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 were not able to find 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. 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.
Jesus called his first followers to the pathway of simplicity in their own time that still resonates for those who seek to find wholeness in their daily tasks. He invited them to move from anxiety about many things to experiencing peace in all things by following the one God in the many adventures of life. To harried followers then and now, Jesus suggested an alternative way of life, grounded in trusting God’s presence and seeking God’s realm in every situation. Take a moment to listen prayerfully to Jesus’s pathway of simplicity as if it is addressed to you in your pastoral busyness. In fact, these words are addressed to you in your life and ministry:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your [Divine Parent] feeds them. . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all of his glory was not clothed like one of these. . . . Your [Divine Parent] knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt. 6:25–26, 28–29, 33–34).
To seek God’s kingdom is to be attentive to God’s “words” of love and beauty in the many diverse voices of human life and nature. The path of simplicity calls pastors to pause and notice the places where God is present in everyday encounters that define the practice of ministry as well as pause and notice God’s wisdom in the nonhuman world of sunsets, scudding clouds, migrating geese, and verdant fields. God’s presence in all things calls us to simplicity amid diversity, awareness of the lively presence on the one intimate and creative reality within the many changing moments of our personal and professional lives. This one reality comes to us under many guises and many vocational callings.
Knowing God’s callings within our many callings enables us to practice faithful and effective ministry. While ministry at its best is flexible and agile in responding to unexpected events, pastors who know their unique and evolving mission as spirit persons can navigate gracefully, creatively, and calmly the constantly changing vocations of ministry. Jesus’s own sense of vocation enabled him to follow his calling despite his followers’ demands on his time and expectations of his ministry. When Peter and his companions interrupt Jesus’s prayer time with the crisis of the moment, Jesus tells them he must listen first to God’s vision for his life and follow his mission to the wider world as God’s healer and teacher, “For that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).
The Gospel stories describe Jesus as a person with a clear but flexible and constantly evolving sense of mission to follow the Spirit in preaching the good news of God’s reign by healing the sick, welcoming the lost, embracing the outcast, and inspiring people to embody the abundant life God intends for them. Jesus’s simplicity of focus enabled him to reach out to the world in all its messy complexity.
Simplicity of life involves ongoing attentiveness to God’s vision in each moment. A prime example lies in the Russian Orthodox classic The Way of a Pilgrim, which describes the spiritual journey of a nineteenth-century seeker. Inspired by Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), the pilgrim centers his life around an ancient prayer—”Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner”—until the Jesus Prayer becomes the melody of his life, guiding his responses to synchronous encounters along his pilgrim way.9
What would it mean for you as a pastor to pray constantly throughout the many events of your life? What would it be like for your prayers to be as near to you as your breathing? What would it mean for you to recognize, in the spirit of the plaque on Carl Jung’s study door, that “bidden or unbidden, God is here?”
Stephanie, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Virginia, breathes a quiet “Lord, have mercy” whenever the phone rings or she hears a knock on her study door. A United Methodist pastor, Charles keeps his spiritual center by humming his favorite hymns throughout the day. Charles notes, “I have hymns that I repeat day after day, like ‘Be Still My Soul’ or ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness,’ but I also break out in song when I am feeling joyful or when I anticipate trouble in my parish. Sometimes the next hymn I sing is as surprising to me as it is to my secretary or to my wife. But singing that hymn always gives me what I need in the moment. Without a song in my heart and on my lips, I’d be lost.” In the spirit of today’s global spirituality, Cathy, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Massachusetts, practices Thich Nhat Hanh’s “walking prayers” as she chants breath by breath and step by step throughout the day, “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile.”
Simplicity is the heart of what Gerald May described in terms of pausing, noticing, opening, and yielding and stretching to the many voices of God emerging in and through each moment of experience and encounter. While we can seldom fully discern God’s voice, we can honestly experience and probe feeling tones that guide us toward beauty, truth, reconciliation, attentiveness, and love. Simplicity grounds us in the holy here and the holy now of God’s lively presence in all things. It leads to the gift of awareness and attention, necessary for experiencing God’s holiness in ourselves and in the life of another.
Comments welcome on 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.
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.
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.
A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching
by Rochelle Melander
With this book about the philosophy, tools, and work of coaching, spiritual leaders will be equipped to guide those they work with toward accepting the past, creating a life vision, and setting goals for the future. The tools provided in this book will also help leaders understand themselves and enable them to raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills.
Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy: A New Psychology of Intimacy with God, Self, and Others
by Donald R. Hands and Wayne L. Fehr
The authors combine clinical psychology and spiritual direction to create a practical model of spirituality that integrates theology, psychology, and an understanding of individual frailties in a new way. 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.
On-going formation for church leaders—laity and clergy—to cultivate prayer, discernment, and other sacred practices for your congregation’s life and ministry.
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