Eugene Peterson (1922-2018)
It is perhaps a tragedy that Eugene Peterson may be most remembered in the annals of youth ministry for flashy, over-produced ‘remixes’ of his best-selling paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. Here are a few things youth ministers would do well to remember him for instead:
1. Eugene Peterson was first and foremost a pastor - Many don’t know that The Message began with Peterson simply translating passages of Scripture for his congregation, so they could both understand and experience the Bible better. His 2012 memoir The Pastor recounts an early conversation he had where he bemoaned that he was tired of ‘running that damn church'!’ Out of this experience Peterson recommitted to serve his church as a pastor, not as an administrator. He saw his primary roles as priestly ones: praying for his congregation, preaching faithfully in ways his people could understand, and caring for his congregation even though that meant it would never grow to a size that would impress anyone. Even though youth ministry by default has a dose of program planner in it, we would do well to remember what it means to engage in pastorly, priestly ways with our students.
2. Eugene Peterson understood rest and community - For many years, he helped organize a small pastors’ fellowship in his area, believing that the work of ministry is lonely and one needs the encouragement of others. Youth ministry might be even more susceptible to this than other pastoral callings: we cannot be ‘friends’ with our congregation, yet we are with them all the time, we do things as ‘work’ many would consider play, yet we can never turn off who we are and thus few things, though fun, are restorative. He also savagely protected his Sabbath day, teaching his congregation over time that while it would be hard to have a pastor unavailable one day of the week, the practice would pay dividends for a lifetime. In his church, in his marriage, and in the reflection it allowed him to do that translated into a second career caring for pastors in writing and translating…it did.
3. Eugene Peterson knew that this would be hard - One of his most famous works is entitled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. In it, he discusses the nature of the Christian life as dealing with direction and time more than individual action. This concept is incredibly important in youth ministry, as we are often part of God’s ‘seed sowing’ work, and rarely see the fruits of our labors into adulthood and mature Christianity. Our calling is one of long obedience, having to trust in the God we follow that we are being faithful without the success stories of other types of ministry.
Thank you, ‘Pastor Pete’, for always living as a child of God, a humble heart, and a brilliant mind. We will miss you.