Pastor Rob Peterson – Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church
The first thing you notice when walking into the office of Rob Peterson, Pastor of Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church, is the massive bookshelf. Rows of dark wood are filled almost from floor to ceiling. Interspersed among the books are little, ancient-looking bowls, miniatures of the Space Needle, and copious other tokens from Petterson’s time as a pastor. Having just seen the bookshelf, you would expect to find the rest of his office similarly filled to capacity; however, what you find instead is the definition of simplicity—clean lines, uninvolved colors, a bible open next to a computer on the desk.
I sit down in the chair across from his desk and begin.
Q – “Please give me a brief description of what you believe and what you do.”
A – “What I do is that I’m the pastor of a local church and what I believe is that this world is created and sustained by a living God and that living God chose to reveal exactly what he was like in the person of Jesus Christ. And we don’t have to guess who is this God that created and loves the world and has forgiven the world. It is most obvious in Jesus Christ and to know Christ is to know life and joy and forgiveness and wisdom.”
Petterson took his time while responding, rewording his response a few times, in obvious hope to best express the thing that defines both his personal life and his occupation.
Q – “What drew you to being a pastor?”
A – “I never set out to be a pastor as a young adult. I had my heart set on a vocation of caring for people through counseling and was pursuing that. But, at the front end of that, I had a few important interactions with people that I respect and those two or three people asked me to reflect more on the vocation that I was pursuing and whether being a pastor might be a better fit. So, through the conversations and encouragement of a few key people, I was encouraged to look at the vocation of being a pastor as something that I would give my life to. And as a result of that, chose with, I believe, God’s blessing to become a pastor.”
Q – “Were you raised in a Christian household?”
A – “I was raised in a house where faith was present but in quiet sorts of ways. The biggest influence in my faith was the decision of my parents to take us to a local congregation. So it’s really that local congregation, with the quiet faith of my parents, that introduced me to God and what it means to follow God in my daily life.”
Q – “What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being a pastor?”
A – “My favorite parts, I’ll name two. The first would be that I get to stand with families or individuals at incredibly holy times. For example, the time of the birth of a child. As a pastor, I get to stand at that sort of holy moment. I love standing with people during really important life transition moments that are unpredictable, but they are beautifully holy. Also, I love people and being a pastor puts me in contact with lots of people. I love people and the gift I get of helping people relate to God better. At the core for me of what it means to be a pastor in my tradition, the Christian tradition, is that I am called first to know God myself and what that means in Christ but then also to help other people know Christ better. The things that are least favored, there aren’t too many, but I would say the unpredictability of my calendar. Being a pastor is not a nine-to-five job. It is a twenty-four-seven. So, there are times when I am tired or times when I have made other commitments, where those have to be set aside to attend to the needs of a congregation and that sometimes is hard.”
Q – “How do you believe your faith affects the community in which you live?”
A – “I hope that the Christian faith and the faith that the people that attend the church that I pastor, I hope that their faith makes a significant difference in the community in which they live. Jesus was pretty clear that faith is not a private matter; it is actually a public matter. To follow Christ means that we love our neighbor deeply and well, that we seek to be a blessing to our neighbors and our community. So, I hope that faith in Christ, personally and congregationally, is vibrant and winsome because that is what Jesus wants us to be. Whether it is serving at the Y or serving downtown in urban settings to consider the needs of the poor or whether it is volunteering in your youth group to love on high school students, I think our faith should make a major difference in our community.”
Q – “What is the biggest stereotype you face as a pastor?”
A – “I would say the stereotype that I confront on a somewhat regular basis is that people have a perception that pastors don’t really know much about real life, that pastors are disconnected from what happens on the ground in daily living because we have our heads stuck in the sky because we’re pastors we are supposed to be about God and all the things of faith. I think I have found that my faith is very grounded in everyday living, and my life is just like pretty much anybody else’s life. I am not perfect. But, I am trying to live a life that is centered in Christ and that, I think, has incredible benefits, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t relate to the ordinary person who walks on the street who may be discouraged or depressed or I can’t have fun at sports games.”
Q – “As a pastor do you feel a need to be perfect?”
When I asked this particular question, I’ll be honest, I was expecting the answer to be yes. I was not expecting Petterson to laugh as he responded.
A – “Not at all, no. I don’t. And the reason is that I don’t think that’s my read of Jesus. When I read the stories of the gospels— Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John— Christ called us to be dependent on him and connected to him, who really is the only perfect person, and he simply wants us to do our best and to trust him in every situation in our lives and our faith. ”
Q – “What is the biggest stereotype your faith faces as a larger community?”
A – “That’s a challenging question. I think one of the stereotypes is that Christians are judgemental, that we stand against cultural issues and we have our head in the sand. Now, it’s true that there might be Christians that are judgemental, and there might be churches that are extremely judgemental. But, I am glad to know that Christ calls me and Thornapple Covenant Church to be a place of welcome and of love. I think we have to work a little harder because of that stereotype, I’ve not found that to be the case, but I know that is a perception of the world of churches.”
Q – “Have you ever wanted to quit being a Pastor?”
A – “Like a lot of people who have a job that they have done for many years— I’ve been a pastor for thirty years—I think everybody wonders can I keep doing what I do and the way I do it. There are incredibly busy times being a pastor, just like there are incredibly busy times for being a teacher, so being a pastor isn’t any harder than any other job. I think, like a lot of people when you do a job a long time, you wonder ‘Oh, maybe I could do something else.’ But, what I have found to be true is that there is something incredibly good for me about being a Pastor that I don’t think I ever say I want to quit. I have said I get tired and I need a break, but it’s such a good vocation for me that I don’t feel like I want to ever quit.”
Q – “What would you say is the most important part of your job?”
A – “I think the vocation of pastor, when it’s done well, invites pastor to first and foremost know God themselves and then, in the knowledge of that relationship with God, to move into the work of being a pastor, whether its visiting or teaching or caring or serving, to live out that vibrant life in God with other people. So, I think the most important thing is that I know God to the best of my ability so that when I interact with people, I interact out of a fresh place of experience of God and knowledge of God. Another way to say that is I feel my task is to be grounded in the reality of who God is and what God is doing in the world and in my life before I march in to do my work with other people.”
And the most important question of all, the one that had been bothering me since I first set foot in Peterson’s office.
Q – “Have you really read all the books on the bookshelf behind you?”
A – “Let me turn around, Ashlyn, and say, I would say there’s a few up there I have not read. But, I have read most of them. There are books that people give to me and I haven’t read them yet, but I’ll get there.”