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Thursday
Jun022016

That Would Be It: A Conversation with Jan Peterson

On April 19th I was able to sit down for a moment with Jan Peterson, wife of author and pastor Eugene Peterson, in their home in Lakeside, Montana. We were visiting for the filming of my husband David’s project with Eugene and Bono on the Psalms. While there was a lot of buzz and excitement about having Bono out to Lakeside, and while we hoped getting Eugene and Bono together would be inspiring and encouraging for many, the person I was most excited to share time with was Jan. I hoped that sitting down to ask Jan a few questions would yield an equally inspiring and encouraging conversation. I was not disappointed. Knowing that Jan and Eugene have been committed to some of the kinds of life practices to which David and I feel committed made me anxious to get her thoughts recorded. We talked together about hospitality, ministry, rhythm, art, home, food, and the Sabbath, while we sat in her living room overlooking Flathead Lake. It was a rich feast, and I’m delighted to share some of the thoughts she shared with me.


Photograph by Taylor Martyn

Phaedra Jean Taylor: Jan, I know that you and Eugene have a lot of people in and out of your home. What is one meal you love to make for people?

Jan Peterson: Dear me . . . (laughs). Can we come back to this? 

PJT: Of course! How about you tell us what has been one of your proudest moments?

JP: What has been one of my proudest moments? It's been more than a moment. Seeing how painful my son’s time was while going through his divorce. The way he did it, I couldn't be more proud of him. He suffered so. Sure hurts a mother's heart. It was so painful for him but he came out of it like a knight in shining armor; he really did. He's been blessed by getting married again. That is something I’m so proud of.

PJT: If you could go back and talk to the 30-year-old version of yourself, what would you say to her?

JP: I might say to learn how to set priorities and not say yes to everything. Anne Lamott says “no” is a complete sentence. Just to keep my life more in balance. Not be spread out so thin.

PJT: So what have been some boundaries you've learned to put in place to have a healthy life?

JP: That I'm not supposed to take care of everybody. People in your church that are obviously hurting, or your next-door neighbor, or the woman two doors away from you, or whatever. You can be there for them, but you're not to be their healer or the answer for their problems.

When you get involved in someone's life and you find yourself maybe doing a little bit too much or putting too much of the concern on you, you need to know that God is there in the middle of it working as well.

PJT: What is your favorite way to take care of people? The people that you are supposed to take care of.

JP: If they're close by, then certainly personal one-on-one visits are very significant and very important. Your presence means a lot. If they're at a distance, a note here and there to keep them going, to let them know that you're remembering them in your thoughts and in your prayers. I think those two things. Telephone calls can make a big difference as well.

PJT: I love all of those, because they are simple. 

JP: Right. Absolutely. 

PJT: How have you learned to practice keeping the Sabbath? And how is it different now from when Eugene was in active parish ministry or when he was teaching? 

JP: If you’re active in the parish, you can't have a Sabbath on Sunday. We would take Monday and we'd pack up a lunch and go for a hike along the rivers. Maryland has some beautiful places to hike along rivers and hills. 

Now we light two candles on Saturday at supper because that's the Jewish tradition of Sabbath, beginning the evening before. We say a little saying of, "Blessed are thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe Who sanctified us by Thy commandments, and commanded us to keep the Sabbath rest." Then, in the next succeeding meals on sundown on Sunday, as I light the two candles, "We light these two candles to remind us of our creation and our redemption."

The candles and words are significant, I think, for both of us. It is just a beautiful reminder of what you're entering into. Then we go to church on Sunday morning. We come home and have lunch and read and rest. Take a walk. Then read like we do every evening anyway. He doesn't go up to his office; I don't let him go up there! I often try to fix enough for Saturday night supper to have leftovers so I'm not cooking that much.

PJT: When did you start keeping the Sabbath in an intentional way?

JP: That was when we were in Maryland, and Lee, our youngest, was eight years old. We had to wait until the kids were all in school before we could take hikes or go off our own. I was probably 35 and Gene was probably 38 then.

One thing I loved about it was not necessarily a God thing. It was that I had my husband all to myself for a whole afternoon. Morning and afternoon. That was new. In the church where we were, on our Sabbath, they didn’t call us. They really stayed clear unless there was an emergency.

PJT: Both of you have mentioned that you’re committed to a “simply, daily, rhythmic life.” When Eugene was a pastor, you led an incredibly full life and had many people to take care of and interact with. Lately, he's had seasons of lots of traveling and speaking or writing. In both situations where your schedule has been . . . maybe irregular would be a good word . . . how have you protected this idea?

JP: Well, I'm not sure. For me, it was really hard because about the time that he started being invited to do these things (speaking, traveling, writing) was the time that I was entering our empty nest syndrome. I have no kids at home now. He's going off without me. We never would have thought to ask if they would pay my way as well. And when he became more well known, then they'd just automatically invite us.

I felt like, “Am I just supposed to go out of the house and work, doggone it?” I was angry. I didn't do it well within myself. There was a period at that time where I was kind of resentful. Here I am, we have time now to be together, and we can't do it because he's not going to be around. Eventually, somehow or other, I got the message to him. He was probably a little bit more careful in saying "yes" to everything when he got invited somewhere. 

