Don Follis | A mentor for pastors

Don Follis | A mentor for pastors

No pastor has influenced me more than the Rev. Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian clergyman, author and scholar. He died at age 85 on Oct. 22 at his Lakeside, Mont., home. Along with writing more than 20 books, Peterson is best-known for his colloquial translation of the Bible called "The Message." It has sold nearly 12 million copies.

Until he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1996 to teach seminary students, Peterson spent 30 years serving a Presbyterian Church near Baltimore, Md. Peterson said his congregation didn't read books, so he started translating the Bible into their language. He told the "On Being" blog in 2016 that when he translated the Bible into the common language of his parishioners, "They started paying attention to me in a way they never did before."

Among thousands of examples is Peterson's take on the well-known verse describing Jesus in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The English Standard Version reads, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Peterson renders it, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood."

Though Peterson was comfortable with the common man, he also served pastors by writing many books urging them to read widely, make personal holiness their top priority and not overschedule their week counseling people. He kept bumping into other pastors who said they were incredibly busy. This puzzled Peterson and led him to encourage pastors to practice solitude and carefully schedule in days for silent retreats. He felt it was impossible to feverishly work to solve everyone's problems. It is equally important to carefully schedule time to read, write and reflect. Peterson told pastors if they didn't schedule for that, it wouldn't happen.

On a lark, back in 1998 I drove from Illinois to North Carolina to hear Peterson speak. Joining 50 pastors at an Episcopal church retreat center, I spent several days listening to Peterson talked about the rhythms of the pastoral life. Though not a great orator, he was an outstanding wordsmith. He could turn a phrase like no one I had ever heard.

Following lunch the first day, Peterson and I both ended up standing on the porch outside of the dining hall. He was alone looking out at a pond, so I walked up to him and asked him if he had a couple of minutes to talk about writing — "Maybe 5 or 6 minutes sometime this week. Not long. Just sometime when it's convenient."

I told him I had just started writing a religion column, and I wanted to get his thoughts. He said, "Let's take a walk." Off we went. For more than an hour, we walked and talked. Peterson told me how he wrote books and how he was nearly finished translating the Bible into a language for the common person.

I had read Peterson's "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction," "Five Smooth Stones," "Under the Unpredictable Plant" and "Working the Angles," all books geared to helping pastors be less driven and more given to prayer, reflection and solitude. When I told him how much those books helped me, he thanked me, but quickly deflected the conversation back to me, asking me about my ministry, what it is that really motivates me and what parts give me the most satisfaction.

When I told Peterson I had written 20 religion columns at that point, he told me the newspaper columnists he liked, finally saying, "Keep at it. I think you'll be good as writing columns, but good writing is hard work. Say just one thing. Don't try to tell people everything you know." That was more than 700 columns ago.

At that retreat, Peterson described how he wrote "The Message." He said he placed the Old Testament, in the original Hebrew, and the New Testament, in the original Greek, beside his computer screen alongside his trusty English-language Revised Standard Version. "I try to make the language something the common person can easily understand and identify with. That's about it. I let my son read it. If he likes it, and he usually does, we go with it."

That's about it, I thought? The man had an incredible gift with language. I tried to imagine sitting at my computer screen, merely copying my favorite Bible translation word for word from Genesis to Revelation, to say nothing of trying to paraphrase it into a colloquial language that people loved reading. Copying it word for word would take me forever.

When we parted that afternoon, I was struck with what a kind, gentle and disciplined man I had discovered in this humble Presbyterian pastor. Often, when I am struggling with what to say, I remember Eugene Peterson's words to me 20 years ago, "I think you'll be good at writing columns." I smile and press on.

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion