Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son

Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son cover imageSummary: Thirty-seven letters of varying lengths from Eugene Peterson to his son Eric about being a pastor.

Eugene Peterson has strongly influenced me, and I definitely have a tendency to idealize Peterson. Peterson’s memoir and Winn Collier’s biography helped humanize Peterson. Eugene Peterson was not perfect.

Letters to a Young Pastors is equally good at humanizing Peterson in a different way. There is tension here because these were private letters (I assume Eugene approved of being turned into a book before he passed away), and the very nature of private letters has personal details. Regularly throughout this book, there are comments about looking forward to getting together or talking about personal details, similar to how Paul talks about bringing his books and cloak in 2 Timothy 4. The humanization of Peterson in Letters to a Young Pastor is partly the details of personal life discussed here. The reader knows from this book that the Petersons had their grandkids over regularly and that they went to a local church where Eugene liked the pastor but didn’t really like his preaching.

But the most important part of humanizing Peterson here is the open struggle expressed in the letters. Some of the struggle is trying to work through ideas that made it into his books, and if you have read a number of his books, it is easy to pick out those details even when they aren’t explicit. Even in later years, Peterson was grappling with his vocation and faith, not in the sense of doubting God, but in the sense of trying to figure out how to live his faith in public best. He grappled with the difficulties of aging, and if you listen to the audiobook, the last half of the last letters is read by Peterson himself, and he sounds very old at that point.

I also appreciate how well Eugene encourages Eric by saying that, in many ways, Eugene thought that Eric was a better pastor. Some of that is just the rose-colored glasses of fatherhood. But it isn’t all that; there are many specific examples in the letters of where, in his encouragement, he cites why and when differences in their ministry approach come into play. I am not sure that Eugene ever said or even understood, but it seems clear that in many places where Eric may have been a better pastor, it is because he was building on the foundation that Eugene laid. Good examples matter.

The 37 letters are of varying lengths, from just over a page to much longer. They started in 1999 and continued until 2010. Eugene passed away in 2018. His memoir, The Pastor, came out in 2011 and is mentioned in the last couple of letters. He has a book of poetry that came out in 2013. As Kingfishers Catch Fire was a collection of sermons that came out in 2017 and I think he was actively involved in the selection and editing of those. But the at least five books that have come out since then (not including the rerelease of several older books in new editions) were edited by others posthumously.

The introduction by Eric speaks about why he only included Eugene’s letters and not his own, and I have to respect his thoughts there, but it is less of a dialogue because we only get one side. There are moments of gold here. One reason there is a temptation to idealize Eugene is that he was wise and saintly. That isn’t to say perfect, but it is to say that he did develop character and wisdom throughout his life. It is also worth noting that at least part of what is valuable here is that many others did not show evidence of character or holiness in their later years.

Maybe I am just getting old, but Eric is about ten or so years older than I am. Letters to a Young Pastor was only published a couple of years ago. So, while I get the reference to the many other books that Letters to a Young…is referencing, Eric was in his late 30s and through to his late 40s when these letters were being written. There is value in them, but in some ways, the encouragement and detail are rooted in where he was at that point. These are letters to a pastor who is in the early stages of the middle of his career. There is a discussion of going on a sabbatical and the tendency for pastors to move to a different church when they are ten years or so into pastoring. And that type of advice is oriented toward the middle years of pastoring. The title is a good reference, but it may also be misleading. These are letters to a pastor in the middle of his career from a retired pastor near death. That is not a catchy title, but it would be more accurate.

I picked this up as an audiobook. It was the perfect length of chapters (letters) that I could listen to one or two on a walk with my dog. And that is what I would advise. Take one or two at a time and savor them. There is no perfection here. Some of the letters are far less interesting than others. But that is the way people are; we are not perfect, and our human limitations are the sign that we are just human. Those who never allow weakness to be seen are not showing us who they are.

If you are reading this on Dec 1, 2023, Letters to a Young Pastor is on sale for $2.13, which is a great price.

Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son by Eric and Eugene Peterson Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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