Eugene Peterson is perhaps best known for his 20 books, including Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, and his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, to be published in full this spring by NavPress. His primary vocation has been the pastorate. He “planted” a new congregation, Christ the King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, which grew to 500 members in his 29-year tenure.
I traveled to the home of Eugene and his wife, Jan, in Lakeside, Montana, for a few days of conversation about his understanding and experience of pastoral life. I settled quickly into the Petersons’ comfortable home on the shores of Flathead Lake, and into the Sabbath-like pace. For 30 years, the Petersons (now parents of three grown children) traveled here every summer from Maryland to return to their Montana roots and to be refreshed by the beauty and serenity of the land. After retiring from Christ the King and teaching spiritual theology for five years at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Eugene came home. Here he would complete his translation of the Old Testament. He is now set to begin work on a five-volume work on spiritual theology.
Recently Eugene, with Jan’s full support, took himself off the speaker’s circuit. After a few remaining commitments, he is off the road. It was time to give up pulpit and podium for pen and paper. He is as certain now as he was throughout his pastoral ministry that if he is not rooted in time and place, his words and witness will lose their gravity. He dwells in a place of solitude but not of isolation. He and Jan provide hospitality to a stream of family and friends. They are active in a local Lutheran congregation. Eugene spends time with pastors, helping them reflect on their work. The couple’s life is uncluttered by e-mail or TV.
Peterson, raised a Pentecostal in Kalispell, Montana, was the son of a Pentecostal pastor mother and a butcher father. (He played high school basketball with Pentecostal classmate Phil Jackson, who later won fame as a coach in the NBA.) After college, Eugene set off for New York, where he attended Biblical Theological Seminary (now New York Theological Seminary). Though his sojourn from Pentecostal to Presbyterian began in fall 1954, Eugene’s Pentecostal roots would continue to nourish his theological imagination.
While earning a master of divinity degree in English Bible at BTS, Eugene coached a winning church basketball team at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where the celebrated George Buttrick held forth.
Eugene earned a second master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in Semitic languages. Married, and with a family on the way, he took a pastorate in White Plains, New York. Yale University, within commuting distance, accepted him into its Ph.D. program in Old Testament under scholar Brevard Childs. But before beginning his studies, he realized where his vocation lay: “I am a pastor.” His turning to the pastoral life was not a renunciation of intellectual life or of his passion for biblical languages. But from then on his service to the church and his intellectual flourishing would be shaped by the pastoral vocation. In 1962 the Baltimore Presbytery asked him to start a congregation, and his long ministry began in earnest.
David Wood: Eugene, what’s your reading of the current “clergy self-care” movement?
Eugene Peterson: My initial response is that it narrows the context of pastoral work and identity. I’m wary of the term “self-care.” We’re such incorrigible, selfish persons that I’m loathe to give it a fancy term that makes it OK.
Maybe the most important thing I did as a pastor in this area was not to assume that I needed to protect myself from the congregation and its supposedly insatiable demands. Instead, I sought to foster a collaborative relationship.
How did you do that?
Here’s what I said: “Help me. I have needs. I can’t function well without help from you. We’re in this together, we’re doing the same thing, we’re worshiping together, we’re living the Christian life together. You’ve asked me to do certain things to help you do it—to lead you in worship on Sunday, to visit you when you’re sick, to help administer the church. But I need help in all of this.” I worked to create conditions in which this kind of collaboration would flourish. For example, I would take my elders and deacons on retreat twice a year, and we’d spend 36 to 48 hours talking. We’d talk about needs—their needs and mine, and how we could help each other do what needed to be done. They became very imaginative and sensitive, coming up with things I would never have thought of.
It sounds as though you would not separate “self-care” from “congregational care.”
Right. From time to time—three or four times a year—I would write a congregational letter on topics such as “Why your pastor keeps a Sabbath,” “Why your pastor reads books,” “Why your pastor stays home with his family on Friday nights.” I wrote about these practices not to seek approval or to justify what I was doing with my time, but to invite [members] into the same kinds of practices—practices that should matter to all Christians. This kind of writing helped me remember why these practices were so important to my life as a pastor, our life as a family, and our life as a congregation.
Once I wrote a letter titled “Why your pastor never repaired his television set.” Again, I didn’t do it with an attitude of moral superiority toward television. I simply related our experience as a family and how positively our life together was shaped by the choice not to repair our TV. Of course, there was an implicit invitation in the narrative: “Next time your TV breaks, try leaving it broken for six months and see what happens.”
