One other thing I would hope for: that it would prompt to you consider who is reading you.
In my pastors’ covenant group meeting the other day, one member referenced the weekly prayer of confession as having had a shaping effect on his life since he became a Presbyterian at age 16. All nodded in agreement — acknowledging we’ve never had a time when there was nothing to confess.
Those confessional moments function decisively for us because they invite us to be read. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. So prayed the psalmist (139:23,24). So have echoed countless believers though the centuries. Attaining personal authenticity begins with taking the step of inviting God’s Spirit to read us — and to report the findings.
The pastors’ covenant group discusses these matters because, well, we’ve also discovered that authenticity needs to go further than that weekly, silent conversation with God. It needs to find expression in relationship with others. We need to be read by each other.
For me that has generated membership in covenant groups: a national pastors’ group that meets face-to-face each spring for three days; a local pastors’ group that meets monthly for two to three hours at a time; in the past, a weekly hourlong prayer meeting with four church members dedicated to lifting up my ministry, my family, my soul; and a weekly evening small group of six couples with whom Barbie and I studied, prayed, laughed and cried throughout a 12-year pastorate.
That might sound excessive to you. To my extroverted self, it’s just right. Introverts may want to tone it down a bit. But none of us can skip such relating altogether. We learn and grow not just from reading but also from being read, not just by curling up with a book but also by confessing both sins and faith with significant others in our lives.
Yes, we’re not just talking about blurting and blubbering about our worst behaviors, we’re also talking about professing our faith together. Those confessions of sin in church would go nowhere were it not for the opportunity to hear that magnificent declaration of the faith, “In Christ you are forgiven.” The confessions of failure in small groups become salutary when others in the room declare, “Christ forgives you, and I do, too.”
Such words beg for the liturgical response, “Thanks be to God.”
That faith declaration, that summary of the gospel pronounced liturgically in worship and expressed relationally in small groups, and that expression of gratitude together generate a contagion of spiritual health and authenticity that mark vital ministry. And virtually all Presbyterian churches faithfully promote such confession liturgically — it’s an automatic for Reformed worship. But participation in small groups is another thing — many a Presbyterian, even many a Presbyterian elder, cannot name one confidant with whom she is disclosing her doubts and fears, with whom he is confessing his misjudgments and failures.
Years ago, the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship diagnosed that shortfall and called on teaching elders to join the Company of Pastors, modeled on a program formed by John Calvin. The denomination and seminaries launched other collegiality groups, and organizations like the Foundation for Reformed Theology launched small groups of their own.
The common denominator of such groups? Reading. Reading books for theological and spiritual reflection. Reading one another. The common result? Healthful, authentic ministry. What books have you cracked open lately? With whom have you been reading the book of your life?