Posts Tagged ‘pastoral life’
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.
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.
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!
Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith, Chalice Press, 2011, 123 pp.
Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith have captured the private conversations and storytelling that happen whenever young clergy women find themselves together, which is too often a rare and isolated opportunity. I remember the first time I was in a group of other young clergy women, thanks to the birth of the UCC’s 2030 Clergy Network. We all had our fair share of stories, good and bad, charming and challenging, hilarious and horrifying: being refused as a pastor because of youth and gender, having your wardrobe up for scrutiny, hearing people talk about “the pastor” without realizing its you, struggling with what to wear, handling discrimination or sexual comments or inappropriate behavior, discovering how to be ourselves while also fulfilling this demanding role as pastor.
Masters and Smith tell stories from young clergy women (themselves and others) and capture the power of those storytelling conversations—the laughter, the horrified looks, the empathy and understanding. The storytelling itself has healing and encouraging power, but the authors take it even further. In each chapter, between the stories, they offer scriptural and theological reflection on the questions at hand. The classic conversation about what to wear for what occasion is deepened with a reminder of the finery of the woman from Proverbs 31, or Paul’s instruction to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Stories about feeling at home (or not) in a new community take on new meaning when coupled with the story of the exiles whose captors demand they sing in a foreign land (Psalm 137), or Lydia, from the Book of Acts, who as a foreigner welcomes Paul to Macedonia.
This power of connecting biblical stories to contemporary stories of young clergy women was especially powerful in the chapter on pregnancy, when the authors reach back to biblical women as sisters on the journey, no matter what your journey looks like:
There are the “Sarahs” of the world, who may be too old to have a child; there are the “Hannahs” who wait many years to get pregnant; and there are the “Rebekahs,” who struggle with the relationships between their children. There are even the “Michals,” who, like David’s wife, are unable to sustain a pregnancy and end up parenting other people’s children. And yet as pastors, our pregnancies can be a step beyond. We can easily feel like “Tamars,” whose families are judged, or “Ruths,” who are foreign outsiders to the mainstream. Remembering we are daughters of these women can help us fulfill the roles of mother and pastor. In our life and ministry, we too are listed within the genealogy of Jesus and are called to be God’s messengers. (65)
This book is a real gift to young clergy women everywhere. It gives voice and validation to our stories, and offers the perspective and encouragement of sisterhood across thousands of years.
The first stop on my sabbatical journey was my hometown, Virginia Beach, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, where my parents and J’s mother and our closest friends still reside. My sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmother are all close by as well. As a child, we always gathered for big family celebrations at every holiday.
Since I became a pastor, I’ve missed all the holidays, and all those gatherings. Christmas and Easter (and the school breaks that accompany them) are the busiest times of my year, and the times that my presence here at church is most important. Sometimes it’s possible to slip away for Thanksgiving, but only if we’re back on Saturday—and Virginia Beach is more than 650 miles away, too far to go for just a two-day trip.
Once or twice, before B was born, J and I tried to travel home on Christmas Day, after Christmas Eve duties were done. The last time we tried it was nine years ago, when we both scheduled 6:00 a.m. flights on Christmas Day (from separate cities across the country, but that’s another story). I made it to Virginia by noon, having slept for two hours in my office between the end of the midnight service and a 4:00 a.m. trip to the airport. J’s flight hit a computer glitch, and he arrived at 1:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, having spent all of Christmas Day alone in the Cincinnati airport. We were both exhausted and miserable, and it took days to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t ever want to go through that again, much less risk putting a child through it, so we haven’t been home for a holiday since.
This year, however, my sabbatical made all the difference, and we decided to give it a try. Christmas Day was a Sunday, so there was no talk of departing for the two-day drive any sooner than December 26. We had hoped to make it out before dawn, but J was sick and I was too exhausted from all the Christmas services. We straggled into his mother’s house on the evening of the 27th. After dinner, I felt this strange compulsion. I couldn’t wait any longer—I just wanted to get home, to my parent’s house, the house where I was raised and celebrated every Christmas until I was 23 and left for seminary. Even after a two-day, 13-hour drive, even through a raging storm of wind and hail, I piled B into the car and headed five more miles across town.
I felt the tears creeping into the corners of my eyes as soon as I walked in the door, but it was the Christmas tree that really brought on the joy at being home, and the sense of loss after years of absence. The tree is covered with memories: the angel my best friend gave me in seventh grade; the Brillo-pad bird’s nest I made in art class when I was eight; the baby Jesus in a walnut shell from fifth grade Sunday School; the pair of little girl carolers representing my sister and I; the Snoopy with reindeer antlers that has hung on the bottom branches of my parents’ tree since before I was born.
My son, celebrating his fifth Christmas, had never seen any of these things that meant so much to me, and it felt like such an gift to introduce him to the Christmas things from my childhood. B touched the various ornaments I made when I was not much older than he was, and it was as if he had a tactile, real connection to me as a child. He marveled to think that I made things in school and Sunday school just like he does. And Snoopy with reindeer antlers made him giggle with glee, just like I always do.
