The Picking and Dropping of Rocks
Utilizing practices of ministry can be like picking up rocks during a long hike. As one walks, one picks up a beautiful rock that serves its purpose. Some rocks, the skills, practices, and activities a pastor acquires maybe used during an entire career. Other rocks are specific to a context or situation and placed back down when no longer needed. Pamela Cooper-White and Michael Cooper-White (Hereafter referred to as the CWs) define Practices of ministry as “more than a set of duties or skills! Practices of ministry are activities that intentionally bear the marks of Christian Faith, are grounded in biblical and theological reflection, are relational, communal, and open to continual revision as the Spirit continues to prompt new responses to the needs of each new time and place.” (CW, 11) This paper will explain critical practices to pastoral vocational identity, how these practices help to lead to the transformation of the world through disciple making, and how these practices are nourished with healthy spiritual disciplines, boundaries, and consistent practices without compromising who a pastor is while allowing for deeper development over time.
The foundation of any ministry ordained, licensed, or lay should be daily spiritual practices rooted in scripture study independent of sermon preparation and time spent in contemplative prayer listening for God’s voice. Thompson in her work Soul Feast, identifies a key driver of why the need of spiritual time apart from daily activity is rarely met. “…we live in a culture that glorifies superficial values. As a society, we lack a deep sense of purpose that calls us to sacrifice individual desires for the sake of the larger good.” (Thompson, 3) Many people in America give their best hours of the day to everything but the Divine and this replaces the natural desire for replenishment through communing with Eternity with a desire to achieve wealth, power, and status. These values move their way into how we manage our families, relationships, and our love of neighbors and God is pushed aside. This leads to emptiness because without a deeper purpose it is vanity seeking things that we can’t take with us when we die.
First and foremost, of these practices is seeking God in contemplative prayer. Too often prayer can be a one-sided conversation. For many people, the act of the petitioner approaches God more as a Divine Santa Claus than as an encounter with as Paul Tillich would say “Being Itself.” Thompson notes that a healthy spiritual life, “…has to do with how God relates to us and how we in turn relate to God. Prayer is the essential expression of this relationship. Henri Nouwen notes how the desert ascetics didn’t see solitude as being alone, but as being with God they “…did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced.” (Nouwen, 63) Contemplation therefore isn’t a passive thing, just sitting quietly, but engaging in an active relationship with God. Nouwen argues that being in ceaseless prayer isn’t an absence of “conflict or pain but finding rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.”
This form of prayer is extremely critical during periods of doubt that come as ministers deepen their relationship with God. Brian McClaren in his work Faith after Doubt terms doubt as “…the passageway from each stage to the next. Without doubt, there can be growth within a stage, but growth from one stage to another usually requires us to doubt the assumptions that give shape to our current stage.” As we engage in contemplative prayer God may identify something that we see as a gap like unresolved grief, anger, and trauma. Sometimes the Serpent tries to make this the whole show and without stopping and listening a minister can fail to grow. A good practice is to keep a pencil and paper nearby during times of prayer. It’s important because as God speaks, we should write down what God says or what God instructs us to do. To effectively minister, one must live in periods of doubt if for no other reason than to provide our congregations peace of mind that doubt is part of faith and that doubt is a nudge that it’s time to go deeper in our relationship with God.
Similarly, to prayer, it is important that ministers seek God in scripture. Bourgeault references Jacob Boehme in the work Wisdom of Jesus when he writes “…if you remain firm, if you do not bend, you shall see and perceive great wonders. You will discover how Christ will storm the hell in you and will break your beasts.” Consistent reading of scripture provides many human examples of people failing, getting back up, rebuilding their relationship with God, and pushing on to success. The Word in the Gospels provides practical guidance on how to deal with the practical realities of the clashing of culture, our spirit, and the Divine and how to apply spiritual disciples and practical solutions to dealing with them. Most importantly as the Cooper-Whites’s explain “All good theology is practical in its import…Our words about God imply a moral shaping of our actions and actions reflect (for good or for ill) our deepest beliefs.” Which is why reading of scripture for nourishment of the soul paired with prayer is so critical to ministry. (CW, 12)
These practices of scripture and prayer shape ministry based on who God is. Ministry is is a response of yes to God to uphold the Kingdom of God within a world “…caught in a framework of relationships evil in design, and their very good deeds have developed into instrumentalities for evil.” (Thurman, 33) Ministry is waging war against the Kingdom of Man as an agent of the Kingdom of God from within it. It is spreading hope and love within a system of unjustness to bring this system to light. James Cone in his work Martin and Malcolm and America defines the weapon of combat as love based in, “…the oneness of humanity, informed by creative divine love…”. (Cone, 64) MLK has love at the center of his theological understanding of the Kingdom of God. And while this makes sense considering his reading of love within the Johannine theology, a different way of looking at this same love is from the Markan perspective of the suffering servant. Living out love in suffering with Christ versus as MLK saw himself as “…someone who becomes the personification of the cause…” opens ministry to an action of existing within a community that has chosen to become a blessing through partnership with Christ than a movement that seeks to “…save the soul of America…”. It is through the transmission of grace through the cross that a worshipping community can transform the world.
