Mother Teresa of Calcutta once noted that the aim of her often messy and challenging work with dying and forgotten persons was simply to do “something beautiful for God.” Today, in the midst of the ever-changing demands of twenty-first-century ministry, pastors often ask, “Can a life devoted to ministry continue to bring beauty to God, our congregations, our families, and ourselves?”
We would affirm that it can—particularly if pastors recognize and honor the beauty of each of the seasons of their ministry, regardless of the one they currently find themselves in. Like the four seasons of nature, each season of ministry has its own unique spiritual hue and opportunities for growth and adventure. The task through all the seasons of ministry is to awaken to and embody—in one’s personal and professional life—God’s unique vision for the season in which a pastor finds her- or himself.
In order to do this most effectively there are cautions to heed along the way. For instance, the call to ministerial leadership can become bad news for ordained ministers, families, and congregations when clergy believe that their personal call is so unique that it is not recognized as an interdependent part of God’s universal call to all persons within their congregations, families, and communities.
While we are elated whenever a seminarian proclaims words such as “God called me to ministry and I know God will make a way for me to serve in the future,” we become concerned when he or she contrasts too greatly the call to ordained ministry with God’s call within the vocational calls of carpenters, computer programmers, teachers, nurses, physicians, and others. We worry that such ministers will succumb to a ministerial isolationism that separates clergy and laity in the ecology of congregational life. To be sure, ordained ministers have a unique calling within the community of faith and the overall body of Christ. This calling sets before them the diverse tasks of preaching, pastoral care, teaching, and ethical integrity. But clergy are also called to “equip the saints” so that laypersons may more fully experience and actualize their gifts for ministry in their homes, workplaces, and congregational life. And at every step of the way, pastors who fulfill this calling are reciprocally nurtured and supported by a community of saints, faithful lay leaders, mentors, colleagues, and denominational officials, without which they could not labor on God’s behalf.
There is danger, too, when pastors believe they have only one calling in life and place everything else—family, self-care, friendships—in the background as relatively unimportant compared to this one, overriding call to serve God. As one pastor confessed, “In the beginning of my ministry, when the phone rang, I used to drop everything—dinner with my family, holiday activities, Little League games, and days off—sometimes for matters as small as a church plumbing problem or a cranky trustee. It took years for me to realize that by doing this, I robbed my family of a parent and spouse and I robbed myself of a life outside the church. Thank God for a colleague group that reminded me that because God is alive and active in the world and my congregation, I don’t have to do everything myself!”
For pastors to imagine that they have only one call in life leaves them bereft of hope and meaning when they consider what they will do when they must finally retire from full-time ministry. A seventy-five-year-old pastor, just completing his fifth post-retirement interim, confessed, “Who will I be when I no longer wake up each Sunday morning ready to preach? My identity is entirely in my ministry. Everything else is an afterthought. When I lay down my robe and stole, will I recognize myself when I look in the mirror? Maybe I’ll just lie down and die!”
A tendency toward perfection can also inhibit our effectiveness at—and enthusiasm for—our ministries. When our son Matt was a young child, we learned that as parents we didn’t have to be perfect, nor could we be perfect, in raising our son. We discovered that our son would flourish if we were consistent in embodying practices of “good enough” parenting and providing him with options for shaping his day-to-day activities. The same intentionality applies to the practice of ministry. A newly ordained Presbyterian pastor, Victoria, was shocked when Bruce challenged her to reflect critically upon her around-the-clock aim at perfectionism in ministry and parenting. Her approach to ministry changed when she realized that ministerial excellence did not mean perfection but “good enough” or “excellent” ministry in her unique congregation and personal context. She continues to work hard at nurturing her congregation but now leaves the harvest to God’s wisdom and care.
“My whole attitude toward ministry changed when I realized that I could take a day off each week, say no to unnecessary tasks, and see continuing education as part of my ministerial week rather than time off from real ministry,” she recounts. “God’s grace in my ministry meant that if I do my best to be faithful, God will take care of the rest. Today I wake up each day with a sense of refreshment. The challenges of ministry have not gone away, but now I’m not afraid to face them, and I am learning when to let go of certain issues in order to affirm the quality of my life and ministry.”
Victoria is just one example of thousands of ordained ministers who are reaping a harvest of righteousness in their congregations, families, and personal lives at their particular season of ministry. Their secret lies in the realization that although there are many paths toward excellence in ministry, a pastor who truly cares for her or his overall well-being, spiritual life, personal integrity, and professional growth will bless her or his congregation in its own journey toward faithful ministry and well-being.
Adapted from Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
There is a time and a season to every ministry. Healthy and v
ital pastors look for the signs of the times and the gifts of each swiftly passing season, but they also take responsibility for engaging the creative opportunities of each season of ministry. Those who listen well to the gentle rhythm of God moving through their lives and the responsibilities and challenges that attend the passing of the years, vocationally as well as chronologically, will be amazed at the beauty and truth that shapes and characterizes the development of their ministries. Authors Bruce G. and Katherine Gould Epperly, each of whom has over 25 years of experience in various pastoral roles, invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a life-long adventure in companionship with God, their loved ones, and their congregations.
The Meandering Way: Leading by Following the Spirit by Gary A. Shockley
The Meandering Way offers a contrarian take on the more popular practices of leadership found throughout the church today. Meandering leaders are attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. They are guides and mentors who patiently journey alongside those they love and lead. Ultimately, being a meandering leader is about being on a journey with God–personally and corporately slowing down the pace of our lives and following God’s Spirit.
The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care by Rochelle Melander and Harold Eppley
The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care is an ideal companion for clergy, lay leaders, and others who would like guidance about how to make changes in their personal life and ministry but do not want to read a text-heavy book about self-care. Readers may work through one of the fifty-two sections each week or adopt a more leisurely pace. The guide includes journal writing suggestions, personal reflection questions and activities, guidance for sharing the discovery process with another person, an activity for the coming week, and suggested further resources, such as novels, videos, and websites.