The tree was also an aching reminder of how much I’d missed all these years. “Mom, you have a fake tree? You always have a real tree!” “We’ve had this one for five years, and we’re about ready to replace it.” “Dad, where is the cuckoo clock ornament? It always goes right here up top.” “Oh, that’s been gone for a long time—ten years or so. Probably broke or something.” I realized I am now a stranger to my family’s Christmas habits.
All over the house, my mother had carefully arranged nativity sets. When I was growing up, we never had a nativity set. I finally purchased one for my mother at an art show about 15 years ago. Now she has them all over the house, a dozen or more. She had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take B on a tour of each one. “Mom, when did you get all these? I’ve never seen these before.” “Ever since you gave me that first one, I loved it so much I began collecting a new one every year since.” “How did I not know this?” “Because you never come home.”
Instead of the usual defensiveness—“You know I can’t come home. I’m a pastor. I have to work on Christmas.”—I was overcome by what I had missed. There was a moment of grief for all the holiday memories that we do not share, all the family gatherings that did not include me. Even this year, all the family gatherings had already passed by the time we arrived. There was a pain in my heart for the ways that B will never know those kind of big family celebrations, though we often have one set of grandparents or another visit us.
Even more, I felt a sadness and an appreciation for what my family has given up in order for me to live into my pastoral vocation. My parents (and J’s) will never have all their children and grandchildren at home for Christmas, to gather together around the tree of memories.
I love being a pastor. I love spending every Christmas and Easter so thoroughly immersed in the work of leading worship that I cannot get away. The sacrifice feels small when compared with the joy of my vocation—I am absent from my family to be present to the church. I wonder, though, about the rest of my family, who have the absence without the presence to something else.
Going home for Christmas felt bittersweet. It was such a blessing to have a rare chance to be with family for the holidays, and to introduce B to Christmas traditions from home. It was also a reminder of all that we miss every other year.
I am discovering that sabbatical itself is a glimpse of the road not taken. This time apart from pastoral responsibilities shows me what life might have been like without this unique vocation of pastoral ministry. I am glad of my chosen road, and I have no regrets or desire to change paths. Yet there is a painful poignancy to discovering another way of life, a different rhythm, a life not lived. There would be other sorrows and hardships on that road, too, but there would also have been other joys.
One of the great joys of serving as a pastor is bearing witness to so many intimate moments in people’s lives. When a baby is baptized, I get to stand right up there with the family and even hold the child. When young people give their lives to Christ at Confirmation, I get to place my hands on their heads. When a couple is married, the three of us stand alone atop the chancel as they make their vows. When someone is facing a health crisis, I am invited into intimate conversations about life and death, and I can sit with people in very deep moments of contemplation. When people discover faith for the first time, or when they take a new step in devotion or understanding, they talk to me about it. I am regularly privileged to be at someone’s bedside to pray as they take their last breath. When a loved one dies, I am honored to listen to the stories their family tells about how much this person meant to them, and then to give them back those stories during the funeral service. It is an honor and a privilege to be a pastor in these holy moments.
However, it is also a disconcerting experience at times. These beautiful moments that I participate in on a regular basis are not my moments. It is not my mother or father or spouse who is dying or being buried. Neither I nor any member of my family is being baptized, confirmed or married. For those at the heart of these life-altering days, these are unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For me, they are just another day at the office. What they are doing once in a lifetime, I may be doing several times that week, or even that day.
I am not being flip. As I said before, these are holy moments, and it is an honor to be present in them. But the reality remains that they are not my moments, I am only a witness. And this can leave me feeling a bit disconnected, not just from those around me, but from my own life.
This was brought home to me last Saturday, when B played in his first-ever soccer game. I had a memorial service at nearly the same time, but I managed to make it for part of the game, cheering from the sidelines in my black suit and heels. After a quick hug from a sweaty kid at halftime, I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was somber-faced, leading a gathering of people saying goodbye to a beloved mother and grandmother. An hour after that, I was handling a phone call from another family in crisis, then heading out to Red Robin for B’s victory dinner (even though his team lost badly) and home to finish the sermon for Sunday.
I was fully present and attentively caring to the grieving family, and I felt genuine love and concern for them and even some small grief for this woman I had come to know. Yet I floated above their level of heartache, distant from their absorbing grief. For them, the moment itself was overwhelming, an emotional experience that knocked out all other concerns. For me, it was not even the most emotional event in my day.
This happens regularly in pastoral life, as we travel alongside people and accompany them through life’s major moments. As witnesses, we are present and compassionate without being fully immersed in the experience. That distance is a sign of a healthy self and functional pastor. Yet, I sometimes think that it keeps me distant from my own life as well. While I was cheering and clapping on the sidelines, I was also distant there, wearing my funeral clothes. I couldn’t give myself over to pride and jubilation, because the 15 minute drive from the game to the funeral home wasn’t going to be enough to change gears so fast.
