by Martin Davis

Though Bruce Epperly is now a grandfather, he understands well the trials and tribulations facing our youngest ministers. Graduating from Claremont University in 1980 with a Ph.D., he did not find a tenure-track job, so he was forced to become “bi- and tri-vocational.” That path led him to Georgetown University, where he served as the school’s Protestant chaplain, to Lancaster Theological Seminary, where he served as professor of practical theology, and other destinations such as Wesley Seminary and a range of congregations in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. Along the way, he has authored more than 20 books, most of which deal with spirituality. And it is in the realm of spirituality, Epperly believes, that the health of ministers lies. In this interview with Congregations, Epperly invites us travel with him from the Salinas Valley of his youth through the highways and byways that have shaped his distinctive approach to spiritual practice. 

Congregations: We often hear what’s wrong and troubling with the ministerial life; let’s begin with what’s right. What have you learned over your life in ministry that makes it a rich and rewarding career?

Epperly: Growing up, I learned from my father, a pastor, both the positive and the negative sides of ministerial life. In an important sense, there is freedom in the work of ministry—he was available to me at times when other fathers were not available to their children. My fondest memory remains of him and me reading the serialized version of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley when it was being released weekly in Holiday magazine. My father would go to the public library the first day the magazine became available to the public and bring it home for us to read together. He could often also play ball in the afternoons with me. The latitudes in his schedule made these times possible. During my own years as a university chaplain at Georgetown University, I was able to coach baseball and basketball teams for several years, because although I had a number of evening activities, I could come home in the afternoons to be with my son and his friends. I continued my father’s practice of spending mornings with my son, reading, playing catch, and hiking in the neighboring woods.
But the negative sides can—and often do—overwhelm these benefits. My father worked most of his career in small congregations in the Salinas Valley of California, where arguments over relatively small issues could become points of major conflict. He also lived too much of his life away from home, a truth that affected my mother more profoundly than it did me.Today’s younger pastors often face the same challenges that my dad did, especially if they pastor small, financially struggling churches. Often they have to do everything from preparing worship, preaching, and making pastoral calls to putting together the Sunday bulletin and serving as unofficial sexton. They often feel that they are at the beck and call of congregants. Moreover, they often have trouble making ends meet as a result of the challenge of living on modest salaries while paying off loans from college and seminary.

Congregations: A key piece to handling the stresses of ministerial life—any life—you have argued in your writings, lies in spirituality. But the same problems that make ministry so trying personally—time demands, financial worries—also get in the way of spiritual growth. How do ministers find time to practice spirituality?

Epperly: Pastors need to find practices that are not “one more thing.” It’s all about the how, and not the what, of your actions. Spiritual practices need to become second nature to the point that you don’t think about doing them. Rather, they become a part of what is normal, and life feels devoid when you don’t do them. I routinely meditate 30-45 minutes each morning, followed by a walk. The meditation and walk are part of my spiritual practice, but they aren’t “extras” that I undertake each morning. They are part of my waking up and claiming the day as an opportunity to bless others and share in God’s creative mission. One other practice that sustains me is beginning my day with the words of the Psalmist, “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” This sets the tone of the day as an opportunity to experience the wonder of life and the many opportunities to serve God in the everyday tasks of ministry and family life.

One of my inspirations for the book Starting with Spirit is that seminarians have this strong sense of call, this love for the image of ministry. That’s a tender and beautiful thing often nurtured and developed through their pursuit of the inner life. But it’s easy to have this sense of calling, this love for ministry, choked by the weeds of seminary and pastoral work and the demands placed upon us by our “outward” lives. To grow healthy ministers requires preparing them for health over the long haul. The journeys inward and outward for the pastoral leader are not two separate journeys. They are one and the same. To stay with the ministry over twenty or thirty years requires developing an intentionality about balancing the inward and outward life. As Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church demonstrates, the demands of our outward lives can quickly choke out our passion and sense of call.

Congregations: When young ministers come to you asking for advice about integrating the inward and outward journeys, what do you tell them?

Epperly: If they come to me, I say “let’s take a walk.” I would stress here that third places are absolutely critical for such discussions, because they level the playing field. I begin by asking them, What do you think you need to be more faithful as a minister? Where do you find joy/desolation? What speaks to you? Centering prayer, walking/running, singing, prayers? Once people begin to find what moves them, they begin to find the entry point to their own spiritual practices.He doesn’t have to be good at it. There is a grace to spiritual practices. Even on those days when I don’t think that I’m very good at them, I know God is still working in my life and guiding my steps.

I ask them to start where they are, and don’t worry about the results.
Then, we talk about the people around them. For the call to ministry is not independent of your call to be a parent, a spouse. It’s part of the gestalt of your being. The driving question for me is this: Twenty years from now, how will your loved ones feel about your decision to enter ministry? Will it be an overall positive feeling, or will it lead to feelings of regret and frustration?

Congregations: During your time at Lancaster Seminary as director of continuing education and professor of practical theology, you spent a great deal of energy discovering what young pastors require to be successful in their work. As you note, having a “call” is the powerful experience that brings them to your campus. But keeping them in ministry is quite another matter. Did you learn anything at Lancaster to improve the odds for young pastors?

Epperly: Above all, small groups are critical for pastors, even if they meet only one day every two to three months. They matter because ministers need a place where they can talk in confidence; to hear words of support and challenge; and to know that they’re all in the same boat together. In the small groups I led, we integrated prayer, meditation, sharing, a particular theme related to ministry, and the celebration of communion. Some of the themes we studied involved how to respond to conflict creatively, spirituality and preaching, visioning, dealing with diversity, making time for your friends, balancing family life and professional excellence, and mission and outreach. I also called most of the nearly 100 participants in new pastors’ groups at least three or four times a year to check on their well-being. Often they would contact me for counsel regarding challenges at their congregations. We also sponsored groups for pastors in midcareer and as they prepared for retirement from full-time ministry.
Congregations: Is it fair to say that today’s ministers face a more difficult challenge because of the culture’s increasingly antagonistic feelings toward religion? And does this antagonism make promoting and teaching spiritual disciplines more difficult, both inside and outside the congregation?