Given that a community is tasked with blessing the world in a way that transforms it closer to the Eden vision God intended from the beginning, how is the ministry leader to accomplish this task through ministry practices? The Cooper-Whites hold up preaching as a means bringing God’s word within the community and given the digital nature of preaching now into the world. They quote MLK as referring to the Church as a “mouth house” …”the spoken human word as a primary means by which the divine word of God becomes known.” (CW, 29–30) And while the pulpit is a means of equipping the community for the task of going into the world, the CWs use a more appropriate quote from Saint Francis, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” (CW, 30). Within many communities of worship there is this debate as to whether ministry is done first, or discipleship is done first. It can be argued that before a person can even know that they need to be in a relationship with God they must first be exposed to a ministry of love and grace through another person. It is the role of the pastor to model love deeply such that people through spiritual practices are drawn to a deeper love of Christ. This transformative experience triggers a response from the believer within the world by extending the love that has been given to them by God. Ministers help the community to write their own personal gospels that are bookended between Baptism and the Sacrament of Table.
Constance Cherry in her work, The Worship Architect defines the act of worship as “…movement of gathering from Gathering to word to table to sending.” Daily Christian ministry should reflect this model in daily activity. A minister should seek to gather community in many ways from small groups to active community service, bible study or worship to live out the word that has been sown in personal spiritual practices, responding in such a way that others may see how Sacrament of Table has impacted them while sending others forth into the world to experience Christ for themselves. (Cherry, 71)
The world is a messy place. The US context is even messier. Within the Twin Cities context of the Minnesota Annual Conference the pastoral community is increasingly more diverse, but ministers to communities that are overwhelmingly White within a metropolitan context that is quickly becoming more and more diverse. Lenny Duncan in his work Dear Church discusses how the current culture of the church is steeped in Eurocentric iconography, theology, racism, and misogyny. During a recent lecture to an introduction to Greek class Dr. Israel Kamudzandu built on one of the key points that Rev Duncan makes in his work. That the Gospel is best read through the eyes of an oppressed people, the underdog. The challenge in a country that is fast becoming a minority majority culture is how to shepherd the older European Americans who see this as a threat to their place in the church and in society overall.
The answer is calling out the passive practices that drive cultures of racism throughout a church community. Within the Twin Cities cohort, we have removed Eurocentric iconography or added iconography that gives different ways that other cultures view the same Christ through their eyes. Another way of viewing this is through how money is spent. It is a common trope to view money spent in overseas ministry as good mission while money spent for those same purposes here as “welfare for the lazy”. Rev Duncan discusses when he says that “Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.” (Duncan, 16) If the pain of racism, poverty, insecurity, and violence isn’t unveiled through radical acts of worships and literally exposing congregations to this within their own contexts nothing will change and God cannot move the community to where the Spirit is moving now.
The mission in Minnesota at least is one of tilling the ground in preparation for what will become increasingly multicultural congregations. Duncan argues that tilling can be best done through acts of worship that involve “…repentance, reparations, reconciliation.” (Duncan, 21) Ministers of Color are tasked with being the vanguard of this movement. To allowing congregations steeped in racist pasts to speak out their fears, angers, and confusion in language that while to us may seem racist is in fact an attempt by congregations to grasp at what all of this means.
A personal example. At my last charge, I was tasked to preach after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. I preached on the concept of vengeance and how God seeks justice for those ignored by society through vengeance. A White male progressive congregant was very disturbed by the language. He could not wrap his head around why any God would seek vengeance at all. I used the concept of being a person of color watching the events of White Americans storming the Capitol with implements of White Supremacy like Thor’s hammer tattoos, Confederate flags, and violence against the institutions that were meant to protect their rights. How should a person of Color see God in all of this? Where is God’s justice for the marginalized in all of this? As progressive as the member was, the passivity of racism that Duncan refers to was so steeped that when called to repentance for a communal act of violence the very language got in the way of his worldview. Duncan best expresses this attitude through the” All Are Welcome” paradigm. “All are welcome, if you don’t challenge us, if you don’t question the way we do things, if you sing, act, pray, and worship just like us…”. (Duncan, 45) The challenge to creating a multicultural community is teach people of the majority to see the Gospel through the eyes of the marginalized and to show Christlike patience when doing so.
Ministers should have a defined and disciplined ethic around issues of self-care. Gary Harbaugh, Rebecca Lee Brennis, and Rodney Hutton provide excellent guidance around this in their book Covenants & Care. (Cited from now on as Harbaugh) Stress is a pastor killer. The UMC is in transition and pastors are caught between many expectations from many generations. Younger adults demand a pastor who is more progressive, open to reinterpreting music, liturgy, and governance to meet current culture. At the same time there is a pressure from older generations who demand a pastor keep things the same. To maintain traditional values, music, liturgy, and power structures that they have lived in for decades. There are staff members who don’t recognize pastoral authority and see the pastor as the current face that will eventually move on to another charge. Couple this with demands from the Conference, the community context, and most importantly spouses, family and friends and it’s easy to see why many pastors are choosing to change careers or retire.
