The story is told of a night long ago when the stars began to fall from the sky. The villagers, surprised by the stars streaking across the sky, panicked and assumed the world was coming to an end. They ran to and fro crying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling; the world is ending,” until one of them remembered the wise ones who lived just outside the village. Frantically, they ran to this older couple in search of an answer. “Look,” they shouted, “the stars are falling into the earth. What will happen to us?” The wise ones, who had been observing the changing sky for some time, paused a few moments and asked the villagers to gaze upon the sky one more time. “Look at the sky,” they whispered, “look at the stars that are falling. But, now, pause a moment and look again, look this time at all the stars that are not falling, but remain shining in the heavens.”
When life changes rain down upon us like stars falling from the sky, we can focus on what is faithful and everlasting as well as what is rapidly changing and uncertain, knowing that God embraces both change and stability. Navigating the seasons of ministry steadily and in a healthy and wise way is the gift of a vision that embraces God’s incarnate presence, which abides within a person’s truest self as she or he evolves and endures with the changing patterns of her or his life, the church, and a growing experience of God’s call. Engaging in apocalyptic thinking is tempting, but faith calls a person elsewhere. There are few certainties for pastors today–and many dire warnings–as they envisage the future of the church and the vocation of ministry as a whole. Today’s pastors, even in relatively quiet rural settings, lead congregations in a time turbulent like permanent whitewater, in which the church on the village green seeks to coexist with the World Wide Web, postmodern relativism, religious pluralism, and hedonistic consumerism.
While pastors may dream of the ministry style reflected by computer-phobic, small-town pastor Father Tim, the protagonist of Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, or the bucolic ministry consisting of equal measures of study, sermon preparation, and fly fishing portrayed in the film, A River Runs Through It, most ministries, rural or urban, are lived out at the speed of twenty-first-century life. Many pastors work nonstop just to keep up with the constant changes in their congregations and communities. Seeking to respond creatively and faithfully to today’s challenges, many pastors feel the need not only to constantly update the skills required for responding faithfully to God’s call in their ministries, but also to pause to experience God’s ever-present guidance in an ever-changing world.
Still, amid all the transitions and changes that are occurring in culture, church, and ministry, as well as in lives of pastors who expect to serve the church for two, three, four, or five decades to come, many simple, gentle, and life-affirming practices can serve as polestars for a pastor’s healthy, vital, and effective ministry. As we talked with seminarians and pastors who in every season of ministry are achieving healthy excellence in their pastoral vocation as well as in their personal vocations, we discovered that practices supporting ministerial spirituality, excellence, and wholeness in one season of ministry are also essential to healthy and vital ministry in all the other seasons. The varied seasons and their characteristic challenges have a thread of continuity tied to the dynamic yet faithful interplay of divine grace and inspiration and human response and collegial companionship.
Cultivating spiritual practices helps pastors nurture a larger, more holistic perspective on their ministerial practice and well-being. Whether you have just experienced God’s call to Christian spiritual leadership or are pondering retirement, the cultivation of a holistic perspective enables you to see both the forest and the trees in the course of your ministry. Perspective in ministry, grounded in the quest for spiritual stature, enables pastors to experience failures as temporary and successes as an inspiration for further adventure and experimentation.
Ministerial vitality and excellence in every season of life relates to clarity about one’s gifts and limitations and a strong sense of God’s call, which is not only pointed toward excellence in ordained ministry and spiritual leadership but also toward faithful parenting, physical and spiritual well-being, friendships and relationships, and concern about justice and planetary well-being. We affirm that God calls pastors anew in each moment and over and over again throughout their lifetimes. A pastor’s response to God’s call forward into newness of life and ministry involves practicing the presence of God in the ordinary tasks of ministry and everyday life as well as in her or his well-visualized and implemented long-term vocational plans. Openness to God’s call at all times invites pastors to cultivate the gifts of imagination and flexibility so that amid the anxiety of life and ministry transitions, they can embrace the fullness of God’s companionship and divinely given possibilities they had counted on as they set out in ministry.
In all the seasons of ministry and life, God calls pastors to a harvest of righteousness in which they are blessed to be a blessing. In living out the highest aims of ministry, family life, and community and global responsibility, their lives bear fruit that will sustain and transform others long after their formal labors are over. Vital and effective ministry that embraces church, home, and world is the result of nurturing and protecting the seeds of vocational inspiration pastors experienced in the initial springtime call to ministry. A harvest of righteousness is the result of the dynamic interplay of personal commitment and congregational and collegial support during times of crisis, change, and growth.
A ministerial life characterized by joy, fidelity, service, health, and love is ultimately a matter of call and response–hearing God’s call over and over again through various people and places, through all the seasons of life, and always responding to that divine call with a heartfelt “Yes!” Call and response is the dance of divine wisdom and human intentionality in which all of us open ourselves to God’s new and creative word for every situation. “Practicing” ministry throughout life’s seasons for pastors means responding to God’s call by commitments to prayer and devotional reading, continuing theological education, self-differentiation and visionary thinking, healthy intimacy among friends and family, and personal well-being. Through it all, God gently moves, aiming to bring to fullness the good work that God began in your life when you first heard God’s call to ministry.
Centered ministry–the harvest of God’s grace and a person’s own commitments to spiritual wholeness–provides a good foundation for pastoral leaders to respond with care and creativity to a congregation’s inevitable change, conflict, and resistance as well as to maintain personal vitality and integrity over the long haul as they practice the everyday acts of ministry.
Adapted from Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness by Bruce G. and Katherine Gould Epperley copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness
by Bruce G. and Katherine Gould Epperley
Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.
All for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork
by Louis B. Weeks
Louis Weeks lifts up scutwork as an integral part of pastoral care and leadership. Through focused attention to the details, pastors are able to build solid relationships within the congregation, without which true pastoral care and leadership is not possible. All for God’s Glory explores ways in which churches are engaged and can engage in practices of administration that deepen care and build a healthy congregational community.
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