It kind of evolved, I think.

PJT: I'm thinking of our life right now. It can be really hard because every week could look different than the last. We have a desire to have rhythm in our life. How do you do that when you don't have a job that starts and ends? What are the things that are the most important to protect?

JP: To have some time together each day. I think if that's something that you've done that's important, you don't give that up. You guard it. And going out on a date together. Going out to dinner and having a date. 

PJT: I know you and Eugene read out loud together at night. 

JP: Yes, and we also have what we call "cliff time." Two chairs out on the cliff, where I go in the early morning for my prayer time.

We did that when we were praying about his job, wondering if God was saying it's time to leave Christ Our King. We would go out there every noontime and sit and talk and pray together. 

For him, it's time for us in the middle of the day. He's been working up there all morning long. I've been going to my Tai Chi class a couple mornings a week. Doing household stuff, cooking, and whatever. What I regularly do.

It is nice just to be able to say whatever comes to us, what we need to talk about. Maybe there are some things we need to make a decision about. That's very helpful because those things can just get pushed aside. It's important to me. It's helpful for me to have time to talk about them.

We’ve been busy lately and he told me yesterday, "Every day this next week we're going to have cliff time." That's good. We're going to reconnect that way.

PJT: What are you reading out loud right now?

JP: We finished Home by Marilynne Robinson. Really enjoyed that. Ivan Doig, do you know that name?

He was a Montana person and did a lot of his writing here. A number of years ago he moved to the coast. He still wrote about Montana. I said to Gene, "I think we might want to reread one of Ivan Doig's books." He went up there in his closet and he found a book that he didn't think either one of us had read together. It's a new one. It's probably the only one we have that we haven't read. We really like him.

PJT: Eugene has talked about how being a pastor is being in the game with people, not sitting on the sidelines. You were in a program to study social work when you were younger, and social work is an area in which you are very much expected to be “in the game” with people. Did being in pastoral ministry with Eugene feel like a similar thing to what you thought social work might be like?

JP: I think probably that social work and being a pastor's wife is kind of the same thing. It has more to do with caring for people. Being interested in people. Relating. I had plenty of relational work in the church, for sure. Especially with the church in our home for 2 1/2 years with two babies being born and a toddler besides. Gene accused me of trying to increase the membership!

I couldn't do a lot in those early years with the little ones. I think it was more caring, and just being interested in people and learning their stories, and being hospitable as I could in my home.

Photograph by Phaedra Jean Taylor

PJT: What does hospitality mean to you? 

JP: Hospitality is serving people and helping people who are in our home. We listen. If they stay in our home, I fix meals and prepare a bed and so forth for them. I read something about—I think it is Benedict's Rule of Hospitality—that there's a difference between serving and being a servant. When I'm serving, I'm in charge. If I'm a servant, you're part of it. If you want to do something to help me, I'll let you do it because that's allowing you in. You're not being in charge. I'm not being in charge.

I like that clarification. It was good for me. I think we treat people that way. I think we allow people to feel like they have a place in our home when they're here. They're not just being taken care of.

PJT: I love that: inviting people in to be a part of it with you. It’s not just about you doing something that makes you feel good. It's about being with them as well. I love that distinction. 

JP: It really was helpful. It kind of hit me right between the eyes too. I was guilty of serving but not being a servant. 

PJT: When we were talking at lunch, you said that you lived a lot of places, but you didn't feel like there was one place that was your home. Now you live in Montana, which is where Eugene grew up, so he has deep roots here. Would you say you feel like you belong to this place as well? And what does home mean to you?

JP: I think when we lived in Bel Air, I never thought about any of these. Never had any of these thoughts. 

It was a small town. We had a community with the church people and my neighbors. There was a lot of neighbor stuff going on. I never even thought about this. I had family, my kids, my husband. My parents and my sister and her two boys were in Baltimore. It was 20 miles away so we got to see them a lot. I was always very glad for that.

Family is a big factor in that—knowing people and being involved in the community, which I would say I am not here. I have moments when I'm in the car, alone, going into Kalispell, for instance, to shop or run errands. I just think, "I don't belong." I think it's maybe more the family thing because I have no family in Baltimore or in Bel Air anymore. None in Alabama. My brother, my lone relative in my original family, is in Durham, North Carolina. I think home is a family thing. As long as I've got Gene, I'm going to be okay. It would be hard for me to live here alone. 

PT: What are the elements that make a home a home, not just the place that you live in for a while?

JP: Home is really, for me, a place of security and stability. I'd rather be here than anywhere out there, including going out to dinner. I like to cook, thankfully. 

PT: Your home is filled with a lot of art — original art, objects of craft, baskets, and ceramics. What is it about original art that you think is important for a home?

JP: It lives, for one thing. Like the picture over here. We got it in Safed, north of Galilee. It's an art town. Met the artist. He was proud of himself that he didn't wear glasses. He did all that fine cursive — in Hebrew, the Pentateuch, first five books of the Bible — are all written out. For the book of Lamentations, if you look closely, you'll be able to see the letters as the river flowing down. 

