Are You Happy?

The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and I just wanted to swim some laps in the pool. It’s been a long winter in the northern half of the country, and attending a conference in Orlando was exactly what many of us needed. It’s just that United Methodist gatherings have a reputation for being so packed with work that there is little time for play. Which is kinda sorta what the conference was all about.

Two years ago, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference voted to add this statement to our 2016 Book of Discipline (¶349.3), “Every clergyperson shall also engage in a six-month process of personal and professional assessment and development every eight years… The process shall include both a formal review and an in-depth renewal opportunity, such as a retreat or a series of coaching and mentoring sessions.”

The national gathering was designed for those who are responsible for creating this assessment process in every conference. Because of my own experience with clergy burnout over the course of my ministry, I have become an advocate for regular personal assessment, evaluation, renewal, and time away for all clergy.


I distinctly remember how irritated I was with a friend many years ago when she kept hounding me with the question, “Are you happy, Laurie?” I was never able to give a straight answer. Which is exactly why I could have benefited from a mandated process that would have given me the permission to stop and reflect. Who am I now? Am I happy? Where is God leading me? How do I need to change in order to sustain effective ministry over the long haul? And what are the next steps that I need to take to be healthy and whole and flourish in my call?

Secretly longing to swim, stretch out on a lounge chair, and reading a novel rather than sit inside, I instead soaked up the words of Dr. Matt Bloom. Bloom, who is an associate professor at Notre Dame and Principle Investigator of the Wellbeing at Work Program, talked about the critical importance of wellbeing. As an episcopal leader in the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of my primary responsibilities is to encourage the wellbeing of clergy who are servant leaders in our local churches. If our clergy are not happy or well, chances are our local churches are at risk for not being healthy, either.

Dr. Bloom shared four markers of clergy wellbeing: happiness, resilience, authenticity, and thriving. Happiness is a quality of daily life that is connected with our emotional wellbeing. According to the monograph, Flourishing in Ministry; Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors by Dr. Bloom and the Flourishing in Ministry Team, “When scientists measure daily happiness, they assess the extent to which someone is experiencing the presence of positive moods and emotions, and the absence of negative moods and emotions… Of course, there are moments when people are experiencing mostly negative moods and emotions and not surprisingly, scientists refer to these experiences as unhappiness.”[i]

Since I have been asked the question, “Are you happy?” more than once, I freely admit that at times I have deflected the answer (as do other clergy) by saying, “I’m here to serve. It’s not about my happiness.” In other words, answering the call to ministry is sometimes like swallowing a bitter pill. It tastes awful, the stress is excruciating, and our spirits are depleted, but if it helps the church be more effective in making disciples and changing the world, we’ll swallow it without complaint!

“Are you happy?” my friend keeps asking. Often, I’ll reply, “I don’t know.” What makes happiness so elusive for clergy? For starters: the breadth and intensity of the appointment, impossible job expectations, the unhealthy notion that our own needs always come last, and an inability to take adequate time away. What I do know is that when clergy decide to stop working fifteen hour days, spend quality time with family and friends, renew ourselves through vacations, and swim some laps in the pool, we’re a whole lot happier, healthier, and creative. Plus, we make better decisions and are more fruitful in our ministry.

The second dimension of wellbeing is resilience. Resilience is having the self-regulating capacities to deal well with daily life, manage problems, bounce back, adapt, and grow. This self-regulation include self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control.

Bloom emphasized that the daily life of clergy stresses our self-regulating capacities and drains us in ways that are not sustainable. A good example is the intensity of weekend worship, which may include multiple worship services on different days, church school, small groups, coffee hours, and potlucks. So much relational interaction is demanded of clergy on Sunday that by mid-afternoon, many of us crash and burn, taking a nap, going for a walk alone, or reading a novel. It’s a way of building back our resilience.

