Eugene Peterson knows what it means to be a pastor. He has spent most of his life serving the Church—whether that was from the pulpit at the church he founded in Bel Air, Md., as a professor at Regent College or as the author of more than 30 books, including his memoir, The Pastor, and The Message, a paraphrase translation of the Bible that is widely used today. Here, Peterson talks about church culture, how to be a pastor for life and why it’s possible for a church to get too big.
You attended and taught in seminary. What role do you think seminary plays in a postmodern era?
Well, it’s a very important role. Pastors need to know what’s going on in the world and what has been going on for 4,000 years. We need a way to read Scripture which is imaginative, interpretive. I think it’s very important. The difference with seminary these days, I think, has to do with accreditation. Seminary, there’s not enough measure in it, there’s not enough time for prayer, for reflection, for discussion. But the theological accrediting agencies insist on certain things that have to be done and in a certain sequence, and I’m not sure the seminaries have much freedom to do anything about that. But seminary is critical for formation of a pastor.
You’ve said there’s been a surge in military language in the Church, and then business language in the Church. Why has that bothered you?
It seems significant that the American leadership of the Church is being trained to attract people on a consumer basis. We live in a consumer nation. We’re the number-one consumers in the whole world, and somehow pastors have been seduced into thinking they are salesman for Jesus and they’ve got to provide an attractive product, and we’ve got to find ways to manipulate people into our churches. I think it’s just deadly. It’s very successful statistically, but the product is not very attractive. People learn to shop for churches, there is no loyalty to the church. They’re consumers being attracted to one product or another. I think it’s sacrilege, to tell you the truth, it really is.
Is there a point where a church becomes too large for a pastor to lead relationally?
Yeah, this is a very unpopular thing to say, but I think the megachurch, they do many things really well. They do mission things really well, they do evangelism sometimes very well, but you can’t be a pastor. If you’re going to preach the Gospel to these people, you’ve got to know their lives. The Gospel is never disembodied. If you’re just preaching to people and you don’t know their names, they don’t know your name, this is not preaching, this is not pastor work. I decided it would be 500. I thought I could know 500 people by name and know their kids’ names. I knew everybody in my congregation by name, and spent time in their homes and near their families, near their parents. If you stay there long enough, you could probably know 1,000 people.
You said church growth should be called “church cancer.” What does that mean?
Size has to be proportionate to what you are, what you’re doing. There’s an appropriate size for everything and every kind of congregation. So if you’re in a village, that’s different. You know everybody in the village. You could have 100 people, 2,000 people, you know everybody and they know you. But in a city, that’s not quite the same, or a suburb. Suburbs are probably the hardest, nobody knows anybody nor wants to. So I think this matter of size is very important in terms of how we understand what we’re doing as a congregation.
What are a couple common character flaws that pastors need to be aware of?
Religion is a very scary thing, because a pastor is in a position of power. And if you use that power badly, you ruin people’s lives, and you ruin your own life. So I think that’s why it’s important to have a couple people in your life who you’re honest with and open with and you can check that. It’s so insidious when you do something really well, people admire you, they affirm you. But sometimes they don’t. So you either readjust what you’re doing so they’ll like you, or you start using manipulative ways to get them to like you. I suppose pride is the most common name for that, but it often doesn’t look like pride or feel like pride when you’re doing that.
What are some signs a pastor has a Messiah complex, and how can they be more self-aware?
The obvious sign is you overwork. You become a workaholic because “everything depends upon you.” If you don’t take a Sabbath, something is wrong. You’re doing too much, you’re being too much in charge. You’ve got to quit, one day a week, and just watch what God is doing when you’re not doing anything. So those two things, the absence of a Sabbath and being overactive. I think it’s basic—we have to understand what we’re doing, what this vocation is. It’s dealing with a congregation, with a church. It’s a community. If as pastors we’re not developing a lay ministry all the time, we’re robbing the congregation of its integrity. One of the things that irks me still is churches that have 20 pastors or 20 hired staff. What are they doing? What are all the elders and deacons and Sunday school teachers doing that they have to have all these people interfering in their lives?
What do you think of the state of the church now in 2011?
This might surprise you, but I am really optimistic. I think there’s an enormous amount of energy. I think there are a lot of people who are fed up with the bigness and the celebrity. I am in touch with a lot of pastors who just love what they’re doing, and are doing it with grace and humility and energy. The state of the Church is not marked these days by how many people are coming, or how famous a pastor is or how great a preacher he is. I am not at all pessimistic. It’s the Church of Christ, and the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it.
To read the full interview with Eugene Peterson, check out the June/July 2011 issue of Neue Magazine.