Ministry as a Research Project

Try this on for size. Particularly when passion drives you to over-functioning, over-investing, over-attachment to results, consider this reframing: treating your work as a research project.

This idea of ministry as a learning project is another leaf from Edwin Friedman’s notebook. Friedman describes the way he offers therapy to clients. He takes with him into the therapy session a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he writes process notes that might assist him at a later point in the therapy. But on the right side of the pad he records what he is learning that might assist him in his life, either personally or professionally. Later, he discards the process notes while preserving for himself the learning gleaned from the experience.

I attached this picture — a yellow legal-sized pad with a line down the middle — on the inner lining of my mind. It goes with me.

As I approached the time to announce my retirement in 1998, my anxiety spiked. Self-talk was lively: When do I tell? Who first needs to know? How will I say, “good-bye”? How will I feel? How will they feel? What will they say?

My “yellow pad friend” came to the rescue. “What if I treat my last months at Pullen [Memorial Baptist Church] as a research project?” After “drawing a line down the middle,” I began to ask: What will I learn about how I do endings? What will we (both Pullen and myself) learn about our life together during these past fifteen years? Where were noteable evidences of the Spirit at work? What, I wonder, will be the surprises?

During those intense months, there were times I stepped back and worked these questions. And when I did, I tasted the excitement, playful curiosity, and objectivity of a research scientist.

But don’t save it for the end. This practice of reframing works even better during the “everydayness” of pastoral ministry. Without fail, this “yellow legal-sized” image could pull me back from my intensity, with the question, “Let’s see, what am I learning here?”

Pastoral work gives us a ringside seat in the arena of human striving, an up close look at the blows, bruises and knockdowns people experience. Or to shift the metaphor, what better laboratory for observing and researching the ways people find meaning in their lives.

What if we viewed the people involved with us in ministry as our teachers. Beyond showing us how they make sense of life, they will also trigger our emotion-packed addictions, call forth our latent gifts, and open spaces for grace to happen.

We cannot always be effective or faithful. We can always be a curious learner, disciple that is.

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