For almost eight years, the Rev. David Peterson has closed every worship service at First Presbyterian Church with his own special blessing.
Sunday morning he used his trademark benediction to tell almost 2,000 worshipers goodbye.
“Go now into God’s world in peace, expect always the unexpected and anticipate miracles,” he said. “Knowing that with God all things are possible.”
The familiar words brought many in the congregation to tears.
When Peterson came to First Presbyterian in 1988, he accomplished the unexpected. He took the already thriving congregation and increased weekend attendance by 50 percent.
“We had been growing and I thought we were kind of at our peak,” said Earline Cochran, a member since 1952.
The church averaged between 800 and 900 worshipers every Sunday at two services in 1988. Now, between 1,300 and 1,400 people attend one of three services - Peterson added a Saturday evening contemporary worship.
Peterson, 48, attributes the growth to the creation of more than 80 small groups with between six and 15 members. Each meets once a week for prayer, Bible study and companionship. Many of the groups have a special niche, like those for single members, divorced members or those grieving the loss of a spouse.
“The thing that strikes me most of all is how spiritually hungry people are,” Peterson said. “When they begin to be fed, they can’t imagine their life without it.”
While Peterson cites the small groups and the contemporary worship service as his legacy at First Presbyterian, his followers point to his preaching.
“That’s the real legacy,” Cochran said. “He had the ability to touch our lives as a real human being.”
Each member of the congregation has a favorite Peterson sermon. Most involve a personal story from the pastor, his wife, Terri, or their four children.
There’s the one where he was digging a hole in his back yard to make a fish pond. That’s Cochran’s favorite. Others include discovering a picnic shelter in Riverside State Park covered with initials, fixing broken cars and packing up for his latest move to work for a Houston congregation.
“And somehow he’d tie it all in to Scripture,” Cochran said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t even finish the story until a few weeks later.”
Peterson was known for his ability to quote relevant Bible passages off the cuff, but not bore his audience by belaboring the point.
He began every Scripture reading by saying, “Listen now, this is the word of God.” And they did.
He quoted the Bible Sunday as he talked about the sorrow of leaving. “I have held onto these words dearly,” he said. “‘I will make a way in the wilderness, I will make a river in the desert.”’
The son of a Portland minister, Peterson had been working in Michigan and was eager to return to the Northwest, when he took his job in Spokane.
Although the pastor of 22 years has been heavily courted by large congregations throughout the United States - including Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City - he has not been interested in moving.
When an affluent Houston congregation with more than 4,500 members called in January, he told them the same thing.
But they persisted and gradually something mysterious happened, he said.
“My decision to leave is a consequence of something I can only describe as divine leadership,” he said. “I can only say I have a sense in my life to go this way.”
Peterson said he is attracted by the challenges of running a big church with a staff of more than 100 people.
“It’s a large church and I’m not sure what holds it together,” he said.
Each year, the congregation gives away $2.6 million of its $5.2 million budget.
“To give away half is unusual,” Peterson said. “Most churches tithe, give 10 percent. Some try to give 20 or even 30 percent. Half is a lot.”
Because of that commitment, he said, his new church is attuned to the social needs of the community.
As Peterson ended his final service in Spokane Sunday, Associate Pastor Don Meekhof officially proclaimed the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church vacant.
“Our sunset here is a sunrise in Houston,” Meekhof said.
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