Recently I met with a congregational search committee that was deadlocked in its discernment of the qualities needed for its next pastor. A segment of this progressive congregation saw social activism as a necessity for its pastoral leadership. One of the members shared, “We want someone who will help us expand our commitment to working for social justice and involve the congregation in hands-on programs with the poor and marginalized.” In response, another member asserted, “We are good at social action, but most of us don’t know the first thing about prayer and meditation. We need someone who can help us deepen our spiritual lives. We won’t be able to sustain our activism without learning how to pray.”
Their comments reflected an unnecessary division between action and contemplation among congregants, search committees, and pastors. As I told the search committee that day, mysticism can lead to mission, and prayer can lead to protest. I noted the words inscribed on a bench at Kirkridge Retreat and Conference Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, “Picket and pray.” I reminded them that Jesus’s social activism and radical hospitality found its wellsprings in his communication with God through times of retreat and prayer.
One of my favorite New Testament stories is Mark’s description of the feeding of the five thousand. (Mark 6:30-46) As the story begins, the disciples have just returned from their first teaching and healing missions. They are elated, but worn out. Even though their mission is over, needy people still seek them out. In a curious comment, Mark notes, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” When I meet with pastors—especially pastors in their first congregational calls—I ask them to reflect on their own eating habits and their tendency to multitask during the lunch hour. It is common for them to respond in the spirit of one new pastor’s confession: “I’m sorry to admit that most days I have a carton of yogurt while I check e-mail, look at Facebook, check phone messages, and make calls. I seldom remember what I’ve had for lunch.” Another pastor admitted: “I often miss lunch entirely. I get so busy at church that when I do eat, I get fast food or some coffee and pastry. I wish I would eat more healthy food, but I just don’t have the time.”
Like Jesus’ disciples, new pastors can become victims of their own success. Their quest for excellence in ministry can be detrimental to their health, relationships, and professional life. Perhaps Jesus recognizes that despite their faithful ministry, the disciples are near burnout. If they continue going without rest and retreat, their ministries will suffer. Despite the great needs that confront Jesus and his followers, Jesus does something counterintuitive; he takes them on a retreat. “Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile,” he counsels his disciples. While we don’t know how long the retreat lasted, Jesus and his disciples were spiritually prepared to meet the multitude that awaited them on shore. Mark notes that Jesus had compassion on them. In an era in which many professionals experience compassion fatigue, rest and retreat refresh our spirits, renew our energy, and revive our imaginations.
As a day of preaching concludes, the disciples come to Jesus concerned about the logistics of feeding the multitude. They only have five loaves and two fish, when nearly a year’s salary is needed to feed the crowd’s physical hungers. Jesus invites them to imagine abundance and, in ways we cannot fathom, five thousand are fed. Mysticism—embodied in times of prayer and retreat—leads to mission. When we are weary and anxious, our imaginations are constricted. Times of prayer and meditation unleash what Willis Harmon describes as the “higher creativity” that opens us to a world of possibilities issuing in bursts of insight and creative solutions. A renewed imagination can feed a multitude and revive a congregation.
Mark’s narrative ends with Jesus dismissing the crowd and sending his disciples away. After a day of teaching, Jesus once more retreats to a deserted place for prayer and meditation. Jesus frames his mission prayerfully, embodying the rhythm of action and contemplation in ministry. Faithful effectiveness in ministry is hard work, often involving long hours and multiple demands, but long-term ministerial well-being and professional excellence require a creative interplay of mission and meditation.
New pastors—as well as experienced ministers—need to establish spiritual practices to undergird their ministerial activities. These practices are not just “one more thing to do,” but are intended to be seamlessly related to the rest of our personal and professional lives. Still, new pastors ask, “How can I find time to balance action with contemplation?” Let me suggest a couple of simple spiritual practices to undergird an active ministry:
- Breathing the tasks of ministry. Rather than immediately rushing from one activity to the next, take a moment to breathe deeply between them, opening to God’s spirit. As one pastor relates, “I take a prayerful breath when I log onto the computer, check my Facebook account, answer the phone, or walk from my office to consult the church’s administrative assistant. I feel greater calm and energy when I remember to breathe.”
- Walking prayerfully. Many people believe that one of the primary proofs of God’s existence is getting the parking place closest to their destination. I take a very different approach. I advise pastors to park at the furthest possible parking place when they make hospital calls. This practice not only enables ministers to get extra exercise, it also allows them to spiritually center before meeting vulnerable congregants and their families.
- Regular retreat and Sabbath time. Many pastors go from week to week without extended times for spiritual refreshment. Without regular times of retreat and rest, the quality of their ministry suffers. They often run on auto-pilot, living at the surfaces rather than the depths of life. While there is no one type of retreat appropriate to every pastor, regularity and commitment is essential in establishing a rhythm of withdrawal and action. Some pastors take a few days retreat after Easter and Christmas; others set aside a day each month to go to a local monastery; still others take an afternoon each week for a hike in the woods. I recently met with a group of pastors who spend one day a month in silence at a local monastery, followed by prayer and conversation. This serves to replenish their spirits and give them a sense of community.
Ministry is challenging work, but it can be enlivening and energizing in its diverse blend of activities. As seasoned pastor Lillian Daniel affirms: “I love being a minister. Even when ministry is hard, it is more fun than any job I can imagine. Where else can you preach, teach, meet with a lead abatement specialist, and get arrested for civil disobedience, all in the same week? Where else can you be invited into the living rooms of new mothers and the hospice rooms of the dying, and find hope in both places?…But most of all I love observing God’s presence in the lives of people of faith.”
Ministry can be zestful and adventurous over the long haul, when we balance the hard work of social concern and mission with a commitment to spiritual practices. We can deepen our sense of call and grow in faithful excellence in ministry year after year.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership (chosen as one of top ten books of 2011 by the Academy of Parish Clergy) and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly (chosen as the 2009 book of the year by the Academy of Parish Clergy).
GREAT GIFTS FOR SEMINARY GRADUATES!
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoal 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 Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley
As increasing numbers of young women are discerning a call to ministry, entering seminary, graduating, and searching for the call to a parish or other ministry setting, they need to be aware of the realities that face them. The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion is about the nitty gritty of ministry for young female clergy—how to maintain a sense of personal style, what it’s really like to be a solo pastor, how to date, what to do when they’re ready to quit.
How to Thrive in Associate Staff Ministry
by Kevin E. Lawson
A dead-end job? A sure route to burn-out? Congregational staff ministry is neither, according to Kevin Lawson. Rather, he presents ample evidence that associate staff ministry is a calling with its own identity, integrity, and exciting possibilities. Based on his groundbreaking study of 400-plus associate staff members in 14 denominations, Lawson demonstrates here the communication and self-care skills that people in these often highly specialized positions can utilize to grow beyond mere survival into dynamic ministry.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.