Posts Tagged ‘ministry’
Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene H. Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, 197 pp.
This book was just what I needed at this moment in my personal and professional spiritual life. Eugene Peterson always challenges me as a pastor and a person, even though I do not always agree with his assessments. Under the Unpredictable Plant posed just the questions I have been asking about my own vocation in ministry, and offered a rich depth of responses. Many of the ideas reappear in The Pastor, but this is a different arc on the theme.
The structure of the book follows the book of Jonah, and the image of the prophet who declines to follow God’s command, then finds himself confined in the belly of the fish, then makes his way reluctantly to Ninevah, only to find himself upset by both success and failure. Peterson begins in the introduction to discuss the gap between “personal faith and pastoral vocation.” It is a chasm I know as well–when it seems like following God will upset “successful” ministry, or when “successful” ministry seems to cost personal spirituality. I awakened to it most dramatically during my sabbatical last year, when I again found the time and space to be a Christian first, pastor second. However, the truth remains that my spiritual relationship with God is always lived out in my pastoral vocation.
I always appreciate his wisdom on the mundane nature of most pastoral tasks, and the beauty that lies therein.
The pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation… Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds… There is much that is glorious on pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Ninevah-like place: a place for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. (16)
Peterson offers a scathing critique of contemporary pastoral ministry, especially its emphasis on programs, numbers, and efficiency. He gives a graceful description of what the pastoral vocation should instead be: the task of bearing witness to Christ in the daily tasks of people’s lives:
We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). … We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is already there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (86-87)
While I found his critique true in many ways, and I want to honor that central pastoral task, I question whether the vocation he describes is possible in today’s congregations. While his interpretation of the pastor is spiritually and biblically sound, it is not necessarily financially sound in today’s shrinking ecclesiastical reality. Or, while we probably should be spending all our time and energy in biblical reflection and spiritual direction, we will not likely be able to earn a full-time salary doing so. Which may or may not be a positive thing–because the biblical prophets and pastors were fairly bi-vocational themselves, rarely paid for doing the Lord’s work, and never expected to run programs, grow churches or “service” a congregation. Perhaps a return to what really matters in this pastoral work–preaching and prayer–will not fund our pensions, but will revive the meaning of the vocation. Yet that is a tough choice for those of us already enmeshed in full-time ministerial work.
I imagine I will return to Peterson’s work again in the future, as a reminder of the struggles and purpose of my vocation. It is too easy to lose my way, and Peterson helps me find it again.
Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family by Katherine Willis Pershey. Chalice Press, 2012, 118 pp.
I don’t know Katherine Willis Pershey in real life, but we are both active in the UCC 2030 Clergy Network. We are friends on Facebook and interact that way, and we corresponded last year when St. Luke’s used a children’s Christmas pageant she authored. I felt like I knew her already before I began reading her book. By the end of the introduction, I felt like she knew me too. By the end of the book, I felt like we were BFFs.
Pershey’s book tells the story of her life and mine, which are shaped by the intersection of motherhood, marriage and ministry. The one of those identities that takes priority depends on the day. The topics she covers are the same ones I talk about with my closest friends over lunch, and Pershey’s personal sharing is equally intimate. The difference is that she writes her story–which I want to claim as our story, though the particulars are her own–with such depth, insight and beauty.
Each chapter is an essay that can stand on its own. One is about getting married, others are about getting pregnant, nursing, family conflict and the stress between work and family life. Each one has its own beauty and its own theological insights, and the craft of her prose is just tight. For example, she talks about being pregnant and preaching during the season of Advent, when the whole church anticipates the birth of Mary’s child and her own.
Incarnation. God becomes flesh. God becomes a baby. The very fundamentals of my religious tradition, the stuff I’d grown up with and studied and (for heaven’s sake!) preached was suddenly extraordinarily real to me. The longing I had for my theoretical fetus to be transformed into a tangible baby was the same as my desire for my theoretical divinity to become the incarnate Christ. (16)
In a later chapter, she reflects on nursing and communion:
Long after I first wrestled with those doctrines in classrooms and chapels, I’ve finally learned that there’s no way for bread to be broken and wine to be spilled without somebody’s body and blood taking a hit. It isn’t that the pain is redemptive. The pain is redeemed. Take and eat, my daughter. This deluge of milk is called forth by you, and given for you. (29)
Together, the chapters create an intimate picture of a life lived at this intersection of ministry, marriage and motherhood, which is simultaneously broken, beautiful, agonizing, breathtaking, and redeemed. I almost hesitate to recommend it to members of my church or family, lest they come to know my life too intimately. This book is vulnerable and brave.