In what ways is the pastoral life unique?
One thing unique about this life is that no other calling has quite as much intimacy in it. This is where things can go wrong for pastors. Intimacy is vulnerability—it’s a place where there could be much betrayal, exploitation.
One way to deal with this danger is to refuse the intimacy and say, “I’m a functional pastor. I’m not a relational pastor.” You may succeed as a manager or a program director, but you will fail as a pastor.
If you’re going to negotiate this tricky terrain of intimacy, you must have a strong commitment to mutuality. It’s not exactly like a marriage, but there are parallels. It is precisely the demand of intimacy that many pastors find so hard to sustain.
What allows you to stay in that intimate engagement and not be overcome by it?
A term that occurs in the literature of the spiritual masters is “detachment.” Now detachment is the cultivation of a relationship that is present, but not taking ownership, not being messianic or managerial. It gives the other person freedom—it allows the “other” to be “other.”
This way of relating requires detachment from a “need-based” relationship. It is inherent in the gospel, but it’s easy for it to get skewed by sin or co-opted by sin in the guise of compassion. I love the phrase in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Teach us to care and not to care.”
Caring, but not caring. They’re both part of the same thing. It’s an art. You make mistakes along the way. You don’t learn it in your first year in the parish.
It sounds as though you are not going to hold a congregation responsible for what is your responsibility. At the same time, you won’t let them hold you responsible for what is their responsibility. Coming to this kind of understanding must take some effort.
It has to be learned, and it has to be learned without assuming an adversarial position. I refused to let any of this become adversarial. I’m even a little hesitant to use the word “negotiation” to describe the process I have in view. We’re friends. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you can see your relationship with parishioners as friendship “with mutuality and affection,” that undermines the hierarchical structure almost from the beginning. People feel that they’re being valued for their own sake, not for what you can get out of them or how you can use them.
That is why I insist on the importance of a pastor’s going to people’s homes—because you’re on their turf. They’re the host. You’re the guest. It’s hard to maintain that hierarchical function when you’re at their mercy.
That’s one way a pastor can practice mutuality rather than talk about it.
Yes. Friendship is at the heart of it. There’s a lot of talk about spiritual direction these days, which is good. But spiritual direction at its best is friendship—that is, paying attention to somebody with affection and appreciation.
Over 15 or 20 years, I was in the homes of parishioners three or four times. These visits were not prompted by crises—they were simply pastoral visits. When I left my congregation, I realized that many of these people had come to think of me as their best friend.
That didn’t happen because we did things like playing golf together or going to ball games. Friendship grew out of the way we learned to pay attention to one another’s lives over time. In many ways, it was this kind of relational work that kept me from burnout.
I don’t think pastors “burn out” because they work too hard. People who work hard often do so because they’re good at what they’re doing and they enjoy doing it. I think burnout comes from working with no relational gratification. Relationships become laborious and draining. Pastors can lose touch with relational vitality when their relationships are driven by programmatic necessity. When this happens, pastors can lose the context for love, hope, faith, touch, and a kind of mutual vulnerability. In the midst of the congregation, pastors become lonely and feel isolated—and that isolation can be deadly to the pastoral life. Those are the conditions in which inappropriate intimacies flourish.
I think the epidemic (if it is an epidemic) of sexual misconduct by clergy has less to do with clergy overindulging intimacy or not being careful about intimate relationships, and more to do with the absence of genuine intimacy.
Many pastors I know who are vital and alive to their work have an unmistakable relationship quality. It strikes me that there is little space in their lives for inappropriate relationships because they are so oriented by good relationships.
That’s right. I think “self-care” requires caring well for others. One principal way to keep your sanity, your health, and your emotional equilibrium is to care for somebody else.
I can remember times when I felt hemmed in or felt that I couldn’t do this work anymore. One way I got through those times was to care, in very deliberate ways, for someone else. It’s amazing how caring for someone else helps you forget about yourself.
Let me shift gears here. Sabbaticals are widely regarded as a principle strategy for sustaining good ministry over the long haul. As I recall, you had one sabbatical in 30 years. In your 24th year of ministry, you spent 12 months in Montana with your wife, resting, reading, and writing. But ordinarily you had two months a year away from the congregation—in Montana. Part of that time was vacation and part was study and writing. That strikes me as an annual sabbatical rhythm. How did this rhythm shape your practice of ministry?