What does this quick-change pastoral life do to our own emotional depth? Am I a ghost, a hovering specter in other people’s lives, somehow untouched by their hardship? Am I a chameleon, changing my emotional colors to blend in with my environment? Am I a prop, playing a functional part in other people’s scenes? On some days, I think this distance is an obstacle to diving deep into my own emotional well, because I am always present and subject to the varied emotional states of others.
On other days, I look over the richness of these experiences and understand that they equip me to journey deeper. As a frequent traveler over the terrain of death, of birth, of sickness, of joy, of love, I come to know its contours well, and I can engage my own experience with a richer perspective. Because I have witnessed so many holy moments, I can recognize them more easily in my life. I may have frequent roller-coaster experiences from one extreme to another, but that’s because my pastoral work always keeps me close to the heart of what matters most—which includes both the soccer field and the funeral home.
Yet another tension we hold on to in this pastoral life.
What do you think? Do you ever feel this tension in your personal and pastoral life?
Yesterday was my first day back from a wonderful vacation. I met a friend at a mountain cabin for a week of reading, resting, writing, praying, singing, eating and enjoying God’s beautiful fall foliage. Although I returned to town on Saturday and even preached on Sunday, I did not yet feel ready to be back at work in the office facing so many competing demands. I was dreading Monday.
I almost never dread a work day, but I knew that my week off was about to send me careening into a pile of unreturned phone calls and e-mail, unopened mail, last-minute preparations for the night’s Council meeting and writing a stewardship letter and newsletter announcements. There was nothing in the day that I was looking forward to. I also knew that the day in the office would be full of interruptions and distractions, which I expected to leave me feeling frustrated and behind schedule.
But God is good, and sometimes sends us just what we need to remember why it is we do what we do. Yesterday was one of those amazing days in ministry, full of random happenings that reveal the workings of the Spirit and bless a pastor’s heart. A wise pastor once told me that ministry happens in the interruptions, that God lives in the interruptions. I give thanks to God for all of yesterday’s interruptions.
- A man called on the telephone seeking prayer. He didn’t want anything else, but he said he needed us to pray for him, and that he would pray for us as well. He declined to provide details, but said it was serious, it was nothing new, and it was no big deal for God to handle. I was touched by his quiet confidence and witness of faith in the power of prayer.
- A man rang the doorbell. He announced he was a concert pianist seeking practice space. I said that we were open to the possibility, but he would need to make arrangements with our musician. As his story unfolded, I realized he was visiting from out of town. He was looking for a place to play, just for today. His wife was a retired UCC pastor, so he sought and found our church. For the next two hours, I sat in my office and enjoyed a beautiful impromptu recital of Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn on the grand piano outside my door.
- One of the unreturned phone calls was from a woman whose father-in-law had been a long inactive member of the church. When he died two years ago, I officiated at his funeral. She called because she and her husband had decided to make a gift of $500 to charity in lieu of an extravagant Christmas this year. She sought my advice on local charities (including our church’s soup kitchen) and how to contribute in the most meaningful way. We talked deeply and passionately about generosity, compassion and hope.
- A woman from across the country, who had become my friend on Facebook because she was trying to learn about the use of social media in ministry in the UCC, wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband had decided to become members of their local UCC congregation this coming Sunday. She shared her appreciation for my online friendship and openness, and for my willingness to connect with a stranger in the name of Christ’s church.
- A young woman wandered into our building and found her way directly to my office. Her face was swollen and bruised, her eye blackened. She confessed that she had just been married and moved to town, and her new husband had done this to her. A copy of the completed police report was in her hand. Her family was ready to welcome her home, but they were out of state and she had no money for transportation. They advised her to find the closest church and ask them for help. I connected her to the local domestic violence shelter, who offered her safe haven and assistance in traveling back home. I was so grateful that our door was open when she needed us.
- After the long evening meeting, I had the chance to check in with a church leader in the parking lot. Normally a private person, this leader is not one to seek counseling or make public family concerns. In the dark of the parking lot, a private person found space to open up about a family crisis, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes. I was able to listen, offer prayer and support, and will be able to better attend to this family’s needs as a result. I felt honored to be invited into this painful situation and vulnerable heart.
Somehow, amid all that beautiful interruption, I also managed to get the Council preparation done, stewardship letter written, phone calls returned, mail opened and a bit more. God’s work is such a gift.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to be in ministry, to participate in God’s work of hospitality, healing, hope-building. I give thanks for the church that pays me just to be there and attend to these moments and afforded me the privilege of saying “yes” to all these voices of need. I marvel that in our secular world full of negative images of Christianity, people still turn to the closest church for compassion, whether as giver or receiver of aid. I praise God for beautiful music, for faith in the power of prayer, and for the healing of wounded hearts. I ask forgiveness for ever dreading a day in God’s service, and ask God for many more days to do this work, and many, many more interruptions.
This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.
Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.
Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.
From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing ”people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)
I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.
The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.