The Common Good

Eugene Peterson: The Pastor on Preaching, Women Clergy

Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City.
Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

NEW YORK CITY — Today and Wednesday, I have the privilege of attending a private gathering here in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan with Eugene Peterson, the 80-year-old theologian and prolific author best known for his para-translation of the Bible, The Message.

The two-day event, Q Practices, is part-retreat, part-seminar on the theme of how we might cultivate our inner lives in an age of epic distractions.

I'll be reporting more fully later, but wanted to share with you a few gems from Peterson, who recently published a marvelous memoir titled, simply, The Pastor, from this morning's sessions.

Peterson, who is a Presbyterian minister (now retired from the pastorate after 30 years), grew up in Montana in the Pentecostal Christian tradition. His mother, in fact, was a preacher who later founded and pastored her own church.

While discussing the idea of vocation, Peterson explained that he learned to preach by watching his mother, who would visit a nearby prison on Sunday nights and preach to the inmates. As a child of three and four, Peterson would accompany here. "My mother was a great storyteller," he said. "Preaching is storytelling."

"There are so many ways to be a preacher," he said, cautioning the pastors present that they should not try to mimic his or any other preacher's style. Rather, they must find their own, unique way of teaching the way of Jesus.

His way, Peterson said, is to be relational, relaxed and unafraid of silences in a worship service because it encourages the congregation to be contemplative and meditative.

"There is a way we can preach without being bullies, or being in a hurry ... and without having everything tied down," he said. "I think sermons suffer greatly for a lack of ambiguity."

After a few years of preaching at the prison on Montana, his mother abruptly stopped after some of her Pentecostal friends pointed out Bible passages that said women were not to speak in church. A godly woman devoted to teaching the word — and, moreover, living it — she did not want to be disobedient to God and therefore stopped preaching.

But then, a few years later, Peterson's mother returned to the pulpit. As a teenager, he asked her why. Her response, "In effect, I found a better hermeneutic."

His mother's devotion to the prisoners (and perhaps her fleeting belief that women could not be called by God to the ordained ministry), led to Peterson's lifetime commitment to reach out to folks on the margins of society (secular or religious.) "I have a sympathy and attraction to the outsider," he said, "People who are considered outsiders get my attention and ... it influenced my opinion of women in ministry.

"I'm not exactly objective, but I think I'm biblical," Peterson said, as a few of the handful of women in the gathering of 99 evangelical Christian leaders (many of them male pastors) quietly cheered.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. For timely reports from the Q Practices gathering in NYC, follow Cathleen's tweets on Twitter @GodGrrl.

 

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