Editor's note:

As a young pastor, Eric Peterson felt overwhelmed and incompetent. So he reached out for help from his father and favorite pastor, Eugene Peterson. Their correspondence is captured in the book Letters to a Young Pastor. Eugene wrote the letter below to Eric during the Fourth Week in Lent, 5 April 2000

—Renovaré Team

Dear Eric,

I spent last Saturday evening at Gig Harbor. I found myself immersed in Eric Territory.” It seemed like every other person I met mentioned you. I liked it.

The evening also plunged me into a kind of tension or polarity that I never get used to, the identification with the world of loss and limit and pain and rejection and suffering (the world that Search is attending to)1, and the world of order and prosperity and success and reward and security and achievement (the world that Mitchell, pastor of the church at Gig Harbor, seems to epitomize, almost to the point of parody). The pastoral task, it seems to me, is to live in both worlds at the same time, amphibiously. But it sure isn’t easy. One seems to exclude the other, and I feel I have to choose. It’s tempting to throw your lot in on one side or the other — and that is certainly right for some people. But it never was for me, and I sense that you are not leaning that way either. I don’t want to hog the term pastor for the definitions I put into it, but my sense is that pastor in the generic sense is this amphibious creature, learning how to become at home in both worlds, not only the biblical and contemporary but the various worlds” that people inhabit economically and socially and culturally.

I’ve liked the way you keep coming back to baptism as providing the rock-bottom definition of the people you are dealing with. I’ve heard you bring the term up several times in the last couple of years in different contexts, and it always sounds so right. It prevents us from taking on reductive sociological and demographic and psychological labels for people. It keeps us mindful that we are dealing with souls, not consumers or achievers or victims or whatever.

Some of this reflection was fed by our trip back to Christ Our King in February. I didn’t really know what to expect, but what happened was very good. Some of this I know I’ve told you before, but let me go over some old ground again. When we went to Bel Air, I had never lived in a suburb. Small town (Kalispell) and cities (Seattle, New York, Baltimore) had been my homes. I was initially excited and energized by the chance to be in on the development of a new congregation, but after a few months, I began to be appalled by the way of life of these people — they all seemed so atrophied, so security conscious, so blended into a stereotype. There were no sharp edges, no engaging conversations, no differences — all the houses were being built to the same basic blueprint, but also the conversations and the social activities. They seemed to have settled for so little. And here I was preaching/​teaching the Kingdom of God, which seemed to me a radical piece of good news, something large. But they translated it back immediately into the world in which they were hoping to be comfortable and retire in security. I didn’t know if I could last very long. It seemed impossible to get a hearing for the gospel in that context.

I was reading a lot of John Henry Newman those days. After his conversion to Rome at about age forty, he decided to establish an Oratory, a foundation of a few men who would work in the city. He chose Birmingham, an industrial, blue-collar place. All his friends objected — he was the most prominent Christian intellectual in England, the best writer, the best preacher — virtually the best everything. And here he was going into the obscurity and dullness and cultural/​intellectual waste of Birmingham, giving his life to these unpromising people. In a letter to one of these objectors, he wrote, Birmingham people also have souls.”2 That hit me hard. Yes, Bel Air suburbanites also have souls. It was a little miniconversion, and I started redefining every one of these people as a soul.” It had the same effect on me as your insistence on seeing each person as baptized.

It took Jan and me awhile, but slowly, we learned to set aside our boredom and criticism and distaste for the kind of lives they were living and deal with souls. I realized that suburbia may be the most godless segment of population in the whole world — the most pressing missionary field — and settled in to making it my lifework.

All this came flooding back to me as we returned to Christ Our King. It was like we had never been gone — the reconnection was immediate. All these so ordinary people, but each one interesting, with a history of suffering and struggle and worship and sin and salvation that turned out to be absolutely unique. Now, after the separation of nine years, I could see something of what happened as these people were treated through those years for what they really were, not what the culture did to them or what they thought of themselves but as souls. They weren’t used to that, and when we came back to them, they were responding, I think, to that experience, that relationship. They weren’t used to being treated with the dignity of souls” — they were used to being treated as consumers or as victims, exploited and/​or condescended to.

The sense of community that returned almost immediately surprised both of us, for none of these people meant much to us personally as friends. We didn’t miss them when we left. And coming back, I didn’t sense any sentimentality in them, that they had been pining for us or felt bereft of us. No, it was this intimacy that was a result of being treated as souls, and it was simply there, as strong as ever. It was as if we had walked back into a company of people with no sense of break or interruption. The little kids had grown up, everyone was grayer, and the old people had shrunk considerably. A surprising number had gotten fat, which has something to do, I think, with being blessed — the weight of glory.” But nothing else had changed — it was like being plunged into a sea of intimacy and gratitude.

And I’ve thought about that since. I wonder if one of the greatest things that a pastor can do (after the basics are in place — the preaching and praying and teaching; staying true to God and following Jesus) is to treat men and women with simple dignity. That act in itself perhaps does all that needs to be done to bridge the worlds of need and affluence, rejection and acceptance, suffering and prosperity, failure and achievement. We aren’t devising strategies on community or evangelism or mission, but on something far more basic — baptism/​image of God/​souls. The dignity of souls created by God. Virtually nobody in our culture does that, whether in or out of the church; they are reduced to consumers and resources” and victims — defined by their problems or their status or their function. We pastors at least have the context and vocabulary in which we can treat them with the dignity of souls.

It does distress me when I hear pastors referring to their parishioners in functional and impersonal terms. And I hear it a lot, and you do, too; it’s endemic to the clergy culture.

Combining the Gig Harbor visit and the Christ Our King visit, that’s what I’ve been thinking of: the unique pastoral position of having an entire Kingdom context and vocabulary for meeting and dealing with people in this personal, honoring, welcoming, dignity-conferring way, regardless of who they are or how they are used to seeing themselves or being treated.

The sun is shining today — or at least it was up until a half hour ago — and I’m headed up to my workshop to work on a toy for Anna for her birthday in a couple of weeks.

You’ll be thrilled to know that I am now translating Leviticus. I know you are anticipating that, and you no doubt have your whole congregation waiting in anticipation. If you want to plan your next series of sermons on Leviticus, I’ll prepare a special pre-publication package for you to work on.

I love you a lot, Eric, and I treasure these times to have pastor talk with you.

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[1] By Search,” Eugene is perhaps referring to the Center for Organizational Reform (COR), a ministry (now defunct) that helped individuals and institutions pursue health and resilience. Both Eugene and I did work for COR over the years.

[2] Eugene revisits this story of John Henry Newman in his memoir The Pastor (page 225).

Excerpted from Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations Between Father and Son. © 2020 Eric E. Peterson. Published by NavPress. Used with permission.

Originally published June 2020