Introductory 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.

Related Podcast

[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.

Text First Published June 2020

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

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