From my numerous conversations with both seminarians and new pastors, the primary wisdom I have to offer is to claim your leader’s voice. Seminary education is a progression in which students learn the basics of their craft—intellectually and, we hope, experientially. While we are always learners, most educational pedagogies implicitly encourage passivity rather than the activity necessary for effective ministerial leadership. For this reason, I encourage my students, as a best practice in theological education, to make a sharp turn from passive to active voice during their second year in seminary. Such a turn can be as subtle as constantly asking, “What do I think of this?” or “How will I translate this to a congregation?” after adequately digesting a reading assignment.
Another best practice in claiming your pastoral voice is to constantly ask the question, “So what?” not as a challenge to your professors but as a way of making the connection between theory and practice, even if your professor fails to do so. My primary rationale for counseling students to make the turn from passive to active during seminary is that claiming your own voice, albeit in the humble spirit of Jeremiah, prepares you for the first time a congregant asks, “What do you think, pastor?” In such moments, they aren’t interested in what John Cobb, Mary Daly, Jurgen Moltmann, or Paul Tillich thinks, although their insights are invaluable to pastoral ministry. They want to know where you stand as their spiritual leader, whether on a Sunday school curriculum or the ethics of marriage equality.
Practicing your active voice is part of the critical discernment and pastoral imagination necessary for creative and faithful ministry. Other pathways to the active voice include reflecting on your personal credo yearly during seminary and updating your credo in your first years in ministry following seminary. Ask yourself on a yearly basis questions such as, How do I understand God’s presence in the world? The Holy Spirit? The power of prayer? The goal is not to construct a rigid theology but to affirm your deepest beliefs. Then, ask yourself, What difference do these beliefs make in my life? How do I live them out in daily life and decision making?
In seminary, it is important that students learn the rhythm of pastoral leadership along with the rhythm of academic life. For example, in preparation for preaching as many as fifty sermons a year, I suggest that during their seminary years future pastors spend an hour, in two sittings, reflecting on the weekly lectionary, again with a set of questions such as, What is the scripture saying to me? How might I share this insight with a congregation? What difference would taking these seriously make in the lives of my future congregants? Here, the goal is not to write a sermon but to begin to think homiletically in a holistic fashion by joining theory and practice, and overcoming the divide between spirituality and religion experienced by many seekers. In Tending to the Holy, Kate Epperly and I describe a number of practices that join spirituality and sermon preparation. We have found certain practices such as lectio divina, or holy reading; imaginative prayers; and walking prayer helpful in inspiring homiletic creativity and inspiration.
Wise seminarians eventually realize that they must take responsibility for their spiritual lives, physical well-being, and attitudes toward time. A number of seminaries, such as Lancaster Theological Seminary, teach the practices of praying the hours, centering prayer, and the examen of conscience as part of group spiritual formation classes. Perhaps a good place to start is simply with a breath prayer that can be practiced in sitting meditation or in the course of daily activities. As you breathe, open yourself to God’s Spirit moving through your life, and experience God’s Spirit centering, calming, and revitalizing your whole being. Imagine that Jesus is breathing in and through you as he did with the disciples that first Easter (John 20:22).
Effective and excellent ministry involves being intentional about your schedule and priorities. Time and stress are closely connected in ministry, and I will address these issues more fully in a later chapter. Many pastors rush from one task to the other without considering their well-being or their goals in the various tasks of ministry. They may eventually come to suffer from what physician Larry Dossey describes as time sickness or hurry sickness. While pastors can never fully manage time, they can creatively shape their experience of time—even with the reality of unexpected events—through meditation and intentional rhythms of rest and activity, by pursuing hobbies and time with family, and by working on sermons in advance during slow ministerial weeks. Advent, Lent, and Easter don’t have to catch pastors by surprise. We can prepare for the seasons of the church so that the extra services and sermons don’t overwhelm us or diminish the quality of our ministries or family lives.
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Adapted from Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership by Bruce G. Epperly, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership
by Bruce G. Epperly
For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education.
The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories
by Charles M. Olsen
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
Living Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture
Edited by Larry A. Golemon
There is power in a good story well told. In Living Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture, congregational leaders tell how they have used story in ministry. The collection brings together the best thinking on how narrative leadership can change a congregation.
Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.
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