Church Leaders Share Ministry Lessons From the Life of Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible, frequent contributor to Leadership Journal, and pastor to pastors, passed away on October 22, 2018. Upon learning of his death, we asked several church leaders—some who learned from Peterson’s writing, others who were personally mentored by Peterson for decades—how he shaped their ministries. What lessons from Peterson, we asked, reframed their understanding of the pastoral calling?

Choose your words carefully.

Dean Pinter, rector at St. Aidan Anglican Church in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

Eugene was a poet. Of course, he was much more than that. Like a poet, however, he was careful with his words. He chose them wisely and used them winsomely.

I was one of Eugene’s students at Regent College from 1992 to 1996. My wife’s office at Regent was next door to his. (This helped with our initial connection!) We stayed connected over the years—they visited us in our homes in England and Canada, and we visited them often in their home in Montana.

While his numerous published works attest to the fruitfulness of his words and the congruence with which he wove them into the fabric of his life, these are a few of the words he shared with me personally that continue to sustain my life and ministry.

Resurrection. Amen.

These were the final and fitting two words that Eugene preached at my ordination. The text he chose for his sermon was John 12:20–30. As he reflected on the pastoral implications of the manifestation of Jesus’ glory, Eugene reminded me, a would-be priest, that “glory” means entering into what Jesus wants, not what I want. All the things that are poor and despised by the world, including suffering and death, are backlit by the glory of God. These things appear dark, but if we look at them through the gospel lens and through the story of Jesus, then suddenly they start to look very different. As he closed his sermon, Eugene pointed out that Jesus’ prayer, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28), is the only prayer he prayed in which we are told his Father gave an answer. A voice from heaven replied, “I have glorified it, and I will glory it again” (v. 29). This is a reminder, Eugene said, that we shouldn’t worry that our prayers are not often answered. Jesus only got one! Yet in this, God would glorify Jesus in his own way. God the Father did do it his way. Eugene concluded, “Jesus wrote that gospel into the depths of human pain and disaster and ruin and resurrection. Amen.”


Like many pastors and priests, I find Mondays to be difficult. Most ministers take Mondays off to rest and recover, as Eugene did. Unfortunately, this has never worked well for me, yet I still need a way to ascend from the “Arimathean Tomb” that is Monday. Eugene offered a one-word solution: “Poetry.” He suggested I take an hour or so at the beginning of every Monday to read poetry. So that’s what I do. On one axis of my desk in my parish study sit Bibles, prayer books, and lexicons—the necessary tools to listen attentively and restoratively to God’s Word. On the other axis sit books of poetry—George Herbert, Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Denise Levertov, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and, yes, Eugene Peterson—the necessary tools to listen attentively and restoratively to human words. Poetry, to crib a line from a Wendell Berry poem, helps me to “practice resurrection.”

Relevance is irrelevant.

Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today

I first met Eugene at a conference for young Presbyterian pastors, held at Mt. Hermon in the woodsy Santa Cruz Mountains on the central California coast. This would have been in the mid-1980s. His talks were about faithfulness in the pastorate, and he was exegeting the Book of Jonah to this end. (These talks were the first draft of his later book, Under the Unpredictable Plant.) Simply put, his talks were riveting, a refreshing breeze of biblical interpretation and theological insight for young, tired pastors on retreat.

During one question-and-answer session, a pastor asked Eugene how pastors could be more relevant in our preaching. In those years, we were one and all enamored with the excitement coming out of Barrington Illinois, the home of the then shiny and very relevant Willow Creek Church. So we all mentally leaned forward to hear his answer.

Eugene stared at the pastor for what seemed a minute, although it was probably just 10 seconds. But the silence began to feel uncomfortable. His face did a slight contortion, and then he said, with evident disgust, “Relevance—That’s a Nazi word.”

My memory says one or two gasped aloud in disbelief. One pastor may have let out a brief laugh, perhaps because he agreed, or maybe to ease the awkwardness of the moment. All in all, we were in a state of shock.

Eugene went on to explain that pandering after relevance is a sure way to destroy the integrity of the church. In the early 1930s, Germans suffered from severe low self-esteem after being humiliated by defeat in World War I and the subsequent Versailles Treaty. The Nazi party made these disconsolate citizens once more feel proud of being German. The party clearly met felt need. Their message was very relevant at the time. Instead, Eugene exhorted us to faithfulness—as he did in his entire ministry. (Anyone who heard Eugene preach knows what it meant when Eugene exhorted his listeners.) For Eugene, faithfulness was first and last.