Many friends have been raving about how good her book is. They were right, and now it’s my turn to say the same thing. If you are a young clergy woman, especially if you are a mother, why have you not read this book yet? You must. Order it today. Read it–to support a colleague who is telling so much truth and doing such good theology about our lives and our ministries.
If you are know or love someone living at the intersection of ministry, motherhood and marriage–this is a good book to read to learn about their lives. Most importantly, though, this is just good theology, beautifully written, and anyone who reads it will be blessed to encounter the Holy in the author’s life and likely in their own, whether you yourself are minister, mother, married, or none of the above.
6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.
6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.
6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.
7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.
7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.
8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.
8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.
8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.
9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”
10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.
10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.
10:30 a.m. — Return to the office. The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.
11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.
12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.
2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.
4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.
4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.
5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.
6:03 p.m. — Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.
6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.
7:00 p.m. — Service begins, on time. It’s a miracle.
7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion. I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.
7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.
7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.
8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.
8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.
8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.
8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.
9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.
9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.
9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.
9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.
9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV. Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.
10:59 p.m. — Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.
The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson, HarperOne, 2011, 320 pp.
This was a rich and rewarding read for me. Peterson, now famous as a writer, teacher and creator of the popular The Message translation of the Bible, was first a pastor. For most of his career, his calling was like mine–leading worship every week, preaching in season and out, handling the details of congregational life, attending to people’s needs for pastoral care, nourishing the church. Ours is a unique way of life, simultaneously a challenge and a privilege. Not everyone “gets it” about this life, including some who spend years in the profession. Peterson does, and this book captures his insights about the pastoral life.
Peterson’s perspective on ministry is that it is not primarily a series of tasks to be performed, but a way of life to be lived–a way of being in relationship with a particular community, local, personal and prayerful.
I saw myself assigned to give witness to the sheer livability of the Christian life, that everything in scripture and Jesus was here to be lived. In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage that lived quality of the gospel–patiently, locally and personally. Patiently: I would stay with these people; there are no quick or easy ways to do this. Locally: I would embrace the conditions of this place… so that there would be nothing abstract or piously idealized about what I was doing. Personally: I would know them, know their names, know their homes, know their families, know their work—but I would not pry, I would not treat them as a cause or a project, I would treat them with dignity. (247)
Much of being a pastor is about being a local theologian and spiritual leader. Peterson describes the theological task (in preaching and in pastoral care: “A congregation as a gathering of people that requires a context as large as the Bible itself if we are to deal with the ambiguities in the actual circumstances in which people live them.” (59) We are charged with interpreting the Gospel and pointing out the presence of God in a particular time and place.
Peterson’s high ecclesiology matches my own. He sees the local congregation as the unlikely bearer of grace in the world, in spite of its humble composition. The life of the congregation and its members is a mess most of the time, but it is a beautiful, holy mess, if you can see it. In describing the various founding members of his congregation, he talks about the brokenness and ordinariness of their lives, and marvels that God is able to build a church upon such humble leaders. Using as an example the story of David at Ziklag, he describes the congregation as “people whose lives were characterized by debt, distress and discontent–a congregation of runaways and renegades.” (106) That’s the truth of every church I’ve ever considered home.
What makes the church so powerful is the relationships we create between those broken people. Peterson describes the pastor’s unique place. We do not see people as problems to be solved, but as children of God. We are not there to fix people or problems, but to walk with people together and name the Spirit’s presence in us all. (136-137) That sense of unique, local representation of God’s community is the authentic church. He describes it further:
Churches are not franchises to be reproduced as exactly as possible wherever and whenever… If we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves–participants in the unique place and time adn weather of where we live and worship–we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church. (119)
This memoir is not perfect. He has a very conservative understanding of the role of the pastor’s spouse, and he presumes a full-time parish setting as the norm for ministry. Peterson’s ministry and his church took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. While that was not quite the heyday of the 1950s, it was still a boon time, when every subdivision was growing its own congregation. His freedom and flexibility in ministry seems like a luxury that may belong to days gone by.
