One day, according to legend, a neighbor observed Michelangelo rolling a jagged boulder up the street and onto his front step. When the sculptor took out his hammer and chisel, and began to strike the boulder, the neighbor was overcome by curiosity. He crossed the street and asked, “What are you doing hammering on that boulder?” To which Michelangelo responded, “There’s an angel inside and I’m trying to let it out!”
This story expresses an essential aspect of congregational leadership. Congregational leadership involves seeing the holy in the congregation’s members and the quotidian activities of the church and trying to bring that holiness out in partnership with God and others. It is relatively easy to see the boulders in our congregations. Every congregation has naysayers, obstructionists, complainers, and, frankly, quirky and grumpy people. Virtually every congregation faces limitations of time, talent, and treasure which can lead to frustration, anger, and hopelessness among pastors. The challenge of congregational leadership is to see the angels in the boulders with which we work and enable our congregants to see the holiness in themselves and one another.
Today’s congregational leaders are called to be spirit persons, to use the language of Marcus Borg, who wear the mantle of the mystics, healers, prophets, and sages. Claiming our role as spiritual guides is a matter of seeing God’s presence and then encouraging its emergence within the congregation. In a time of spiritual challenge, limitations, and frequent polarization, such spiritual vision is the result of a commitment to nurturing awareness of God’s presence in ourselves and others. In the business of congregational life, it is easy to lose our way, focus on product rather than persons, become overwhelmed by the tasks of ministry, and forget that we are always on holy ground as we interact with God’s beloved children.
I have found Mark 6:30-46 one of the most instructive biblical texts for transforming our leadership practices. The disciples have recently returned from their first teaching, preaching, and healing missions. They are elated, but fatigued. In language descriptive of too many pastors’ daily lives, “For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:30) In response to his followers’ weariness, Jesus does something counterintuitive, given the reality of persons in need. He takes his disciples on a mini-retreat to relax, pray, and reconnect with the source of all holiness. They return, refreshed, and able to be Jesus’ partners in feeding five thousand people. A time of rest restores their imaginations, physical well-being, and spiritual sensitivity.
The final words of the passage describe Jesus discharging his disciples from their duties and going to a mountain to pray. The interplay of action and contemplation characterized Jesus’ ministry that day and throughout the gospels. Spirituality and mission go hand in hand in a truly holistic ministry.
Psychiatrist and spiritual guide Gerald May suggested a spiritual practice that has been helpful in my own congregational and administrative leadership. Whether in daily times of prayer and meditation, or in the midst of a meeting or a busy day, we can tend to God’s presence in ourselves and others through a practice involving pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and responding.
Healthy congregational leadership involves, first of all, pausing to become aware of our current experience, including our sense of nearness or distance, from God’s vision for our lives. This week, our congregation on Cape Cod is holding its annual budget meeting, and I’ve noticed myself feeling anxious as I prepare for the meeting. Awareness of my anxiety is an invitation to stillness and prayer for the congregation and my role as its spiritual leader. Noticing involves slowing down to look more deeply at the persons with whom we interact, discovering without judgment both their boulders and angelic spirits. In this spiritual pause, I open to the holiness of persons and situations, and allow myself to yield, accepting this moment as it is, and then stretch to embrace God’s vision as an alternative to my ego’s often defensive and limited perspective. From this deeper vision, I am inspired to respond in a way that brings out what is holy and angelic in me and others. I am able to discern possibilities amid limits, and visualize a great plant emerging from a mustard seed and abundant provisions coming from a mere five loaves and two fish.
This simple, but dynamic, spiritual practice can transform our ministry and enable us to experience every situation as revealing God’s call to healing and wholeness. In just a moment you can move from anxiety to calm and annoyance to openness. My own practice of pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and responding is inspired by a form of breath prayer, based on the Gospel of John’s account of Easter night, when Jesus is described as entering an upper room, breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22) I breathe deeply God’s Spirit and discover that experiencing the Holy Spirit is always just a moment away.
In the course of my pastoral day, I spend time in my study, working on sermons, newsletters, and bulletins, all of which require a good deal of concentration. It never fails that I will hear a knock on my study door. Rather than feeling bothered, I take a gentle breath, saying to myself, “breathing in, I pray; breathing out, I bless.” In a moment’s time, I am ready to see the holiness of my unexpected visitor. When I go on hospital or home visits, I park as far away as reasonably possible and take time to breathe my intercessions and petitions as I walk. When I come to the pulpit to begin my sermon, I pause a moment to breathe in God’s inspiration and then look out at the congregation, awakening to God’s Spirit in each one.
Congregational leadership involves opening to holiness and seeing angels in boulders. We are always on holy ground and our sense of God’s presence opens us to a world of wonders and possibilities in the challenging and heart-warming adventures of our congregations.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. He is the author of over thirty books, including the Alban/Rowman Littlefield texts, A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Gould Epperly), and Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership.