It has become common for religious seekers of all ages to make the following statement: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Often this claim is given as explanation for leaving a particular church or choosing not to attend church at all. Sadly, contemporary Christianity has often failed to address the spiritual hungers of church members and seekers exploring the spiritual resources available beyond the doors of the church. This neglect has spawned a generation of what Kent Ira Groff calls “spiritual orphans,” people who have little or no knowledge or attachment to traditional religious institutions.

In the quest to experience the divine, many postmodern seekers believe that the least likely place to find spiritual wisdom is in the church. Many seekers believe they can find better spiritual nurture by watching Oprah; reading books like The Secret, The Power of Now, or The Shack; or going on a yoga retreat than by participating with any intentionality in ongoing communal activities such as worship services, Bible studies, or adult educational or service programs. We regretfully admit that in addressing the spiritual journeys of millions of North American seekers, the church has been, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Jr., a “taillight” rather than a “headlight” in illuminating the pathway to spiritual vitality and wholeness for our time. The church has often given people shallow theology and repetitive tasks without providing relevant pathways to experiencing God in and through our particular era’s global and personal challenges.

While we recognize that the church’s failure to address the spiritual hungers of many contemporary seekers, including youth and young adults within congregations, is the result of many factors, we also believe that solid ministerial spiritual formation is necessary if pastors are to respond creatively to the pressing needs of seekers as well as congregational members. If we pastors are not people of prayer and spiritual depth, it is unlikely that we will be able to provide adequate spiritual nurture for congregants, most especially those young seekers and committed Christians who crave an experience and relationship with the divine.

Most pastors entered the pathway of ministry as a result of gradual or dramatic spiritual experiences that transformed their way of experiencing themselves and the world. Even those pastors who struggled for years with their sense of call before entering seminary experienced, for the most part, a God-ward pull that drew them toward holy things and holy persons. They found they could not fully experience personal wholeness or fulfillment until they embodied this holy call in the everyday ministerial tasks of teaching, healing, comforting, and providing guidance for the grieving and dying.

Pastors are called to be people who have experienced the holy and show others, by their lives and ministries, how to experience holiness in their own lives. While we affirm the ministry of the laity and priesthood of all believers, we also affirm that pastors are called to embody the invitation to experience God’s vital presence within their congregations. Separated from an ongoing experience of God’s presence in the complexities of daily life, pastors become little more than technicians who know the right gestures and actions but who are unable to awaken others to the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the pluralistic, high-tech postmodern world in which we live, seekers and congregants alike yearn for spiritual leaders who not only believe something but also have an ongoing experience of the holy that inspires them to share the good news with others by deed and inspiration and by doctrine and words. In a world of complexity, people yearn for the simple gift of experiencing God in all things, from checking their e-mail to multitasking at both home and the office.

In our reflections on spiritual guidance as one of the essential acts of ministry, we want, first of all, to reaffirm that every act of ministry, whether it involves pastoral care, preaching, administration, or social action, reflects the pastor’s spiritual life. Whether or not we pastors are consciously aware of it, we are constantly guiding our congregations’ spiritual life. Therefore, we believe that the quality of your spiritual life is of utmost importance not only for your own ministerial vitality and pastoral leadership but also for the spiritual well-being of your congregation.

That being said, we must still admit that nurturing a lively and growing spiritual life is just as difficult for us pastors as it is for our congregants. In our conversations with seminarians and new pastors over the past several years, we have found that virtually every one of them has entered seminary and continued in ministry because of one specific life-changing spiritual experience or a constellation of events leading them toward seminary and ordained ministry. Whether their experience of call involved hearing God’s voice saying, “I have called you to be my servant,” as one Presbyterian pastor noted, or a quiet passion over the years that burst forth into a sense of confidence expressed by a Disciples of Christ pastor that “I could only find fulfillment as a congregational pastor,” most pastors entered ministry intending to grow in the Spirit and help others experience a similar sense of spiritual intimacy.

Yet, like Martha of Bethany, these pastors have found themselves anxious about many things and often neglectful of the one thing needful for faithful spiritual leadership: an intimate relationship with God, grounded in a life of prayer. Some are stunned and then inspired to deepen their spiritual lives when a friend or spouse challenges them with an observation like the one reported by a United Church of Christ pastor: “I thought it was strange that you could be the spiritual leader of a church when you don’t pray much yourself!”

We believe that we pastors are called to be spirit persons whose own familiarity with the divine enables us to help others discover God’s presence in the ordinary tasks of their lives as well as God’s sustaining care and inspiration in their moments of crisis and challenge. Called to be spiritual guides for others, we pastors must cultivate our awareness of God by learning to “pray without ceasing” throughout the many tasks of ministry (1 Thess. 5:17). In so doing, we will avoid the spiritual dryness confessed in the Song of Solomon: “They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” (1:6) While, as Gerald May notes, the “dark night of the soul” can enter the lives of the most dedicated spiritual leaders, those pastors who continue to nurture their own spiritual formation will still have enough in their spiritual reservoir to respond to their congregations’ spiritual needs, even during their dry periods.

While we recognize the many challenges of ministry and congregational life in the postmodern world, we also affirm the blessings that come with the call to ordained ministry in just such a time as this. As pastors, there is no greater blessing than being called to comfort the dying and to give guidance to seekers and “spiritual orphans,” to serve the least of these in the name of Christ, and to awaken people to God’s presence in their lives. Through God’s grace, we are called to study, bless, heal, and teach. No two days are alike in ministry if we choose to embrace God’s presence in our ministry. Surprises wait around every corner.

Comment on this article at the Alban Roundtable blog.


Adapted from Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL391_SM Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry 
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly

Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.

AL366_SM Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness  
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly

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.

AL379_SMAll for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork 
by Louis B. Weeks 

Nobody likes scutwork, the unwanted dregs of the working day. However, it is through focused attention to the details of scutwork that pastors are able to build solid relationships within the congregation, and without the trust that comes from these relationships, no true pastoral care and leadership is 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.

ining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley 

Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”

AL139_SMSpiritual Wholeness for Clergy: A New Psychology of Intimacy with God, Self, and Others 
by Donald R. Hands and Wayne L. Fehr 

Spiritual Wholeness draws on counseling experience with more than 400 clergy and pinpoints the human problems, traps, and temptations awaiting those who choose the clergy role. Clergy will learn to develop and maintain a psychologically healthy spirituality in relationships with others. Judicatory executives and therapists working with clergy will gain insight into addiction problems and how to help clergy move toward greater emotional and spiritual health.


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