The danger, of course, is that when our self-regulating capacities are overtaxed, we can also make mistakes, like “losing it” with a parishioner, over-exerting our authority, or engaging in misconduct. What is it that restores your soul when the stress of ministry is overwhelming?

The third dimension of wellbeing is authenticity. The first five to seven years of ministry are a time when we form our pastoral identities. We discover who we are as clergy and, hopefully, develop good habits of self-care and ways of being that will last for our entire career. What are our strengths, and what gives us the most joy in ministry? Conversely, what ministry tasks are most difficult and draining for us? Conference and judicatory leaders would do well to pay close attention to clergy in their first years, knowing that those who do not get off to a good start may not last in a profession that is not always kind to clergy.

Skill formation, leadership development, mentoring, and coaching play a critical role in early ministry. Likewise, the creation of good habits and strong relationships offer the mutual support that all clergy need. Most of all, ministry out of one’s deepest and truest self enables us to be truly uniquely “us.” If swimming laps is essential to who we are and produces happiness, then swim laps we must, even if it means getting up early in the morning to find an open lane at the community pool.

The fourth dimension of wellbeing is thriving. Thriving happens when we have clarity around core beliefs, self-knowledge and understanding about who we are, a close connection with the divine, and deep connection to community. Thriving also results from the conviction that we have the necessary skills to be successful in our ministry context. In short, we thrive in ministry and life when we believe that we are living well, using the full range of our gifts, and making a difference in the lives of others and the world.

According to the Flourishing in Ministry report, “Thus, people who thrive not only know the meaning and purpose of their life, but they also believe that they are able to spend most of their time, talent, and energy pursuing that meaning and purpose. In other words, thriving people believe the major pursuits and activities of their life – those things in which they are investing their best resources – are virtuous, worthy, important pursuits and activities.”[ii]

Clergy also thrive when they have a chance to take periodic time away from the intensity of ministry to rest, relax, and renew their minds, bodies, and spirits without feeling guilty. When swimming laps, reading a novel, attending a child’s ball game, or going on vacation results in anxiety because we must be neglecting our duties, then it’s time to regain perspective and reassess our life and ministry.

It wasn’t until the last day, but I finally seized the opportunity to put on my bathing suit and swim some laps before leaving for the airport. As I glided through the water during this brief window of freedom, I remembered my friend’s playful nudging, “Are you happy, Laurie?” Yes, yes, and yes! I also recalled these words from the conference, “If we do not tend to our own journey, we cannot take others on theirs. In fact, we can’t probably take them anywhere.”

Are you happy?

[i] Flourishing in Ministry; Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors, p. 9

[ii] Ibid, pp. 12-13.

Milk and Honey in Côte d’Ivoire

I have always loved Jesus, I have always loved going to worship, and I have always loved receiving and serving the sacrament of holy communion. But this time? It was the heavenly banquet, a foretaste of the kind of world that God meant us to create: a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, justice and mercy are practiced, grace abounds, the cup of salvation overflows, and all are welcome to taste and see that the Lord is good.

On February 11, I attended Sunday worship at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (Africa). A few days before, members of several groups, including the Committee on Faith and Order, Ministry Study Commission, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and Connectional Table, had gathered to collaborate on the content of a General Book of Discipline, to be presented to the 2020 General Conference.

The first thing I noticed as our van approached the church was the sign. I cannot read French, but I could understand the name of the church: “Canaan.” The sign also included these words from Deuteronomy 26:9, “God brought us to this place and gave us this land – a land full of milk and honey.”

Côte d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) is a beautiful West African country of over 23 million people whose primary language is French. Not only is Côte d’Ivoire the world’s largest exporter of cocoa beans and raw cashew nuts, but it is famous for its biodiversity, with 230 mammals, 700 birds, 125 reptiles, 100 fish, 35 different types of amphibians, and around 4,700 plant species.