But there are ways to avoid the burnout, ethical missteps, and other issues that pastors have. Harbaugh utilizes the biblical structure of a covenantal relationship. “A primary characteristic of a covenant is that it has to do with relationship. To think covenantally about Christian caring is to think about care as it relates to the three relationships at the heart of Shalom: self, others, and God.” (Harbaugh, Kindle 120) A pastor cannot rely on the Annual Conference to assist with this need. Many Conferences have struggled as of late to meet the core mission assigned to it by the Book of Discipline and they rarely know their pastors deeply enough to identify how to create the effective groups needed to be effective. So, the pastor is on their own here.
One of the most critical things a pastor do is to hedge around them other pastors who they can share the challenges of life and ministry with referred to as a covenant group. According to Harbaugh “The purpose of the covenant group is to provide mutual support and accountability. We might think of that support and accountability in terms of living Shalom and of promise keeping.” (Harbaugh, Kindle Locations 209–210). Harbaugh identifies many of the issues that pastors deal with that covenant groups can help support a pastor through, “some who work closely with ministers also observe loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and a lost sense of meaning.’ Still others point out problems associated with stress from constant interpersonal contact and continually increasing effort to meet the rigorous demands and expectations of ministry.” (Harbaugh, Kindle 137) An effective group is not a gripe session, but a means of identifying the problem, thinking through solutions, and holding each other accountable to their commitments. (Harbaugh, Kindle 210)
For pastors who are second career one of the most important things to learn in transition is “Rather than counting on our achievements to give us worth, Christians look to God as the source of our self-worth.” (Harbaugh, Kindle Locations 260–261). For second career ministers steeped in finding value in their month over month metric performance this can seem counter intuitive and unproductive. But ministry isn’t about efficiency, it is about relationships and the most important relationship is the one a pastor has with God. Ultimately this goes back to the beginning of this essay with spiritual practices, but second career pastors must see success through the lens of Christ because the congregation and staff will push the pastor to see their success through their satisfaction and this can lead to an addiction of Co-dependency which can destroy a ministry.
Creating defined boundaries is also a critical practice for pastors. New pastors will constantly hear from staff and congregants that they are not allowed to have defined time off, that ministry is all day, every day and when that pastor burns out and moves on next person up! The key to an effective and long pastorate is to have defined times of Sabbath and rest and to be clear as to what these are. ¶ 340 in the Book of Discipline means nothing to staff or congregations. They have their own defined expectations and job description and unless a pastor vocalizes and enforces clear boundaries they will burn out. And defining and defending boundaries is a gift that pastors give their successors in that once a congregation understands that pastors should have boundaries, they can build more effective relationships with pastors going forward.
To get here a congregation must know who and whose they are. Harbaugh refers to the work of John D Vogelsang who defines a healthy congregation as one that, “clear sense of mission, mutual responsibility and accountability, a clear sense of boundaries, dynamic worship and networks of listening, connection, and appreciation. A healthy congregation supports healthy and just relationships so that mutual ministry can happen for the good of the whole church in the world in our stewardship of God’s creation.” (Harbaugh, Kindle Locations 353–355). If a congregation has these traits, in writing, and they are taught from the pulpit and encouraged in the culture of the community, then the ministers on staff will have healthy pastorates.
The final part of the covenantal paradigm is that of self-care, specifically the marriage. (Same-sex or Hetero) The marriage must be always protected. It can be very easy in our exhaustion to avoid dealing with our partners. Harbaugh references Dr David Ostergren’s critical question of “Whose Need?” (Harbaugh, Kindle 407) if we let them, a congregation can gladly become a pastor’s entire world. This leads to broken marriages, children who reject the church and pastors dealing with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as coping measures. Worse it can place a pastor at risk of crossing into inappropriate actions. Sometimes the best answer is no. Sometimes, the best action is to not stay for a whole weekend event if it means that spouses and children will not be cared for. To be effective, ministers need to have a stable, healthy home life.
The intention of this paper was to explain critical practices to pastoral vocational identity, how these practices help to lead to the transformation of the world through disciple making, and how these practices are nourished with healthy spiritual disciplines, boundaries, and consistent practices without compromising who a pastor is while allowing for deeper development over time. This paper stressed the importance of spiritual practices, the importance of worship and building diverse multicultural communities while maintaining healthy boundaries and self-care. In all this Christ is present walking, guiding, sometimes correcting, and always loving as we grow in ministry and relationship with God, our parish, and our family.
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Cone, James. Martin & Malcolm &America: A Dream or A Nightmare. Orbis Books, 1992.
Cooper-White, Pamela and Michael Cooper-White. Exploring Practices of Ministry. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.
Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019.
Gary Harbaugh, et al, Covenants and Care: Boundaries in Life, Faith, and Ministry. Augsburg Fortress, 1998.
Marjorie Thompson. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Westminster John Knox, 2005.
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