Pastor Phil Peterson leaves pulpit after 28 years
Crafting a Sunday sermon has never been something that Pastor Phillip Peterson has taken lightly. For 28 years at Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake, Peterson’s preaching could easily have been taken for granted.
But every Sunday, the words flow smoothly as he weaves the gospel of the Bible with stories and lessons tied to events in the community and the congregation, his grandchildren and even his pets. But the sermons didn’t just happen.
In most cases the sermon Peterson would deliver on Sunday was the effort of a full week of work. He would write his sermon after much thought and reflection and review of the assigned text that ministers receive from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. By midweek Peterson would have a rough draft of his sermon; it would take several more days, including Saturday night labor, to flush out the final product.
And when Peterson would walk to the pulpit on Sunday, the sermon would be delivered without a script, outline or notes of any kind. His sermon would come from the heart and his memory.
So it was on Sunday when Peterson went before the congregation for the last time as senior pastor. After 28 years at Faith, he has retired with the distinction of having served longer than other pastor in the church’s 125-year history.
A church family
Peterson was ordained in 1977 and spent his early years preaching at churches in Montgomery and New Prague. He spent the bulk of his 36-year ministerial career in Forest Lake where he shared duties with Don Fultz, who was a pastor at Faith from 1980 to 2000. The two also worked together in New Prague.
“It’s so hard to say goodbye,” Peterson said on the eve of his retirement. “The bonds can become very close.”
Peterson felt the true love of the congregation in June 2009 when his wife, Debbie, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The disease would claim her life in January 2010. It was a difficult time as her health declined, but thanks to the church family, Peterson was given time off from his duties to be at his wife’s side.
Every day was a little different, he said, but he found strength and support from a caring congregation.
“There just aren’t enough words to say how the congregation surrounded me,” he said.
The loss of a spouse after 24 years of marriage was made easier as friends within the church reached out with their hands and hearts, Peterson said.
“Twice a week there would be full meals prepared,” he said. That went on for a nearly a year after his wife passed.
A huge influence
It was Debbie Peterson who provided a major influence on the pastor’s life and how he preached the gospel. Although his wife was not thrilled with the many Saturday nights spent honing a Sunday sermon, Peterson said it was her critique and observations of how he preached that made him better at the pulpit.
The stories woven into sermons always came easily, he said.
“People’s lives are stories,” he said. “I was a history major and love stories. My whole ministry has been with stories.’
But it was Debbie Peterson who urged her husband to improve his speaking style. It was her take that Peterson spoke with “different” voices, be it making the morning announcements, delivering a sermon or handling a wedding or a funeral. This observation led Peterson to overhaul his delivery.
It was 18 years ago when he made the commitment to memorization. His sermons from then on were all delivered from heart and mind.
“People started looking forward to these stories,” he said.
Another comment by his late wife will leave another lasting mark on his life. The Petersons and Linda Johnson had become close friends in their years at Faith. Prior to becoming ill, Debbie Peterson once told her husband that if anything should ever happen to her, he should get together with Johnson, who had gone through a divorce.
That will now happen. They have been dating for the past year and plan to marry next summer, Peterson said.
Peterson departs at a crossroads of change for the church. Pastor Paul Brown is also leaving. Brown, who has been at Faith since 2000, has offered his name to the Synod for call and will step away from the pulpit here at the end of October.
Pastor Robert Bjornlund, who served at Faith for the three months in 2009 when Peterson was on sabbatical, will preach the first two Sundays in November. By late November, the church council hopes to have an interim pastor on board. The interim pastor could serve up to a year as the church charts its future plans, Peterson said.
The church will settle on one senior pastor. As recently as 2002 the church had three pastors on staff. Faith Lutheran is facing financial challenges tied to its major expansion and retaining and building church membership, Peterson said. No longer are Lutheran churches able to count on the vast numbers of people with northern European heritage who were dedicated Lutherans, he said.
The Faith building project was completed in 2007 after more than two years of work. The economic recession of 2008 brought pains and the ELCA’s move on the acceptance of gays and lesbians into the ministry in 2009 was not welcomed by all within the church.
Peterson has accepted the position of openness and welcoming of those in the GLBT community. Peterson said he found agreement after concluding that being gay or heterosexual was not a choice for a man or a woman.
“When do you choose to be heterosexual?” Peterson asked. “I don’t see it for most people as a choice.”
And the bottom line, he said, is that the ELCA policy did not stipulate that a church be forced to call a gay or lesbian pastor.
The challenges facing the new pastor and the congregation can be seen as an opportunity to carry on God’s work and find its future mission and vision, he said.
“Faith is a church that has a wonderful tradition,” he said.
Although Peterson’s days at Faith have come to an end, he is not closing his career in the ministry. Prior to coming to Forest Lake, he served on staff at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for three years. In November and December he will preach there as a fill-in minister.
In retirement, he will seek out part-time duties, be they serving as a visitation pastor or working with youth in confirmation programs.
Church and God have been lifelong companions for Phil Peterson. His father, the late Clarence Peterson, was a Lutheran minister from 1949 to 1980. His father’s career included several years in Chisago City at Zion Lutheran when Peterson, now 62, was just a boy.
“I’ve really lived my whole life in the church,” he said.