Flourishing in Ministry

Last Friday I went for an early morning run at Centennial Park in Nashville. I was attending a three-day meeting sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to brainstorm ideas around the implementation of the new eight-year assessment of clergy that was approved by the 2016 General Conference.

It was a glorious morning, and I planned to run four laps around a one-mile loop through the park. After mile three, I decided to change it up by going in the opposite direction. There was just one problem. I was enjoying wasting time with Jesus and anticipating how God would speak to me that day, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything else!

Ten minutes later, I realized that I had veered from the marked trail. I had no idea where I was in the complex of paths that crisscrossed the park. After five minutes of running aimlessly and trying to find my way, I finally pulled out my phone and googled directions back to the hotel.

This week, hundreds of United Methodist clergy all over the United States are moving and settling into new homes and communities, anticipating a July 1 start date in their new ministry setting. As with any job, getting off to the right start is essential for pastors and congregations. Just as the failure to pay attention to my surroundings when running in a different direction got me lost, so clergy must be intentional and strategic in their first ninety days in order to flourish in their new ministry.

In Iowa, our appointive cabinet desires to increase the number of missionally effective appointments in order to fulfill our conference vision to be God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leadership, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people. One way in which we are doing that is by requiring all clergy moving to new appointments and all Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committees who are receiving new clergy to participate in an Expectations Workshop. In addition, district superintendents will meet again with clergy and SPRC Committees three to four months into a new appointment to evaluate how those expectations are being lived out.

In our work last week on the eight-year assessment, we heard a report from Matt Bloom, Principle Investigator, and writer for the Flourishing in Ministry Project; Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors. The 2013 project, which is ongoing, is sponsored by the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. According to Bloom’s research, flourishing in ministry, as well as in most professions, means to experience well-being, which consists of everyday happiness, resilience, self-integrity, and thriving.

Everyday Happiness

Everyday happiness measures the extent to which you and I experience positive emotions during the course of a day. By contrast, unhappiness can be viewed as the presence of negative moods and emotions. The average working adult in the US experiences a “modestly happy” morning until the commute to work, when there is a dip. There is a spike in happiness at lunch and again when the work day is over. The clergy everyday happiness profile is slightly different because of a fluid and often unpredictable schedule and many night meetings. Bloom and his team’s research into young clergy in their first seven years also shows that there are higher highs and lower lows for clergy compared to other professions.

In general, sustained everyday happiness results in more positive than negative days and is associated with better physical health: i.e. stronger immune systems and cardiovascular systems and better stress responses. We also perform better and are more creative.

  • How can church leaders work together with clergy to manage their schedules at the start of their ministry in order to maximize their everyday happiness?


Resilience is the ability to adapt and grow in our capacity for spiritual vitality and skill development. Our brains are hard-wired for self-awareness, reflection, and self-control. However, many clergy tend to live outside our bodies and do not listen to the signals that our bodies give us to slow down, relax, sleep, or call it a day.

When our self-regulating capacity declines, burnout builds over time. Burnout implies physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion, reduced adaptability and competency, and apathy, depression, or cynicism. Resilience can be especially elusive for clergy because of our tendency to think we cannot be truly happy as long as there is suffering in the world. How can we take time for our own well-being when there are so many people to serve?

Interviews of seven thousand clergy of different denominations through the Flourishing in Ministry Project indicate that 40% are experiencing some level of flourishing. However, at any one time, 25-33% of clergy are suffering from high or severe burnout.

  • How can clergy form new patterns and habits that foster health and well-being, especially at the beginning of new appointments?


The Flourishing in Ministry Project shows that a clear sense of call and identity contributes to the well-being of clergy. Clergy who are comfortable in their own skin and pastor out of a deep sense of inner wholeness tend to flourish more than clergy who continually question their call because of a lack of confidence or continual conflict.

Clergy are most able to be authentic and self-integrated when their skills, values, beliefs, and passions align with their context and they are affirmed in their particular ministry setting. By contrast, clergy who are not fully welcomed into a new congregation or are not able to fulfill the unwritten and unexpressed expectations of laity become more easily estranged from their own call.