During the coffee break afterwards, we chatted vigorously about what he had said. Some remained unconvinced about the irrelevance of relevance. But I was one who, from that day forward, held the maxim of our era in less and less esteem.

Pastoral ministry is serious, consequential work.

Trygve Johnson, Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope College

I first heard the name Eugene Peterson in college. My chaplain, after listening to me wrestle with a sense of calling, squinted like a doctor making a diagnosis, pulled a book from his shelf, and handed me The Contemplative Pastor. “Read this!” he said. I did. In Eugene’s words, I found a vision for pastoral life I had always hoped existed but did not know how to articulate.

Years later Eugene befriended me. He had recently retired to Montana. I was a young aspiring pastor, and he took me on, inviting me into a mentoring relationship through letters, conversations, books, and pilgrimages to Flathead Lake. This invitation changed my life and my ministry.

Eugene gave me a vision and a language for who I could be as a pastor. He restored honor and dignity to the calling of the pastor. Eugene revived a vision of a pastor as someone serious, intelligent, savvy, creative, playful, and prophetic. Eugene encouraged those in ministry to resist the seductive sirens of the pragmatic pastor, in favor of a ministry animated by the patient and cruciform witness of a long obedience in the same direction.

Through this encouragement, Eugene pulled me into a larger world of consequence. His words and vision helped me see and experience the wide-open country of salvation. Here, Eugene invited me to explore the geography of the Trinity, which expanded my imagination and bent my reason back into shape. The use of cliché or paint-by-numbers theology was unworthy of the work. The pastor, Eugene counseled, required a charged imagination, an earthy piety, with a double shot of humor! He showed me that a ministry at play in the expansive fields of the Triune God was a more interesting place to spend the day.

The key to this larger world was the Bible. Eugene showed me how to read with a scriptural imagination. He taught me that the goal of reading Scripture was not to know more, but to become more. His great lesson was that Scripture had everything to do with the neighborhood, because the neighborhood is where Christ shows up.

Maybe Eugene’s greatest legacy on my ministry was that he taught me to love by simply loving me. Eugene gave me time. He always wrote back. He never refused a call. He always welcomed me into his home. Never was I treated as an abstraction or a project to solve. He treated me as a friend. He showed me that healthy ministry requires, even demands, relationships where we can be known and understood.

Receiving the news of Eugene’s death feels like what the Fellowship of the Ring in the Tolkien novel of the same name must have experienced when they lost Gandalf. What do you do when your guide is gone? But Eugene taught us well, for he reminded us to practice resurrectionAnd so we carry the Message on!

There is no ministry in the abstract.

Marshall Shelley, former editor of Leadership Journal, and now director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary

Many scholars revel in abstractions. I never met a more scholarly man than Eugene Peterson, who once wrote an article on the middle voice in Greek grammar and its implications for our understanding of prayer.

But I also never met a man who was more insistent on the concrete embodiment of biblical truth. Never content to merely grasp the principle, he pressed on to specific application.

One example: when his church in Maryland grew beyond the point where he could know everyone’s name, he stepped down because he didn’t want to be pastor in name only. He insisted that pastoring, shepherding, is personal, and when the church grows beyond the point of knowing everyone personally, he refused to accept the abstraction of “pastor.”

He was intensely practical. On one of my visits with him during his pastorate in Maryland, he introduced me to the works of philosopher-farmer Wendell Barry. For instance, he read to me this excerpt from Berry’s book The Gift of Good Land: “Charity is a theological virtue and is prompted, no doubt, by a theological emotion, but it is also a practical virtue.” It cannot be practiced “by smiling in abstract beneficence on our neighbors. … It must come to acts, which must come from skills.”

How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply or your poison out of his air? How will you practice virtue without skill? The ability to be good is not the ability to do nothing. It is the ability to do something well—to do good work for good reasons.

With Berry, as with Peterson, commitment and love are not simply a mental attitude; they mean developing an ability to improve the situation, to further the cause you’re committed to.

Yet while deeply committed to people and community, Eugene wasn’t sentimental about them. He wrote,

When I became a pastor, I didn’t like much about the complexities of community in general and of a holy community in particular. I often found myself preferring the company of people outside my congregation, men and women who did not follow Jesus. Or worse, preferring the company of my sovereign self. But I soon found that my preferences were honored by neither Scripture nor Jesus.

I didn’t come to that conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it. There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting for living the Christian life.

As a scholar, pastor, and Bible translator, Eugene Peterson saw with vivid clarity the world around him. And guided his students and readers into personal engagement with life and the Author of this world and the world to come.

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Source: Christianity Today