In some years winter, spring, summer, and fall flow seamlessly. In other years the seasons are punctuated by devastating droughts, paralyzing snowstorms, and overwhelming floods.
Seasons of ministry for rabbis and ministers are equally unpredictable. Sometimes the life stages flow easily from one to the next: ordination in young adulthood, a midlife transition punctuated by significant and life-giving changes, a smooth path to retirement. More often, though, unexpected changes and transitions make the seasons of ministry unsettling.
And during the years spent with a single congregation, clergy experience predictable seasons: the “honeymoon” stage; then a period of disillusionment, followed by the formation of a clergy-congregation relationship based more firmly in reality and mutual respect; then the long haul of ministry together. But predictable seasons can be significantly disrupted by unexpected changes and transitions. Church conflicts, building programs, racial or economic change in the neighborhood, the deaths of major donors—all these can change congregations in fundamental ways.
Other changes are linked to ministers’ and rabbis¦ personal lives. We don’t function in a vacuum as we serve our congregations—and most clergy have family members and friends whose lives are likewise marked by transition. We marry and have children, or remain childless. Or we don’t marry and wonder whether we have taken the right path. Our children make the transition from affectionate elementary school kids to rebellious adolescents. They leave the nest. Our parents grow older, become frail, and die. Our siblings and friends suffer devastating health and family problems. While caring for our congregations, we also nurture our family and friends.
My Personal Seasons
My brief career as a pastor has been marked by constant change. I made a midlife career move into ordained ministry after staying home with my children for a decade and then working for seven years as a writer/editor for denominational publications. Four years ago, just before my 45th birthday, I was called by a vibrant 500-member congregation as an associate pastor. Two weeks later, the senior pastor resigned to become a university provost.
I had been ordained for only two months when an interim senior pastor came to the church. Eighteen months later, our current pastor arrived. Midway through the interim period, another of the associate pastors left for a mission post in China; and shortly after the arrival of the new senior pastor, the youth pastor left to make a midlife career change after 19 years in youth ministry. At 45—the age when I was ordained—he is learning to design Web sites.
Amid these staff changes, I definitely experienced a honeymoon stage, followed by a time of viewing the parish more realistically and putting down deeper roots in the congregation. I experience great joy in some parts of my work, but already I have become bored with some aspects of a job that once excited me. I feel as though I have weathered numerous seasons in my four short years with this church.
Meanwhile, huge changes have taken place at home. A year after my ordination, our first son started college. During my third year as a pastor, our second son followed suit. Neither son was too far away, and they came home often. We had an on-again, off-again empty nest, with constant shifts as the boys came and went. But several months ago one son left for work in Japan, and the other went off to study in Australia, leaving my husband and me to rattle around in our house—surprised at how much things change when the kids really leave home.
My inner journey of the past four years has also influenced my seasons of ministry. As a first-born daughter, I was deeply influenced by my mother’s model as a housewife, mom, and community volunteer. I was not raised to be a professional woman. I am certain that God called me to this congregation and to this role as associate pastor, yet there are moments of intense discomfort as I realize that I am breaking the family rules. I am sometimes uneasy in my public roles of preaching and leading worship, even though I know I do them well. I am growing up at midlife, growing into a role and a life that reflects my own values rather than my mother’s.
Why Talk About Seasons?
Ministers and rabbis are exposed to the passage of life more routinely than people in most other professions. In one week we may visit a parishioner in the hospital, see him hooked up to life support, pray for his healing, and watch him die. We may conduct his funeral service that week, but we may also perform a baptism or wedding, or both. It is obvious that standing alongside people in sorrow can be draining, but sharing in people’s joy takes its toll as well.
Often we are more aware of the seasons of other people’s lives than of our own. If our parishioners need love, care, and nurture as they negotiate significant passages, isn’t it true that we as clergy also need such care as we make our own transitions? We may recommend to parishioners that amid significant life events they take time to nurture themselves, reflect, and pray. But do we, as clergy, not need the same sort of self-nurture, reflection, and prayer?
Yet we are often unaware of the challenges involved in confronting predictable life transitions, not to mention the storms that can unexpectedly devastate our lives. Twelve years ago, at about age 40, a pastor named Sam was asked to leave a small congregation he had served for six years. Older members felt that he was pushing them to change too fast, and baby-boom members believed that he needed to be more bold and innovative. Looking back, Sam is still unsure what went wrong. He knows he was doing the best job he could—and he doesn’t know what he could have done differently.
After leaving that congregation, Sam spent several years driving airport shuttles while diligently applying for pastoral jobs. He finally secured an interim position. Five interim posts later, he has found his groove. Interim ministry suits him well and uses his gifts effectively. A wrenching situation brought unexpected and painful change to him and his family, precipitating a season of financial insecurity and career uncertainty. Today he can see how God has brought good out of the situation, but he does not deny the pain of those turbulent years.
Seasons of Life
The predictable life stages that affect congregation members also affect the leaders of congregations. Midlife provides a salient example.
A presbytery executive told me that he has never seen an incident of clergy burnout that was not connected to midlife issues. Whether or not we experience midlife crisis, midlife is a time of unsettling transition for almost everyone. We discover unexpected health problems. Our kids grow up, and our parents grow older and slip into declining health. Midlife is often a time of re-evaluation and questioning. Did I do what I wanted to do in the first two decades of adulthood? Am I living by the values that I hold most dear? Does my life have meaning in the way I expected?
Answer those questions requires time, a commodity that is rare at midlife. Often the question make us uneasy, so we work harder, hoping that our accomplishments will make us feel better. Hard work fills the time that we might otherwise have used for reflection and prayer; busy schedules keep us from the in-depth conversations with friends that might help us gain perspective. Many of us do our best to avoid facing the transitions of midlife.
We can map out the seasons of our lives in many areas: our career in ministry, a particular pastorate, our family life, and our inner journey of personal development. It is worth taking time to reflect on the seasons of our lives in those areas, taking special note of the overlap of seasons in two or more
areas. This exercise will help raise our awareness of what we experience, helping us to react to unexpected storms with more wisdom and maturity.
We often wish that things would not change so fast—and that life could have more tranquility and stability. But we must not forget that God is an agent of change and that some of the transitions we experience come straight from God’s hand. We affirm that God never changes, yet we know that we are called to growth, to freshness. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19).
We must nurture ourselves through the transitions that come to us either from outside events or from inner awareness, so that we can remain open to what God is doing in our lives. We must give ourselves space and time to reflect, so that amid change and fatigue we do not miss the new things that God is bringing forth.