What is the shape of good pastoral ministry, and how is it nourished for a lifetime? How can pastors develop and sustain vital ministry that nimbly navigates the shifting sands of the world in which we live and the wide-ranging expectations of congregations, while remaining steadfastly faithful to the Gospel? Pastors are expected to discern and respond appropriately to their congregation’s particular culture, to shape their ministry in ways that fit the situation while remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. Negotiating emerging ministerial challenges gracefully and effectively requires of pastors the capacities to discern the real needs of the moment and to exercise whatever skills and manners are needed to meet those needs appropriately. Moreover, the will to learn and adopt these skills and manners requires that pastors bear the dispositions of eager learners and willing servants.
Sometimes seminaries are blamed for not preparing candidates adequately for the tasks congregations expect their pastors to fulfill. Some congregations contend that their pastors are unequipped or unwilling to meet the challenges of church conflict, sessional direction, diminishing community influence, older adult visitation, etc. Burnout and difficult relationships debilitate all too many pastors. But it is far from clear that more seminary classes on conflict management, church administration, cultural awareness, and the like will fix the problem. Often the teachable moment arises only when one is doing the actual work of pastoral ministry, and is looking the critical need squarely in the face. Indeed, much about pastoral ministry can be learned well only from within the context of immersion in its practice. What pastors needs most is the teachability, imagination, and agility necessary to seek out and access the resources necessary to engage gracefully the particular challenges that emerge in the course of their daily work.
Teachability. Imagination. Agility. How do we nurture these virtues among pastors?
The Office of Theology and Worship has been seeking to address this question for the past fifteen years, and has made some crucial discoveries that confirm the ancient wisdom for pastoral sustenance that shaped the way Calvin and his “Venerable Company of Pastors” nurtured their ministry in Geneva. Beneath it all is a deceptively simple conviction: We cannot respond lovingly to God’s people well if we do not love God well. Paul and his colleagues press forward in face of massive opposition because “the love of Christ urges us on.” Faithful, fruitful, and fulfilling ministry is shaped and nourished for the long haul by genuine love of God’s people, which is rooted in our love for God’s very Self. At bottom, the crucial need is for a heart disposed to give its all to love well God and God’s people.
What pastors most need to do constantly is fan the flame of their first love – for God, and for God’s people. Deep, sustained attention to God in heart and mind is critical for keeping love for God’s people alive, fresh, and flourishing. It is not all that good ministry requires but it motivates pastors to seek out and acquire whatever else they need to be fully equipped for ministering to the people they love and serve. When they truly love their people, they will accept and affirm them for who they are – not without hope that they might become better, but certainly without demanding or even necessarily expecting it.
We have discovered that nurture of this love for God and God’s people is best done communally. Theological and spiritual development often falls into disrepair apart from mutual encouragement and admonition of friends. Deep exercise of heart and mind in engaging divine treasures is sustained by gathering to practice these exercises regularly with others.
Through our Pastor-Theologian program, we discovered the power of rekindling pastoral imagination and agility by gathering pastors together for several days of theological study and disciplined prayer. Pastors themselves were the resident theologians – experts were present via their books, but not in person. Each pastor presented a theological paper based on shared reading, and the groups prayed together the daily offices of morning, midday, and evening prayer. Reports of vocational renewal abounded. However, one event itself doesn’t renew ministry forever – pastors need to continue gathering periodically to nurture good ministry for the long haul.
The benefits to Pastor-Theologian participants led us to propose to the Lilly Endowment a pilot project that would offer a similar pattern of spiritual fellowship and accountability for people entering parish ministry. The hope was to establish in pastors good habits of vocational nurture from the very start. Lilly generously agreed to fund our “Company of New Pastors,” with gatherings convened by ordained faculty during participants’ seminary years, then by veteran pastors who mentor participants vocationally and spiritually for three to four years following their graduation. Members of the Company commit to the Pastor-Theologian model of theological study and daily prayer when they gather, and to a discipline of daily reading and prayer between gatherings. Gatherings include generous space for friendship development, study, and prayer.
Six years later, two cohorts have completed the cycle and the results are wonderfully encouraging. Other agencies are also doing first-call programs; indeed, half of the ministers ordained over the past five years have been enrolled in one first-call program or another. Each has its strengths and good stories. With the Company of New Pastors, members testify to the power of their groups to keep them anchored to a set of core disciplines of mind and spirit that nurture their pastoral imagination and agility. They cultivate a disposition of teachability as together they deeply engage vital texts, widening their hearts to one another and to the Lord whom they love and serve.
Sheldon W. Sorge is associate for theology and worship in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship, and is program director of the Company of New Pastors.