Posters are tinny. They're going to pass out of your life. They're not going to stay with you. Whereas real artwork will.

PT: Each thing has its own story.

JP: It really does.

PT: In one of Eugene's books he says: “The holy is found in unexpected places.” Which I love. In what unexpected place have you found the holy?

JP: Gene wrote that?

PT: Yes, somewhere. I don't remember where.

JP: (Laughs.) I haven't memorized everything he wrote.

When we lived in Vancouver, I thought I might like to help serve somewhere. Paul Stevens was a professor, and his wife had a Bible study with some elderly people at the hospital. She was a chaplain there. 

At one time I thought I would like to do palliative care, go be at the hospital with people who were dying. I visited one man and I tell you, he just wore me out. That was a bummer. It was very unpleasant. I thought, this is not what I thought I was going to be doing. He was just complaining and complaining. 

After that I started helping Gail, Paul’s wife, with her Bible study. Getting the patients moved down to this room. One day Gail told me she had a patient that she thought I might like to go visit. It was actually a husband and wife that were in the same room together.

I would go over there once a week and I would visit with Myrtle and Roy. He had been a surgeon. He was retired, of course. They were both in bed. The first time I went over and visited she was sitting up in a wheelchair because she was down the hall and I went to find her. She was reading John Bright's book The Kingdom of God. This big thick book. This little old lady. (Laughs.)

She was very alive. To make a long story short, I went and visited them every week because I could walk over from our apartment to the hospital extended care. I loved it. I would always pray with them at the end.

One day their daughter-in-law called me and said Myrtle was really failing and she would probably not be with us much longer: “I thought you would want to know.” Gene had been in the hospital because he had some cancer stuff and they knew that I was busy with that and might not know. 

The next morning I hied over there and do you know what? She prayed for me on her deathbed. That was an unexpected holy. 

When Roy died, Terry, their son, asked me if I would have a part in the funeral, say something about his father. It was a blessing. I really loved doing that.

I'd never done that before. I never felt I could be tied down to once a week doing something regular when I was a pastor's wife. So this was just a privilege to me. I just loved it.

And it kind of came full circle back to the palliative care that I was wanting to give and wasn't satisfactory to me.

PT: It happened anyway.

JP: Yeah, it happened anyway. It just dawned on me that it kind of came full circle.

PT: So . . . did you think of a meal that you really love to cook for people?

JP: I like to make bacon and pancakes for breakfast when we have houseguests. The Flathead secret recipe. That would be it.


Photograph by Phaedra Jean Taylor

Phaedra Jean Taylor is a visual artist born in Norway and raised on the rocky shores of northern Scotland. She is interested in ideas of play, innocence, memory, and belonging. She is also involved in creating commissioned liturgical works for church communities and personal devotional pieces for individuals to use as part of their spiritual practice. Phaedra recently moved to Houston, Texas, with her husband and young daughter, where she attempts to maintain a consistent studio practice while negotiating the demands of motherhood and the joys of gardening.


Jan Peterson felt strongly called to a vocation as a pastor’s wife, and then she met and fell in love with Eugene Peterson, who was on track to become a professor. Laying aside that vocation, she married Eugene in Baltimore, where she was teaching first grade at an inner city school, and he was in seminary. They moved to New York shortly after, but three years later were back in Baltimore where they started Christ our King Presbyterian Church in their living room, and served as pastor and pastor’s wife for 29 years. She has been “hanging around the intersection between heaven and earth and seeing what there is to be done,” in the context of church life, family life, and seminary life since their marriage. Eugene and Jan have 3 grown children and live in Montana.

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Reader Comments (5)

Gorgeous interview.

June 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca D. Martin

Thank you for that truly inspiring interview. This is the first time I've been introduced to Jan Peterson. As a seminary wife and mom, I really appreciate her candid and honest reflections and responses. As I read, I wished that somehow I could sit down with her over a cup of coffee and hear more. The contrast of serving and being a servant has never dawned on me before. This is a new concept and one that I'll have to sit with for a while. I also love hospitality and learning more deeply that gift and calling. As well, my husband and I have moved a lot for different ministry jobs and so I can relate to not feeling "at home" in a new place at first, but then realizing that as long as I'm with my husband and children, we are at home together wherever we are. We hope that the next place after seminary is where we will put down roots, at least for a decade or more. I really appreciate the description above, "She has been “hanging around the intersection between heaven and earth and seeing what there is to be done,” in the context of church life, family life, and seminary life." That is a beautiful calling.
I am interested in learning more about Sabbath keeping. Is there a resource that Jan Peterson would recommend? Thank you for this beautiful piece.
Jen @ http://everymorningnewmercies.wordpress.com

So well done. Thank you! The Sabbath practices and Cliff Time especially moved me. And maybe the pancakes. :)

June 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Shust

Pearls of wisdom, Gold nuggets of truth, and Godliness with great gain.

June 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterT K T

Thank you for sharing the wonderful interview. Clarette Trebelcock

February 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterReade

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