At the same time, violent youth gangs have sprung up in the poor areas of the capital of Abidjan, making parts of the city unsafe. These gangs are called “microbes” or “germs” and roam the streets, robbing, harming, and even killing in order to live. Although Côte d’Ivoire’s economic growth is improving, large sections of the population are still vulnerable and living in poverty.

The 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church welcomed the Protestant Methodist Church of Côte d’Ivoire into the denomination as a provisional annual conference. Four years later, the 2008 General Conference affirmed Côte d’Ivoire as an episcopal area of The United Methodist Church with 700,000 members.

Canaan United Methodist Church is a place of hope, love, and joy where all are welcome to taste and see and join them on their pilgrim journey. And worship is a full body experience! As visiting United Methodist laity, clergy, and bishops, our group was invited to sit on the chancel platform and in the front rows. As we found our seats, the music was in full swing, the choir was leading, and everyone was moving! Wearing translation headsets, we were able to follow the service, and most of the hymns were ones we sing in US United Methodist churches.

Bishop Gregory Palmer preached a powerful sermon on the Transfiguration (Mark 2:2-9), and I have no doubt that we were all transfigured and transformed during our three-hour and fifteen-minute worship experience. Various parts of the worship service led me to the heavenly banquet in this land of milk and honey.

A charismatic choir director led a large choir on one side and a smaller women’s choir on the other side, with both groups wearing matching outfits and singing to choreographed movements. I can’t begin to describe the energy, passion, and power of this music, which led the congregation to Canaan, a land of milk and honey where there is enough for everyone.

The choir also sang during the offering, and I was so inspired by the Spirit that I decided to join them! I stood next to several women and attempted to imitate their motions. I am not a dancer, but this was truly a holy moment, as we held hands, smiled at each other, and sang and danced before the Lord.

The Sacrament
I was blessed to be a communion server, offering the cup of salvation to so many of God’s beloved ones who came forward with shining eyes and beautiful smiles. Holding the very same tray of little cups that I have used for so many years, I looked into their eyes and said the very same words used the world over, “This is the cup of salvation, given for you. God bless you.”

Hundreds of people of all ages, especially babies, children, and youth. Each one a precious child of God, each one filled with the Spirit, each one smiling and eager to taste and see that the Lord is good. A large proportion of the thousand or so worshippers were wearing beautiful native clothing, and the fabric often bore the logo of The United Methodist Church of Côte d’Ivoire. They were obviously so proud of their church and their faith. Holding back the tears, I saw the face of Jesus in each person who came forward, praised God and marveled, “This is the milk and honey of heavenly banquet in the Promised Land! Who am I to be worthy to help serve it?”

The Offering
Right after God offered to us the gift of bread and the cup, each person present was invited to offer their gifts to God. Once more, this was a time of movement. Two large and beautifully decorated baskets were placed at the front of the chancel, and everyone came forward to share their gift.

(click photo to watch video)

What a meaningful part of worship! People of all ages streaming forward, moving toward God, offering not only their gifts but their very lives. The music and movement of the entire congregation was contagious. The saints of Canaan UMC have much less in the way of material things than most of us who were visiting, yet what they do have is often elusive in our culture: the milk and honey of the joy of the Lord, an overwhelming generosity, and a deep commitment to share their faith with others.

The Testimony

At the end of the service, an elderly woman came forward, walking with the aid of a crutch, with her husband, family, and friends accompanying her. We were told that she was in a very serious car accident but survived and wanted to share her testimony. She said, “God manifested God’s power through this accident,” explaining that at first, the doctor said it wasn’t working. He was pessimistic about her recovery. But the woman pulled through and testified in her rejoicing that through this accident God has been glorified. Then the family requested that all of the bishops who were present come down to the main floor, lay hands on her and pray while the congregation sang “How Great Thou Art.”

My, oh my. Canaan, the land of milk and honey! This was the bread of life and the cup of salvation, not only for the Canaan UMC, but for the microbes and the germs, the very least of God’s beloved children, and for the world. This was not only the heavenly banquet, this was God’s reign on this earth, with sixty United Methodist leaders from around the world inspired and discipled by their brothers and sisters from Côte d’Ivoire.