However, I was able to read past those outdated assumptions because I believe that his basic understanding of the role of the pastor as local theologian and observer should withstand the cultural changes in the church. Indeed, I believe that such a holy-yet-ordinary understanding of the clergy is the one thing that must persist, no matter the pay scale. He summarizes that role in the opening pages:
The pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done,” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God. (5)
That is indeed the most important thing about this pastoral life, but it is so hard to articulate. I am grateful for Peterson’s ability to describe this pastoral life to me as I live it, and perhaps even to those outside it.
I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”
“Here since 1954″ makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.
“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.
I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?
This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.
Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.
Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.
For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.
Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself best known as their daughter.
I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.
What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home. I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long. I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful. Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left. The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.
And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.
The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.
Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.
I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.
Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.
The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.
The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.
Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.
Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.
As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.
Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh, IVP Press, 2009, 222 pp.
I have avoided reading straight-up professional development books during my sabbatical. I have a shelf full of material I am eager to read about how the church is changing and how we can help share the gospel in these new times. I had initially planned to read much of it during sabbatical, to study and learn for the next phase of ministry at the congregation I serve. Very early on, however, I realized that I could read that stuff anytime. Sabbatical was my opportunity to read books for non-professional reasons. I could just dig deeper into books that fed my spirit or my curiosity, books that invited me to grow in my own faith or broaden my own understanding.
I thought Introverts in the Church would return me to my “professional” reading, but it called out to me from the shelf so I took it anyway. Much to my surprise, this book spoke more to my spirit and my sabbatical than it did to my pastoral needs. One of the deepest needs I discovered during this sabbatical was my need for solitude. I am an absolute introvert, but ministry is an extroverted profession. I have coupled ministry with mothering an extroverted child for the last several years, and my inner introvert was starving. When I finally had the chance during sabbatical, I turned in on myself and stopped talking to anyone apart from my son and husband. I had expected to visit with friends or even make professional connections with my sabbatical time, but I didn’t even have the energy to answer the telephone. I craved every moment alone I could find.
As my sabbatical has progressed, I have regained a sense of balance between my high need for solitude and the joy of interaction with other people. However, I have wondered how I can return to ministry without letting myself get so starved again, and worried that my re-entry into pastoral life might be an overload of extroverted tasks. Introverts in the Church turned out to be just what I needed to help negotiate these concerns. First and foremost, McHugh validated my experience as an introvert, and that my need for solitude was neither selfish or excessive. More importantly, though, he affirmed that there is a way for introverted leaders to find a successful path in the church, and offered some insights about how to get there. I feel like, having completed the book, I am much more ready to return to the extroverted demands of ministry, and to claim my need for solitude amid them.
McHugh begins with an apology of sorts for introverts. He sees introverts as a snubbed, misunderstood or sometimes even persecuted group within the church. Evangelical churches value participation, evangelism, faith sharing, outgoing spirituality and public displays of affection for God—which are unnatural and uncomfortable to introverts. They do not generally value the introvert’s gifts for contemplation, prayer, depth, reflection and silence. I think the mainline church is not nearly as skewed as the evangelical circles that McHugh moves in, but I still found it helpful and affirming to hear his defense of my personality type.
I especially appreciated that he had a whole section devoted to solitude. He writes:
The spiritual life for introverts is bracketed by periods of solitude. We go there to gain God’s eyesight for others and to receive his resources to engage in relationships and act in the world. And then, after we have responded to his call to work and to love, our spiritual lives culminate in solitude as we process and pray through the events of the day. (73-74)
I found myself simply saying, “yes! yes! yes!” to much of what McHugh described. That is indeed how my spirituality works, and how I pray, and what I need to listen to God’s voice and discern God’s presence around me in the world.
As I prepare to return to pastoral life in a few short days, I feel like McHugh has given me some strategies for nurturing my introverted gifts as well as engaging in community life. He discusses the particular gifts of introverted leaders, and offers ideas for how introverts can nurture their own leadership gifts. He even talks about evangelism, which has long been considered solely the realm of extroverts.
This book is a great professional tool for extroverts looking to be more understanding of introverts and make the church more welcome for them, or for introverts looking to affirm their experiences and develop their gifts. If you’re not sure what it’s like to be an introvert, McHugh will paint the picture for you. While it was a professional “how-to” book, Introverts in the Church was also a spiritual resource for me, validating my sabbatical experiences and the ongoing importance of quiet and solitude in my spiritual life. I am grateful.
The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.
This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.
The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.
In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.
In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.
That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.
None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!