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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Farewell to A Pastor’s Pastor
October 25, 2018

I sometimes have the holy privilege of witnessing a congregation’s farewell to a beloved pastor. It is often one of the most profound expressions of that congregation’s appreciation for its pastor, which was my topic in this space last week.

Of course, waiting to express our appreciation until the pastor leaves is waiting too long. Yet a special tribute upon a pastor’s departure is certainly appropriate. Four years ago in this space I expressed my gratitude for my childhood pastor, my own father, who all these years later is still with us. Today I want to express my gratitude for my primary pastor as an adult, on the occasion of his departure into the eternal company of saints.

As I write, it has been just a few short hours since my pastor, Eugene Peterson, breathed his last. I learned only last week that he was ailing, and had planned to write him a letter expressing my appreciation for his ministry as my pastor. Blessedly, I was able to write him my thanks several times over the years. A lovely obituary is posted here.

Along with many other pastors, I looked to Eugene as my pastor primarily through devouring his writings. No one has written more insightfully, wisely, and compellingly about pastoral ministry than Eugene, himself a pastor for nearly thirty years at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.

All of us owe a great debt to Eugene for his transformative rendering of the Bible in The Message. Eugene prepared most of that book right here in Pittsburgh, while serving as writer-in-residence at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1991-92.

As a pastor, Eugene had observed that whenever he read Scripture in public worship, people’s eyes glazed over, and he knew that was not how it should be. A brilliant scholar of biblical Hebrew and Greek, he began offering to his parishioners his own loose translations of those sacred texts instead, and discovered that suddenly people listened raptly as they heard the ancient words translated into their own idiom. In his rendering of John 1:14, Eugene eloquently and memorably translates, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The Message sought to move the ancient texts of Scripture into our neighborhood, here and now.

Eugene became my pastor some 25 years ago when I opened his new book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. A remarkably imaginative rendering of the story of Jonah, it captured the essence of what it means to be a pastor like nothing I had read before (and nothing has surpassed it since). I came likewise to appreciate his other writings on pastoral life and ministry, which I list below. But on the day in 1992 when I read Under the Unpredictable Plant, my understanding of pastoral ministry was forever changed. (Yes, I devoured it in a single day.)

I was immeasurably privileged ten years later to develop a personal friendship with Eugene. He was kind enough to meet with groups of first-call pastors that I convened from 2003-2009, each meeting lasting several days at a retreat center near his home on Flathead Lake, Montana. His generous, joyous spirit was infectious. He also did me the immense favor of speaking at a couple of General Assembly events I hosted over that period of time, even though he was anything but an ecclesiastical sort. In fact, he told me he had never before attended a GA, something he said he now regretted. More recently, Eugene graciously extended hospitality in his home to a few pastor friends of mine that I referred to him for consultation and mentoring.

Generous. Joyous. Light-hearted. Captivated in wonder at God and God’s creation. He had one of the most infectious laughs I have ever known. I learned from him by example, not dictum, that pastors who rarely laugh take themselves too seriously, and thereby cannot be serious enough about either the God or the people whom they serve. Eugene lived out beautifully the title of one of his early books, Traveling Light.

Eugene Peterson, you were and you are a pastor’s pastor. My pastor. I will be forever in your debt, and I look forward joyously to joining you in the company of saints when my earthly days end.

Forever grateful to my pastor and friend,

All of Eugene’s books are well worth reading, but I offer a chronological list of his books on pastoral life and ministry that will immensely enrich all pastors who take the time to read them.

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1980)
The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (1980)
Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (1987)
Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (1992)
The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call (together with Marva Dawn, 2000)
The Pastor: A Memoir (2011)

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

Click here for the directory of archived letters and sermons.