Epperly: Do we live in a society that is antagonistic toward religion? I’m not sure that it’s antagonism. If you tell people today that you’re a minister, they will not bestow upon you the immediate respect that people would have most likely offered fifty or sixty years ago. The age of there being a “Christian nation” is behind us. The internet and television have made most people in the West truly global citizens. And it is this global awareness that has flattened Christianity’s appeal. We must compete with other faith traditions on an equal basis.

Because Christianity is no longer primary in the culture, pastors have to know how to do PR for their profession and faith in a way they once didn’t have to.
I see this often when I’m on airplanes and others ask who I am and what I do. Because the majority of people in our nation no longer breathe religious life as people once did, their understanding of religious life, and Christianity in particular, is ruled by what they hear in media, which is dominated by a particular strain of evangelical belief and practice. Further, the media covers Qur’an-burning pastors, televangelists who predict the end of the world, and preachers who identify natural disasters with America’s sinfulness, rather than the good works done by churches every day.So the people that I meet find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian, a preacher of the gospel, and a progressive.

Pastors must face this public relations challenge. And they must reimagine how one shares the gospel in a pluralistic society.

Congregations: How did you come to find out that one could be Christian, preacher, and progressive when for so many others the tension has forced them to choose between belief and nonbelief or being a practicing Christian or a non-practicing Christian?

Epperly: For me it was falling into synchronous relationship and realizing that I didn’t have to choose. This happened for me when I became interested in the miracles of Jesus. I came to appreciate that these miracles weren’t “myths” as Bultmann said, nor were they “literal” as others insist. There’s a deeper realism in the biblical tradition that is worth growing into awareness of. In discovering that God is working in all things – and everyone’s life – I could affirm God’s presence in Western medicine, prayer, meditation, and complementary health practices. I believe that wherever truth and healing are present, in all their many forms, God is the source.
Congregations: For those who are new to ministry, the list of things they have to master quickly is long. Transitioning from the quasi-academic world of seminary to the day-to-day world of congregational life, learning to handle the business side of church and dealing with the pressures parishioners constantly place on them are just some of the hurdles they have to clear. What would you say is the single most important key to successful ministry?

Epperly: Attentiveness. That is the primary tool of ministry.

Take for example the difficulties associated with the transition from academia to congregational life. I learned early on in ministry that my job isn’t to win an argument, but to be ministerially aware of the situation and to help the people I was working with to learn more. I’m not there to deconstruct their theology and their lives. I have some informed theological ideas, but I don’t let these get in the way of doing effective ministry.

Or take the issue of demands on your time. The Lutherans have a wholeness wheel that is pretty good. On paper, it looks static. But, in reality, it represents a dance that people learn to negotiate. A minister’s roles and responsibilities are always shifting day to day and week to week. In periods where one part of the wheel has to be set aside, one needs to pay attention to that fact and compensate for it at later times. No week is perfect, and few weeks go according to our plans,but allowing for the ebb and flow of demands will lead you to a stable spot, in which you can live by a vision while embracing the unexpected.

Finally, I would add that ministers need to own up to their own feelings of inadequacy. It’s a common protestation among newly minted M.Divs. that they are unprepared for the work of ministry. But they should appreciate that such feelings of inadequacy are part of the biblical tradition. Jeremiah, for example, said often that he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into and that he was unprepared for the tasks at hand. Likewise, Moses saw himself as inadequate to speak for God. It took some doing for Esther to claim her role as her people’s protector.

Congregations: Are there things that seminaries can and should be doing to, if not to close the gap fully between seminary and the ministerial life, at least narrow it some?

Epperly: Yes, but there are also things that students should be doing.

Let’s begin with the seminaries. They need to find more ways for students to interact with successful pastors who balance ministerial excellence with healthy spiritualties and personal lives. These institutions need to take a page from medical and law school training systems, in which student contact with working physicians and attorneys is an intrinsic and highly valued component of their training. In ministry–as in law and medicine–we need to see people who embody professional excellence, commitment to professional growth, involvement in the community, and meaningful and healthy lives.

Now for the students. They have to integrate a practical component to all their seminary classes. The translation of that information to the everyday is so important. And it’s something students can do on their own. As they gather information, they need to ask themselves, “how would I use this in dealing with a grief-stricken parent?” or “what difference does this make to someone who’s lost a job?” There’s nothing easy or low-brow about this exercise. As Madeline L’Engle famously noted: It’s just as challenging to write a book for children as for adults.

My appreciation for the importance of translating seminary education into useable, practical information occurred around the time that I was called to Georgetown University to serve as the campus’s Protestant minister and to work with its law and medical students. I quickly came to see that I came to ministry through academics. But at Georgetown, I was forced to see academics through a minister’s eyes. Alban books were very important to me during this period. Books by Roy Oswald, on strategic planning, self-care,and starting a new pastorate were invaluable in those years. These books were intellectually solid but also practically grounded.

I’m still growing as a pastor. I believe that ministry is an exciting profession: as one of the few generalists, we have to be committed to learning new things and applying what we learn to challenging situations. In the words of the apostle Paul, we need to be open to constant transformation as we seek to be God’s companions in transforming the world.

Congregations magazine, 2012-09-10
2012 Issue 3, Number 3