve read most everything he wrote. And I am a better Christian and a better pastor because of it.
My first encounter with his work was in the 80s, and man did I need him then. I was pastoring a growing church in suburban Kansas City. Those were the days of the church growth movement, and our church was busting at the seams. He arrested me immediately on the first page of his book Working the Angles:
America’s pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same.
Busted! Humbled. Put in my place. I was becoming a shopkeeper, not a pastor. Through the book, I learned the three angles that have historically been at the heart of pastoral ministry: Scripture, prayer, and spiritual direction. I learned how to pastor a growing church without abandoning my calling. I am indebted to Peterson for that, and the two congregations I’ve served have been better-shepherded because of him.
But it’s not just his books on pastoring that have had influence in my life. His work with the Psalms and with David’s life have made a difference too. I did my doctoral project on “Using the Psalms as a Guide to Corporate and Individual Prayer.” As part of the project I wrote a devotional book on praying the psalms. I was told I needed an outside evaluator on the book. I took a big chance and wrote a letter asking Peterson to be that evaluator. He quickly responded with a nice, handwritten letter, telling me that as much as he’d like to, his work at the college kept him from being able to take on any outside projects. Then he wrote a few sentences commending me on my project, encouraging me, and wishing me well. I don’t know how he did it, but I’ve never felt better about being told “No” in my life.
A number of years later, I was on the verge of burning out. Knowing my admiration of Peterson, a staff member, Mike Pounders, went to a lot of trouble to get in touch with Peterson. Imagine my shock when I was given his cell number and invited to call him. We talked 15 or 20 minutes—well, I talked, he mostly listened. And invited me to come stay for a few days with he and Jan in his Montana home. He said I could relax there, and we could visit. He said he did that a couple of times of years for people in his larger congregation (people like me). He could do that in about six months, he said. He told me to keep his number and call him to set up a time. I was an idiot. I don’t know if I was starstruck or to overwhelmed to take him up on the offer. I blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend personal time with one of my heroes. I’ll regret that till I die.
He sent a nice note on my 20th anniversary as pastor at First Baptist, Hot Springs. And I continued to read his writings: always challenged, always encouraged, always learning something, always growing in my faith.
I’m going to miss him. He will still live in on my shelves and in my work. And I suspect I’ll keep his cell phone number in my contacts till I die.
But now I’ll have to wait to meet him personally till I get to the other side. I know I’ll have to wait in a long line, but I will not blow my next opportunity to meet the man in person and to thank him for the many ways his work shaped my spiritually and pastorally. And when I talk to Jesus, I’ll tell him in person what I’ve already told him in prayer: “You did a lot of us a favor when you made Eugene Peterson. I thank you. And the churches I’ve served thank you too.”