  • How can clergy and church leaders intentionally work together to build relationships, create trust, and provide opportunities for congregations to get to know their pastoral leaders in the first three months?


Clergy tend to thrive in their ministry settings when they feel connected with their congregation in meaningful ways. The Flourishing in Ministry Project indicates that clergy have the highest well-being when they are accepted, affirmed, and cared for by their congregation. Despite common perception, clergy are more effective when they have a close friend(s) in the congregation who can provide rich feedback and informal mentoring and with whom they are able to be vulnerable. On the other hand, clergy often feel like outsiders and are isolated when they are not made to feel part of the community. In addition, clergy thrive when they are able to express deep convictions and passions in a sensitive and non-threatening way, even when not all parishioners might agree with them.

  • When receiving a new pastor, can church members embrace the fullness of their pastor’s being, including the pastor’s need for friendship as well as becoming involved in ministries that feed their soul?

O God, during this time when clergy are beginning new ministries in local congregations, may you surround both clergy and laity with a sense of anticipation, hope, and grace. I pray that all clergy will pay special attention to how they can get off to good start, which includes tending to their physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being.

I also pray that through the every eight-year assessment, which is in the beginning stages, our clergy will be encouraged to flourish by pausing periodically, taking a deep breath, and asking, “Who am I? Am I still running in the right direction? Am I paying attention to where God is leading me? How can I keep growing, flourishing, and adapting to new ways of ministry? Who will walk with me on that journey?”

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1b

P.S. I will be on vacation on July 2 and 9. The next Leading From the Heart will be published on July 16.


In early 1994, I saw the movie Schindler’s List, which is based on a true story and had a profound effect upon my life. Oskar Schindler is a German businessman who travels to Krakow, Poland in 1939 to make his fortune from World War 2. Schindler joins the Nazi party to help his career and staffs his factory with Jewish workers for economic reasons. An opportunist, Schindler manages to protect his Jewish workers … and his profits. Eventually, however, Schindler realizes that he is actually saving their lives.


Oskar Schindler literally saves the lives of 1,100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the end of the movie, Schindler is given a ring in front of all his workers as a sign of their gratitude. The man presenting the ring to Schindler says about the ring’s inscription, “It’s Hebrew from the Talmud. It says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

In the movie, when Schindler realizes the extent of the Nazi extermination of Jews and what he has done to protect his workers, he breaks down and weeps. “I could have got more. I could have got more. If I just … I could have got more.”

“1,100 more people are alive because of you,” the man responds.

“If I made more money… I threw away so much money.” Sobbing, Schindler continues, “You have no idea… If I just …”

“Generations will remember…”

“I didn’t do enough…”

“You did so much.”

“This car. Why did I keep the car? That’s ten people right there… Ten people. Ten more people. This pin is two people. This is gold. Two more people. It would have given more two more, one at least. For this I could have gotten one more person and I didn’t… And I didn’t.”

I thought of Schindler’s List as we neared the end of the Iowa Annual Conference and were trying to fit in everything that was on our agenda. Could we have done more? Was the offering to God of our commitment to be difference makers enough? Whose report was left out? What words were left unsaid? How could we have done better? Was annual conference enough?

I have struggled my entire life with enough because God’s claim on me has been so strong. How can I rest when people are hungry? How can I say “no” when people in my church are counting on me? How can I stop when the to-do list never ends? I could have done more. When is enough? What is enough, anyway?


At the conclusion of Annual Conference on June 12, I shared with the body these words, which could apply to many different settings. “We have done enough. Over the last several days, we have worshipped, prayed, ordained, served, taken offerings, hugged, debated, voted, laughed, cried… and now we are done. We pray that we have been difference makers at this annual conference. We pray that the fruit we bear when we leave here and the crosses we bear when we go back to our communities as servants will honor and glorify God. Yet there is often the nagging sense that it is not enough.