God was surely smiling … and moving … as a thousand people sang the closing hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.”

Called forth from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth
Our charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name professing and at one table fed
To one hope always pressing, by Christ’s own spirit led.

Milk and honey in Canaan, Côte d’Ivoire. We were all transformed.

The Best Heart of All

Most people who are Christ-followers have already figured it out. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are the same day this year for the first time since 1945! This week, some of us will have to make a choice. Will Ash Wednesday trump Valentine’s Day? Will the food that we give up for Lent mean no Valentine chocolate? Or will it be chocolate-covered ashes?

For Christians, Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which is the forty-day period before Easter. During this time, we reflect upon the life and ministry of Jesus and journey with him to the cross. These forty days do not include Sundays, which from the earliest times were seen as “little Easters”.


The English word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon lencten, which refers to the lengthening of days that accompanies spring. In the early church, Lent was a time when converts were instructed in the Christian faith in preparation for baptism, but it was also a time of fasting and penitence for all believers. That’s why many of us “give up” something for Lent…like chocolate.

Valentine’s Day has a more confusing and nefarious history. We do know that the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13 to 15. Having drunk too much wine, naked Roman men would sacrifice a goat and a dog and then went around slapping women with the hides of the animals. This was supposedly done to enhance male fertility.

In addition, the Emperor Claudius executed two men by the name of Valentine on February 14 in two different years during the 3rd century a.d. The Catholic Church subsequently chose to observe their martyrdom on February 14, which we celebrate today as Valentine’s Day. Added to this complexity is the fact that in the 5th century Pope Gelasius I combined Lupercalia and the recognition of the “Saints Valentine” to create a day of drunkenness and love.

Lest you think Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day could not possibly have any connection with each other, consider this: the primary scriptures associated with Ash Wednesday refer to the heart. Through the symbolism of ashes, Ash Wednesday asks us to confront our own mortality at the same time as we are called to confess our sin before God and change our heart. The beginning of repentance is always the transformation of our heart, which is exactly what metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 2:12-13)

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

“We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you… In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.” (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:2)

Even John Wesley had a dramatic change of heart on May 24, 1738, when he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and wrote in his diary, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Most changes of heart, however, are gradual, even imperceptible. We wake up one day and suddenly realize that we are not the same person we were last year, last month, or even last week. But we’re not sure how and when it happened.

This change of heart is God’s work as much as it is our own. It’s called grace. God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  God loves you so much that God is just waiting to give you a new heart through Jesus Christ, even when you haven’t earned it or don’t deserve it. Is your heart restless? Is there a sense of disquiet in your inward being? Are you disconnected with the source of your life? The good news is that you, too, can have a changed heart. All you have to do is say “yes”.

In the same way, both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday remind us that this new heart models the self-giving and self-emptying love of Jesus, a love that gives all without demanding anything in return. It’s like what a black sharecropper said when someone asked him about his Christian conversion. He replied, “Well, God knows I ain’t what I ought to be, but praise Jesus, I sure ain’t what I used to be, and I can hardly wait for what I’m gonna be.”

So what will it be this Wednesday? February 14 is a day for big business. Valentine’s Day sales reached $18.2 billion last year, and this year they’re predicted to total $19.6 billion. A box of Whitman’s chocolates for your sweetheart? Dinner at a nice restaurant with friends? A card for your mother? Heart-shaped candy or red and white Peeps for your children or grandchildren? Chocolate-covered ashes? Or the best heart of all: a changed heart.

For what it’s worth, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday will coincide again in 2024 and 2029. And, in a truly trivial anomaly, Ash Wednesday will be observed on the same day as Leap Day (February 29) in 2096 for the very first time in the history of the Christian Church. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to leap into Lent that day unless there are ashes in heaven. So be it! Amen!