Words of a Witness

The Pastor
Eugene H. Peterson
HarperOne 2011

Although he clearly loves the title “pastor,” Peterson calls himself “Pastor Maybe.” I think his reluctance is a good place to begin.

“Witness,” he writes, “I think, is the right word. A witness is never the centre but only the person who points to or names what is going on in the centre—in this case, the action and revelation of God in all the operations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” John the Baptist and Karl Barth, among others have said much the same thing. I think I would’ve muddled my way through more of my ministry if I hadn’t had a writer-pastor like Peterson as one of my most valued guides.

You may know that Peterson is a minister of uncommon ability, yet great humility. He quietly served as the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, near Baltimore, Maryland, for 29 years, while becoming an accomplished, hugely popular author. His many fine books, including his Bible translation, The Message, have refreshed so many of us as we’ve tried to be true to our vocation. Peterson also taught at several colleges and universities along the way—excelling here, too, in what he tells us was his first calling—concluding as a professor of theological spirituality at Regent College, Vancouver.

Peterson grew up in the backwoods of Montana, accompanying his mother as she told Bible stories and preached in the lumber camps. When he was a bit older he assisted his father, who operated a butcher shop in town. He learned to be attentive, to understand what was going on, and to attend to people’s needs. He went to church and took Bible school training. He studied and loved the biblical languages. He tells us: “I never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never ‘knew what I was going to be when I grew up.’ And then—at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly—there it was: Pastor.” Now, he writes, “I can’t imagine not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it.”

Peterson wasn’t impressed with most ministers he met. He says, “I took scripture seriously. I took Jesus seriously. I took church seriously. I took prayer seriously. But not pastors.” Many of their stories were over-the-top; some of their ministries turned out to be hucksterism, and many of their conversations tended to be about themselves. That’s the last thing in which Peterson is interested. While he may tell stories about his own ministry, this memoir is, ironically, not about him. It’s about being an authentic pastor. Moreover, Peterson tells us, he never had much time for pastors who like to “get things done,” or “make things happen.” He was more interested in pastors who saw themselves “placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God…” I think Peterson’s emphasis is correct.

Peterson tells us lots of interesting stories about his first and only church, an extension of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which first met in the basement of his home. Here he began to learn what it meant to work with a whole “congregation” of ordinary, down-to-earth people who helped him discover his vocation. You’ve got to read some of these stories to see what he means. I love the way Peterson tells stories about his life.

He also mentions that in those early days, on Tuesdays, he met with “two priests, one rabbi, and 13 Protestant pastors (six Presbyterians, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, two Baptists, three Methodists)” convened by a psychiatrist, Dr. Hank Hansen, as they tried to think and talk through the shape and the challenges of their community in which they lived. After two years, Peterson called on 15 colleagues to meet together with him in a group that they called a “company of pastors” to share their struggles and success. Peterson learned he couldn’t do ministry all by himself. He needed mentors and peers and soul-friends. So, I too have learned, do you and I!

Peterson’s book will refresh your pastoral soul! Like Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, it’s destined to become a classic.


About Hans Kouwenberg

Rev. Dr. Hans Kouwenberg is Presbyterian director of denominational formation at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.