“Reinhold Niebuhr writes in his book, The Irony of American History,
Nothing that is worth doing is achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
In any immediate context of history.
Therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
Therefore, we are saved by love.

“We can’t always get everything right. No one is perfect. Sometimes, despite our best intentions and efforts, the right result doesn’t always happen. You know that because Iowa is a farming state. Farmers are extraordinarily vulnerable every year. No matter how carefully you sow, fertilize, or watch over your crops, all it takes is one terrible weather event, and you can lose it all. My first congregation in Michigan was a bunch of cherry farmers, and I’ve witnessed firsthand losing an entire year’s crop in one night of a hard freeze.

“Wayne Muller writes in his book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, ‘We cannot control what will happen to the seeds we sow, the words we speak, the actions we take. We can only be as honorable, truthful, and compassionate as we are able. The moment we try to control what does or does not happen, we are left in a lingering state of insufficiency, wondering what more we could, should, have done to make it all come out right…’

“We have done what we could at this annual conference. We voted on constitutional amendments. We have tightened up our rules of order. We have a new vision statement. We are God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people. And we have a new mission: inspiring, equipping, and connecting communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ for our conference. We have been inspired. We have committed to bearing fruit and bearing the cross.   

“As we leave this sacred place, in Wayne Muller’s words, ‘Our work is on ourselves, to be clearly certain we have listened, seen, felt in ourselves what, in this moment, is required. Then, forces far greater than ourselves, will have their way with whatever we plant, build, grow, or create. This, then, is our work and our challenge: to do what we can and have mercy.’”


I long for the day when all of God’s children will not only believe that they have done enough but will also know that they are enough.

I pray for the day when you and I know that we not only have enough for ourselves but we have more than enough to share with others.

I yearn for the day when no one will ever say to another person, “You are not good enough, smart enough, athletic enough, capable enough, or tough enough.”

I dream for the day when loving and being loved, showing grace and being shown grace, is all that we need to make a positive difference in the world. Yes, we could have done more, but God invites us to be content with enough.

  • Enough: to smile
  • Enough: to do what we can and have mercy
  • Enough: to risk loving extravagantly
  • Enough: to do the right thing today and not worry about tomorrow
  • Enough: to reach out across the divide and join hands with our neighbor
  • Enough: a hug, a phone call, a visit, a letter
  • Enough: “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”
  • Enough: a candle burning in the night, guiding us through the darkness on our life’s journey

Oskar Schindler spent millions of dollars to save his Jewish workers and died penniless … with enough. Today thousands of descendants of Schindler’s Jews are living in Europe, the US, and Israel. We are not saved by doing, getting, or serving enough. We are saved by faith, hope, and love. Each step we take toward someone else, each word that shows grace, each act of kindness … is enough.

Stay in the City

“Are we forgetting anything?” At least ten times I walk through the house for a final inspection and ask two of our children and a niece and nephew to check as well. The workers are loading up the rest of our belongings to deliver them to the Des Moines area. Gary and I have begun the slow process of reuniting our two households after nine months of living apart.

What I’ve missed is amazing! First, it’s a painting in the downstairs bathroom. Then it’s a bathmat in the shower upstairs and a tiny drawer filled with kitchen items. On my final obsessive walk-through, there sits the bathroom scales, in plain sight. Somehow, no one has seen it.

I wonder, how many invisible people are there in this one precious world we that inhabit? They are often in plain sight, but we do not see them. Why? Because they are poor? Because they do not look or speak or dress like us? Because their religion or culture or education or gender identity is not like ours? In my rush from one meeting to another, who do I miss, neglect or ignore? After all, we are all in this together,

As we walk out through the garage for the last time, I thank God for the joy of being a part of the Birmingham community and congregation for three years and for the privilege of living in that house. I head to the car, and the movers climb into the cab of the truck and turn on the engine. All of a sudden, I shout, “Stop! Stop! Don’t leave!”

There, in the front yard, stands the peace pole, our family’s witness to God’s desire for all living creatures in this world to experience the wholeness of shalom. The words are displayed on all four sides in Latin, Spanish, Japanese, and English.

