Religious leaders have long held respected positions at the community table. As people of God, they are revered for providing moral clarity, guidance in times of strife and calamity, compassion at death beds and end of life ceremonies, and ready reminders that we are loved by an all-powerful creator.
At least, that’s the way the system is designed.
Yet, for reasons that aren’t clear, the last couple decades have shown a dramatic drop in the number of people who describe themselves as religious, a trend which includes forty percent of millennials who say they have no religion at all, according to Pew research. What gives? If religion is the business of religious leaders, their sales practices may need some tweaking.
This week, we’re very pleased to hear from Eric Peterson, the pastor of Colbert Presbyterian Church in Colbert, Washington, and the author of three books on Christian ministry. In his latest, Letters to a Young Pastor, Eric acknowledges the current downtick in belief and talks about his own deliberations over how to minister to his congregants at a contemporary level, while staying true to Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology. The book offers compelling testimony of what it’s like for a mortal to represent God.
Letters was reviewed by Jeremiah Rood—himself a pastor in Montague, Massachusetts—in the pages of Foreword’s July/August issue and we connected the two via email for the following conversation. Lastly, a shout out to NavPress for continuing to bring important religious works to light for believers and skeptics alike.
Jeremiah, take it from here.
Letters to a Young Pastor captures the struggles of ministry in a very revealing way, giving it both a timeless quality that rises above the culture and is very much a part of it. I’m wondering, in these COVID-19 days, what lessons do you most hope the ministry holds on to?
The art of ministry, as I see it, lies at the intersection of the things that never change, and the stuff that is always changing. There are enduring truths contained in the Gospel, but they are given a fresh voice to a new audience in every generation. The present condition of the world is characterized by massive turmoil, uncertainty, and a pervasive anxiety. Unchallenged, that is a recipe for fear and violence to usher us into even greater chaos. Pastoral ministry takes the broken condition of the world seriously by lifting up the greater reality that the God who loves this world is redeeming it through the agency of the church. And so we have a choice to make: we can contribute to the damage, or we can cooperate with redemption. The role of pastors is to encourage the people in their care to choose the latter.
The book presents letters your father wrote to you, but we never really see your own side of these interactions. I’m wondering what it was like to compile these letters and what it felt like to revisit all this history? Any surprises?
The letters were written to me during a time when I was young pastor and didn’t really know what I was doing. Early on, I came to recognize how important they were for me as I navigated my way through the uncharted territory of starting a new church. Through them, I felt like Eugene had one hand on my shoulder to steady me, and the other one pointing me in the right direction. During times of doubt and discouragement, especially once when I was ready to quit, I found myself pulling them out to reread. Invariably, as a result, I found myself getting refocused on the essential work lying before me. Recognizing the timeless wisdom they contain, my great hope is that, through these letters, he can continue to be such a pastor to other pastors who might otherwise lose their way or give up.
It seemed that over the course of the letters that your father’s perspective on the church and the ministry changed? I read a lot of hope and possibility in the earlier letters, but a growing reluctant acknowledgment that the church is as it is in the later ones. How do you see the place of the pastor in the world and its current challenges?
Eugene and I shared a conviction that the church of Jesus Christ is the primary organism through which the Kingdom of God is moving into the world. More than a mere metaphor, the church is the body of Christ, incarnating the presence of Jesus through the very flesh of the people who follow him and his way. But like the crucified Christ, the church is every bit as broken and bruised and seemingly dead. Hang around it for very long, and you might start thinking you’re on a losing team. Pastors are charged with the resurrection refusal to ever allow death to get the last word. God gets the last word: Life! When life gets hard and overwhelming, we are prone to forget, and so we need pastors who remember and who remind us that nothing in heaven or on earth or in hell itself can separate us from the life and the love of God.
The letters show a very personal side of your father and your family, with its visitors, vacations, and changes. The world just celebrated Father’s Day and I know you lost your father a couple of years ago. Can you speak a little bit to fatherhood and fathers, from your perspective having known Eugene as both a pastoral colleague and as a dad?
It’s hard to overestimate the influence our dads and other father figures have on the development of our identity, both for good and for bad. They have great power to either bless us for a flourishing life or to hinder us from becoming our true selves.
The letters reveal an unbridled pride that Eugene had in his children: he was generous in his affirmation and affection, giving me a confidence that I couldn’t possibly disappoint him. As a result, he helped to heal me of my many insecurities and inhibitions, and instill within me a confidence to do something as audacious as to be a mouthpiece for God.
It’s a little embarrassing for me to admit how meaningful that ongoing validation was even as I entered middle age, but it’s a reminder of the necessity and potency of our father’s blessing. I don’t believe it can be overdone.
I’m wondering what role writing plays in your family, given you and your father both have written books? How much collaboration between you and your father went into this book?
Writing is a great discipline for working out complex issues. To begin with it’s a slow process, involving multiple drafts where you get to try out ideas, select just the right words, and check the flow of logic. The result is a clarification of thought that is as beneficial to the writer as anyone who picks it up to read later. I had originally assumed that Eugene would just be sharing some of his hard-earned wisdom gained through his long pastorate, but his letter writing to me also became a way for him to try out some ideas, many of which got integrated into his later books. It’s gratifying to know that the gift of these letters written to a young pastor benefited the older one who wrote them as well.
The book skirts politics, but the church and politics are very much bound up in today’s society. The book portrays the struggle of finding out what it means to be a pastor. I’m wondering what lesson you turn to when facing such a conflicted society? Do you find it hard to find a place for the pastor to faithfully stand today?
The church can’t afford to be apolitical if it is to honor its prophetic role in society. For too much of its history the church has been timid and silent on matters that are at odds with the coming of God’s kingdom.
Today’s church needs to lead conversations on racial injustice, for example, by speaking and writing with truth and grace. But the words alone are not enough. There is much work to be done as we love our neighbors across all differences, as we insist on legislation that serves the entire commonwealth, as we push for prison reform, and as we critically evaluate how we’ve been teaching American history. There is a lot of room for repentance and reform, which is what the church at its best is uniquely able to lead. If the church fails to be the voice of moral conscience in our society, the political process is doomed.
The letters in the book are light on theology speak, being written in a more general and personal style that’s very engaging. I wonder if you’d be willing to go a bit deeper into some of the theological themes you see playing in the book?
My dad and I were called to be pastors. And while we both received good theological educations from the academy, our primary calling was to serve the church. Pastoral ministry requires a solid foundation in theology, because it’s essential that what we have to say about God is as accurate as possible. But the goal of congregational ministry is not to do theology, but to lead people in the way of Jesus. As with houses, the foundation is crucial, but it remains largely hidden from view in order to reveal the practical aspects of living as a communion of saints. It’s a hefty foundation, constructed on rocks with names like Incarnation, Salvation, Liberation, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Soteriology, and Eschatology.
Again, they are essential as foundations go, but pastors are primarily interested in nurturing faith that is found above ground, manifested in community. We quietly make sure the foundation is stable (the work of orthodoxy), and we call people’s attention to the lived nature of following Jesus (the work of orthopraxis). Eugene was a theological heavyweight; he had an intimate knowledge of the church’s foundation. But his pastoral instincts kept us all focused on the living rooms, and dining rooms, and playrooms of the household of God.