Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Spiritual Lives of Church Leaders

I just returned from the final official gathering of my time in the Company of New Pastors, a wonderful program that brings candidates for ministry together into cohort groups that extend into the first four years following graduation from Seminary. The retention rate for ministers in the first five years of ministry is awful. Around 1/3 of ministers leave the ministry in the first 5 years, never to return to the vocation. Maybe it is wise discernment; maybe it is something else. At any rate, the Company of New Pastors and other programs have been established to try to reverse that trend, to provide the kind of support and nurture that sustains pastoral excellence through the early years and beyond.

CNP does this particularly with an emphasis on daily prayer and Scripture reading, continued theological engagement, and participation in cohort/covenant groups, which include two seasoned pastoral mentors. This program has been incredibly helpful to me in many ways, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift. It has been life-giving and life-sustaining, and our group gatherings a really critical part of my support network in my first four years of ministry. Participation in this group, along with regular engagement in continuing education, opportunities for my own spiritual nourishment and time for worship have all been crucial for me as a church leader, and as a disciple of Christ. What a privilege it is to go to a preaching conference for a week, for example, where I am able to worship and hear excellent sermons morning, noon, and night! What a joy to have time set aside for my continued education and spiritual development. It is a gift that I do not take for granted. My denomination requires churches to offer a minimum of 2 weeks of paid continuing education time away, and some amount of money to support it. Not every church or denomination requires this, and even among colleagues, I know of many who rarely use this time. What a lost opportunity to continue to be rooted and fed in the vine of Jesus Christ, to grow in the life of the faith to which we have been called in virtue of our baptisms, and to gird ourselves for the particular services of ministry to which we are called.

And yet... When we talk about empowering or training non-pastoral church leaders (Elders, Deacons, non-ordained individuals), how often do we think about spiritual nurture, time set aside from the business to which we are called to be refreshed and drink from the well of living water? How many leaders in our church see their "jobs" as custodians, managers, volunteer coordinators, non-profit agency board members, etc..., rather than as true spiritual leaders?

How do we help to cultivate the spiritual lives of all church leaders? What does your church do well (or do poorly)? What kind of difference have you seen with churches that prioritize spiritual formation for all church leaders?

In January I will be facilitating a spiritual retreat for a group of Elders from a church outside of Atlanta. Their desire is not to do any visioning, taking care of business, or anything like that; they want a retreat specifically focused on spiritual formation. What would you include or want to see included in such a retreat?

Feel free to converse in the comments below, or contact me directly (tweet me if you need contact information).

Monday, September 3, 2012


On this labor day, I look out my window into a sea of green. Green leaves, green grass. The kind of green that only comes after a long, hard, rain. The greens that are still glistening with fat drops of water.  It rained yesterday into the night. It poured. I thought of those who were so much closer to the eye of the storm. For those of us further away, the rain provided much-needed relief to a long, hot, dry summer.

Peeking out from the green, there are flashes of brown. A few brown pine needles that Crayola might call Burnt Sienna, and a handful of light brown oak leaves, clustered together at the end of a dying branch. There are some patches of brown grass, too. Grass scorched too deeply by the summer heat and drought to recover, perhaps for the season.

I don't know much about nature. I'm pleased to identify the pine, oak, cedar, and magnolia trees in our yard. The black walnut tree took a little longer to identify. I don't know much about nature, but I do know that trees and grass need water, or they will become parched, and perhaps even die. I know that it is better for that water not to come in periodic torrential downpours interspersed by dry heat, but rather to have consistent, gentle watering, along with the sun that feeds the chlorophyll.

It doesn't take a great leap to get from the movements of nature to the care of our spiritual lives. Torrential downpours, or mountaintop experiences, can do wonders, but it is the balance of daily, gentle watering that sustains our spirits through the seasons and through the years.

I have heard that if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. I find myself thirsting quite a bit. I tend to push myself too far, too long, ignoring my body's own signals that a break is needed, that nourishment is needed. And I tend to do the same with my spiritual care.

Jesus said that whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst. That water can come in many forms, but drinking regularly from the fountain of the Word will keep one hydrated before feeling the thirst. If you start to feel thirsty, that's an early sign of dehydration. But even in times of drought, there is water enough to quench the soul, and to make all things green.