My congregation always gave me a month’s holiday. And then, on their own, the session [church governing board] decided to give me an additional month for writing. They didn’t ask me. They didn’t consult me. They just gave it to me. It was part of that “help me” sort of thing, except I hadn’t said “Help me” right then. I’d write for a month, and I’d just be with the family.
The 12-month sabbatical I received was, again, a “help-me” thing. I told them I would like to stay there [in the congregation] forever if they wanted me, but I didn’t think I could do it without a sabbatical. They were generous and gave me a 12-month sabbatical. When I came back from time away, I was energized, fresh, and ready to go.
How would you contrast or compare the rhythm of stand sabbatical politics to the two-month annual arrangement you had?
I was grateful for the annual rhythm. In the Presbyterian Church, we’re given a month’s vacation and two weeks’ study leave. People work hard on those study leaves. You’re supposed to produce something. It wouldn’t be that much different to add two weeks to it and tell [pastors], “Do anything you want to do. Read. Go to a monastery. Photograph wildflowers. Write.” For me it would be to write, but not everybody’s a writer.
The almost total incomprehension by our society of what a pastor does puts pastoral identity at risk almost every day. Two months would not be inappropriate vacation and leave for the needs we have.
Those annual two months away must have been sustaining.
Very much so. One of the side benefits from my annual time away was that it developed a competent lay leadership. Over the years I did less and less of what ordinarily is seen as what pastors do. The laypeople did it very naturally, easily, because they were trusted. I think it’s important to trust people to do things. They’re not going to do it the way you did it. They are going to make mistakes, but you make mistakes too.
There is no question that any strategy of clergy “self-care” must include the development of a competent congregational leadership.
Let’s talk a minute about the engagements you had beyond the congregation. Throughout your ministry you taught a seminar/university context
Teaching was a natural for me. It was what I loved to do, and I was in a place where there were schools. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for somebody to know who I was and what I was doing.
I’d teach one semester a year, either spring or fall. I taught at a university, a seminary, usually alternately. I have often wondered, if I had been in a rural place with no schools for 500 miles, or even 50 miles, what would I have done? Was there anything I could do other than that? I think I would find a place to work part time that wasn’t too demanding that would put me in a different environment for a few months a year, or a half-day a week.
I have a friend who lived in farming country. Every summer he worked in the fields at harvest time. He worked half a day for six weeks. But he got to know farmers. It was totally refreshing for him.
Your teaching placed you in a different setting and role. I don’t hear you suggesting that these engagements should be thought of as a way to escape the parish.
Oh, no. It was to feed the parish, actually. I never felt that teaching drained energy from pastoral work. If I had felt that, I wouldn’t have done it. My main work was the congregation. This was a way to bring fresh blood into it.
Another engagement beyond your congregation was your weekly gatherings with a group of pastors for lectionary study and collegial conversation.
That was an important part of my pastoral life. It became part of the rhythm of our life. The pastors who did this with me still call me and write to me about how significant and sustaining it was for them.
When did you meet?
Every Tuesday they’d come to my study at noon. They would bring a bag lunch. I’d have a coffeepot. We’d meet for two hours. We were serious about what we were doing but not terribly disciplined. There was small talk. Sometimes somebody would come with a personal crisis. We’d drop everything and just spend the time listening and praying.
The group included a variety of pastors and backgrounds. There would be 15 or 16 in the group, and fewer than half were Presbyterian. We had Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholic priests. We even had a rabbi for a number of years. It was very ecumenical. What brought us together was a conviction that preaching was the primary task we had to do, and we wanted to do it as well as we could.
Most of the time when we met, we would focus on the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday. It varied from the Old Testament to the Epistle to the Gospel, every season. We wouldn’t necessarily preach on the texts we discussed. It was the discipline of being together around the Bible, thinking preaching, thinking sermon, thinking interpretation, that was highly significant.
I can imagine that the group came to think of one another as friends.
We’d often have one evening a month, Friday evening usually, when we’d have a potluck supper together. Another significant thing we did: in late spring, as close to Pentecost as we could make it—we never met through the summer months—we would take a day away together for a silent retreat. We would end the day with the celebration of the Eucharist. Even though we did that only once a year, it did a lot to build the solidarity of the group. It was a culmination of a whole year of relationships, prayers, and conversations.