An identity beyond pastor

After 31 years at Bethany Baptist Church in Roseville, Pastor Bruce Petersen of Shoreview will retire on July 8 from the ministry. A weekend to celebrate his career and say farewell will be held at Bethany Baptist June 23 and 24.

"I'll miss the people for sure. I'm ready for the change in terms of not having the burden of pastoral ministry, but when you've been here that long the church becomes family," said Petersen. "I'm sure those friendships will endure. I just have to change my role. I won't be the pastor anymore."

Petersen said he's always been "Pastor Bruce" to people, rarely just "Bruce" and never "Pastor Petersen" or "reverend." He chortled as he said being called reverend is like "when your parents call you by your full name" when they're upset.

"I'm sure it will be a strange feeling when I walk out the door on the last day. Hopefully my identity isn't bound up in being the pastor of Bethany Baptist," said Petersen.

"For so many years you've been viewed in your pastoral role and you've been 'Pastor Bruce' to many, many people, and you've walked with them through so many phases of life, and issues, and crises, and so forth. And then to be retired from that, you really do have to forge a whole new sense of self and identity, consistent with whatever's coming," said Petersen.

"Bruce is the type of person who wants to sit and talk to you, whether you're a believer or an unbeliever," said Eric Donaldson, who has worshipped at Bethany for 25 years.

"He'll always be a pastor to someone," said Donaldson. "I just know that God's not done with him. And he'll always be a pastor to me."

Donaldson participated in a small group Bible study with Petersen for 10 years, during which they explored Scripture and learned how to apply it to their lives.

"In our walk [with the Lord] we've become very close. We sharpen each other, as iron sharpens iron," said Donaldson, referring to a verse from Proverbs.

Transitions

Petersen may be transitioning out of a career into something new, but it's not the first time he's experienced identity and career transitions.

Petersen, who holds a master of divinity from Bethel Seminary and a doctorate of ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, came to Bethany Baptist Church in 1981, after serving three years in the Vietnam War and then working as a high school English teacher for a number of years at Park Senior High in Cottage Grove.

His wife, Julie Petersen, is also retiring in June from teaching second grade at Como Elementary.

Before going into ministry, the Petersens were heavily involved in a church, but had their life plans built around having summers off together with shared teacher schedules.

"It was that church that asked me to consider going into fulltime ministry. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I never wanted to be a minister, it wasn't something that I even entertained as far as a possibility was concerned," said Petersen.

But with the encouragement of church leadership, family and friends, Petersen decided to go to seminary and pursue fulltime ministry.

After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 1981, Petersen was hired at Bethany Baptist in Roseville. He and Julie raised their three children, Stephanie, Sonja, and Nathan at Bethany and have made lasting friendships with members of the congregation.

"He had a good balance with family and church," said Judy Rakestraw, a member of Bethany Baptist who has known Petersen for nearly 25 years. Rakestraw was the office manager at Bethany from 1988 to 2010.

"For some [pastors] their family just gets left behind," said Rakestraw.

Not so with the Petersens. Rakestraw said Julie was involved in church music, spiritual growth teams, women's ministry, and leading the Sunday School program.

"Julie has always had a quiet spirit and energy to do anything," said Rakestraw.

As adults, their kids are still integral to the ministry. Currently, the Petersens' daughter Stephanie (Petersen) Swearingen is on the worship team and their son Nathan works in the sound booth during Sunday worship.

"A pastor doesn't come alone, usually," said Rakestraw.

Loyalty and service

It's unusual for pastors to stay at one church so long, and Petersen admitted to considering switching churches a few times at the beginning of his pastorate. Other churches tried to recruit him, but every time he turned down the offers.

"There's been challenges, there's been some rough periods that we've experienced over the years here, but I never felt like I was being given permission by God to go somewhere else, although the invitations were there," said Petersen.

He said he has always been committed to persevering through challenges.

"It doesn't send a good message if as soon as challenges come you start looking elsewhere and make a move. I think ministry is sometimes forged in the difficult times," said Petersen.

Petersen is not the only local Baptist pastor retiring after a multi-decade pastorate. Rich Schoenert, of Calvary Church is retiring in June, Leith Anderson at Wooddale retired in December, Ron Saari at Central Baptist is retiring next February, and John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist will be retiring in 2014, said Petersen.

"That's unusual. It's unusual for one person to stay as long as I have, but to have four or five of us who have had long term pastorates and retiring around the same time is really unusual," said Petersen.

Throughout his tenure at Bethany, Petersen has made an effort to cultivate a multiethnic congregation.

Donaldson said there are three main themes that Petersen has preached on over the years: spiritual gifts, spiritual warfare, the Kingdom of God, and the search for the "real church."

"Pastor Bruce has never gotten stuck in anyone else's expectations," said Donaldson. "That's why Bethany doesn't look like a cookie cutter church."

"He built relationships with University of Minnesota students and international students," said Rakestraw. "He spearheaded things for a multicultural congregation."

Rakestraw said Petersen was instrumental in hiring Pastor Albert Botchway, from Ghana, as the outreach pastor for Bethany.

"Pastor Albert and Bruce have worked wonderfully together," said Rakestraw.

"That happened largely as a result of my own theological formation," said Petersen, who completed his doctorate on the subject of global and intercultural ministries.

"I began to promote the idea that a multiethnic congregation is one that would best reflect the inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God," said Petersen.

"Especially if the church exists within a community that is multiethnic - and certainly our area is becoming increasingly multiethnic - the church should reflect the demographics of the community. But it should also reflect the demographics of the Kingdom."

Future plans

Bethany Baptist has congregants from many countries, including immigrants and missionaries who served or are currently serving all around the world. Petersen has also done mission work in Haiti, Mexico, and Ethiopia. This fall, after he retires, the Petersens will go to Indonesia to preach and teach at a Christian medical workers conference.

Before going to Indonesia, the Petersens will visit their daughter Sonja and her husband who live in England. When they return, they plan to find a new church home and enjoy their hobbies.

"Both my wife and I enjoy fishing, so we've done a lot of that together and we intend to do a lot more. I do some golfing. I've got some plans to do some writing. There are some books that have been floating around for a number of years and hopefully I'll have time to devote some time to that," said Petersen.

Bethany Baptist is likely going to have an interim pastor while a search committee looks for a new senior pastor.

"There's going to be a grief process, I'm sure, just because of the long term relationships. People have gotten very used to my style and my personality. Even though a different style and different personality are inevitable and necessary, the church needs time to make that transition," said Petersen. He will not be involved in the selection of the new pastor, but is excited to see how Bethany flourishes in the future.

"I hope it explodes with new growth and new vitality," said Petersen.

"This isn't easy," Rakestraw said she told Petersen on a recent Sunday morning. "They'll be greatly missed."

"Bethany is not a cult of personality around [Petersen], which will make the transition easier," said Donaldson.

The community is invited to an open house to celebrate Petersen's retirement on June 23 from 2-4 p.m. at Bethany Baptist. On June 24 a catered dinner for the congregation will be held after the church service, and an RSVP before June 9 is required for the dinner. For more information, contact the church office at 651-631-0211. Pastor Bruce's last sermon is July 8, his 66th birthday.

Naomi Krueger can be reached at nkrueger@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824.

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