  • Regnet Pax Omnem Per Terram
  • Que La Paz Prevalezca En La Tierra
  • 平和が地球上に勝つこと
  • May Peace Prevail On The Earth

How could we have missed this intentional witness and sign of God’s hope for the world? “Don’t forget to take your peace with you,” God whispers in my ear. Do you take your peace with you wherever you go and offer it to everyone you meet?

During the four days that we wait for our “stuff” to make its way across the Midwest to Clive, Iowa, Christians around the world observe Ascension Day. In the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears to two of his disciples on the Emmaus Road and makes himself known to them in the breaking of the bread at supper. Their hearts burning, the disciples return to Jerusalem, where Jesus appears to the eleven and their companions and opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Then Jesus says, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Stay in the city. Where would we be today if the disciples had bailed? How many times have you been tempted to leave, to give up on the church, or our country, or God? How often have you felt like admitting defeat, as if there were no more hope? Can you trust that God will clothe you, too, with the power from on high? Do you have faith that God will equip you with everything you need to witness to the grace of God as experienced on the day of Pentecost? Will you pay attention to needs of the world around you and acknowledge the burning in your heart and the movement of God in your life?

The moving truck finally arrives in Iowa, and as we unload boxes from the truck to the house, I see two birds flying around the front porch. I also notice debris on the cement floor as well as high up on the stone alcove. “These birds couldn’t be building a nest, could they?” I ask Gary. “There’s not enough room between the stones to create anything!” A week later, our barn swallow friends have constructed a small shelf out of mud and twigs, upon which sits a beautiful half cup-shaped nest. Each day the nest becomes more elaborate.

It’s an engineering marvel. What I am learning about barn swallows is that they are very familiar birds in rural areas and semi-open country. Barn swallows have also adopted humans as friends, typically nesting in barns, garages, under bridges and docks, or in the alcoves of porches like ours. In fact, most of their nesting sites are made by humans.

Often both the female and male take turns incubating the eggs (typically 4-5). It’s not uncommon for one or two offspring from the pair’s previous broods to attend the nest and feed the baby birds, who usually leave the nest around 18-23 days after they are born. Day by day, as we wait with our barn swallows for their babies to be hatched, I have no doubt that they will “stay in the city,” which for them is the safety of our alcove. We’re in it with them.

But what about you? How was God preparing you for the wind and fire of the Spirit to blow into your city or town yesterday on Pentecost Sunday? Did you pay attention to the signs? Were you inspired in the truest sense of the Latin word inspirare (God-breathed)? Were you even expecting the Spirit? How will your life be different? And with whom will you share the power?

I am especially touched by the first verse of Acts 2, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Would the power have been activated if everyone had gone their own way after the resurrection? As I ponder President Trump’s decision for the US to withdraw from participation in the historic Paris climate accord, when 195 other countries (all but three) are “all in,” I wonder. How much stronger our world is when we work together than separately. How much more can we cooperate in saving this one earth of ours by making commitments and keeping them together. How much greater our witness, how much deeper our bonds, and how much more effective we are in creating a world where everyone has enough, when we move beyond “What’s in it for my country?” to “We share one nest, one alcove, one future.”

Pentecost has already come to our home, as our barn swallow friends teach us to pay attention to things like earth care, nature, sharing, simplicity, nesting, and taking turns. In this time when annual conferences are meeting across The United Methodist Church in the US, dare we stay in the city together? Can we proclaim in all the languages of the world, “May peace prevail on the earth?” Can we pay attention to who’s missing and search until we are reunited? Will we covenant to strengthen our mutual commitments and seek the welfare of all people on the earth?

In the spirit of St. Francis, may we always look for beauty, care for the very least of God’s creatures, and find ways to serve and stay in the city until, together, we (including our barn swallows) are clothed with the power on high. Thanks be to God for peace poles, barn swallows, wind, and fire.

Because the Iowa Annual Conference will be in session this weekend through Monday, June 12, the next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, June 19.