My mouth dropped open, and I threw my arms around her. “What are you doing here?” “I have a meeting in the area this afternoon and decided to come to worship.” I hadn’t seen one of my dearest friends in over a year. Lynda has been a confidante, encourager and fellow professional who understands both the joys and failures of my life yet loves me unconditionally.
We had little opportunity to catch up, but there was enough time to tell her once again, “You have no idea now important you have been in my journey, helping to keep me centered and whole.” An ordinary moment became extraordinarily holy.
Hours later I was sitting in a small group among thirty clergywomen from the Michigan Area who had gathered for a two-day retreat at one of our United Methodist camps. “How do you keep balance in your life?” we were asked.
“I go to movies,” one woman said. “It’s a great way to forget about your problems. I just went to see Dracula Untold.”
“Why would you want to see Dracula Untold? Don’t we have enough draculas in our churches?”
“Well, sometimes it does seem as if a few people can suck the life out of me.”
We call it gallows humor among clergy. In reality, the vocation of ministry is a sacred and amazing calling, but if we are not prayerful and careful, it will wear us down to a frazzle until we flame out. The demands of ministry are literally non-stop. The to-do list is never completed, there is always one more person to visit and one more phone call to make, and from time to time someone has a bee in their bonnet with a painful stinger.
The clergywomen shared other unique ways in which we care for ourselves. Some pray, journal, exercise, scrapbook, listen to music, dig in the dirt and pursue painting or weaving. Others focus on their children’s school activities, try out new recipes, visit museums, attend concerts or spend time outdoors.
There were several common themes, however. Three out of five clergy in my small group mentioned how relaxing it was to mow the lawn. Why? Because the pleasure we derive from seeing something through to completion complements our ministries, which can never be wrapped up, tied with a bow and proclaimed, “DONE.” Mindless bliss was the term we used.
We also lifted up the importance of relationships. Professional coaching, mentoring, therapy, and spiritual direction are all ways in which we can share the burdens of ministry with those who listen well and offer wise counsel. Equally as vital are friendships with clergy and laity who understand the unique stressors of ministry, accept us for who we are and provide support and encouragement.
And then there is family. I pointed out the old, nondescript sweater I was wearing and said, “This sweater belonged to my son in high school. He outgrew it many years ago, but I decided it looked comfortable, so now I wear it all the time. This ordinary sweater is extraordinary because it reminds me of my son and, consequently, what is important in life. When I’m distressed over the expectations of others and the impossibility of getting everything done in ministry, I think about my family and can relax.”
Our truth as clergy is that the daily agenda of endless meetings, looming deadlines, difficult conversations, wrenching pastoral calls, and squeezing in time to study and write, knowing that Sunday comes every single week, can sap our spirit if we are not wise. It’s no coincidence that clergy health insurance is very costly. Clergy don’t take care of ourselves very well because keeping a healthy balance in our lives is so challenging.
The second day of our retreat we were astonished to hear that nothing was scheduled for the afternoon. It was completely free. Many of the women couldn’t remember the last time they had the gift of an afternoon off. “Do whatever you want,” we were told. “Do what fills your heart and gives you joy.” Ordinary moments became extraordinary.
“I walked the labyrinth.”
“A friend and I talked about the joys and frustrations of ministry.”
“I read a book until my eyes closed, so I took a nap.”
“We enjoyed silly laughter.”
“I sat quietly in the middle of the lake in a kayak and let the beauty of God’s creation wash over me: clear water, seagulls, flaming red trees, clouds and sun, shalom for the world.”
“I had holy conversation with amazing women.”
“I wrote a poem for the first time in ten years.”
“Someone invited me to walk through the leaves in the woods.”
At the same time as my clergywomen friends took time away to revive our souls, my husband was in Alabama with a group of clergy of similar very large churches. Although their agenda was different, they, too, shared the deepest yearnings of their hearts and the painful places of their ministries. All clergy need a safe place to confide in their peers.
It’s not an easy time to be a pastor. The passion and gifts that laity so freely offer to the church for the cause of Christ inspire clergy and make our hearts sing. At the same time, many of our churches are declining, and congregational anxiety over the future is widespread. Leaders can become entrenched, and church members occasionally treat each other in toxic ways. The pastor can also become an easy target to blame for the ills of the church.
How can we become self-differentiated leaders who put on our own oxygen masks first before seeking to minister to others? Perhaps clergy and congregations will become healthier if, rather than frenetically planning more activities and creating more programs, we seek to become more loving in our hearts and more whole/holy in our lives.
Rather than feed the insane pace of life today by following the pack or even setting the pace, perhaps God calls Christ-followers to a different way of living than our neighbors. Rather than forego sabbath because we are afraid of missing a deadline, neglecting emails or disappointing someone who thinks they need us right now, perhaps clergy and laity both need to listen more closely to the God who begs us to stop and see the extraordinary in the ordinary, even if just for one day a week.
Somewhere, sometime, someplace, someone decided that October should be Clergy Appreciation Month. It usually passes me by, but this month I give thanks for the courage of my brothers and sisters in the clergy who faithfully feed their flocks and lead their congregations during anxious times. I am especially grateful for our young clergy, for the deep call that prompts them to offer their lives to God through the itinerant professional ministry. I also give thanks for laity who understand the unique challenges of clergy and their families, provide sensitive, grace-filled support and guidance and give us permission to form healthy habits of self-care.
The day after I returned home from the retreat, Susan, her friend Maggie and I had a wonderful conversation as we waited for her surgery. It was a serious surgery, and Susan had already been in the hospital for a week. Susan and Maggie are highly intuitive and attuned to spiritual matters, and we talked freely about the presence of God in her room that morning. Susan asked about my time at the clergywoman’s gathering and affirmed the need for all clergy to have time away for refreshment and healing.
When we were ready to pray, Susan asked me to sing a song, so I sang, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness; And all these things shall be added unto you; Allelu, alleluia.” During the song a woman named Barbara came into the room to empty trash. As she greeted Susan and quietly went about her job, Susan praised Barbara’s gentle and gracious care and simple ministry of presence. Susan then asked, “Will you join our circle of prayer?” Holding hands around Susan’s bed I asked God to surround her with peace and guide the hands and hearts of the surgeon and all who would be caring for her. Then Barbara proceeded to pray a fervent prayer of power and might and glory as she proclaimed God’s goodness and asked for a hedge of protection around Susan. An ordinary yet extraordinary moment. Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.
In the midst of the very humanness of the church, people like Lynda, Barbara, Susan, Maggie and countless clergy and laity share extraordinary love in ordinary ways by living balanced and whole lives. Sometimes all it takes is an afternoon off.