On Giving Our Role a Vacation

August 17, 2010

Who are we apart from our role?

Three stimuli account for the question.

One, from Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church, “My role and my soul were eating each other alive. . . . Because I did not know how to give my soul what it wanted, I continued to play my role, becoming more brittle with every passing day.”

Two, a recently retired parish priest commented, “I thought I left my job when I took vacations through the years. But now I realize that much of my thinking on “time off” was about “time on” parish concerns.”

Three, this question looms large in my retirement: “Who am I apart from my pastoral role.” I’m learning how much of my identity was and is tied up in this familiar, cherished role.

Before we proceed with this conversation, let me note two things: one, roles are needed and necessary. They make working together possible. To occupy a role, for instance, as a father or mother or teacher or citizen or pastor, is to have a position in a particular system from which to offer yourself. Roles offer boundaries that mark what is yours to do and what is not yours to do.

And second, regarding a vacation or time off, it’s not a matter of “yes” I carry my role along, or “no” I don’t. Rather think of a continuum, from “a lot of time thinking about or doing work” to “little time thinking about or doing work.” Most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

While we are in vacation season, the important question here is not about vacation. It’s about our level of self-differentiation from our role of being pastor. I deem this to be a huge occupational challenge: how to distinguish your soul, your life journey from your role as pastoral leader of a congregation. It’s a huge challenge because you surround yourself with others who identify you with your role. It’s a huge challenge because your role is a conduit through which you express much of your passion, your calling. And it’s a huge challenge because it is up to you to claim your life apart from your work, and some will punish you for trying.

The concept of self-differentiation is from family systems theory. Ed Friedman writes of differentiation as the capacity to define one’s life journey, goals, values apart from the defining efforts of others. While remaining in relationship with congregants, the pastor is able to see himself or herself apart from the pastoral role.

I take this to mean that baptism trumps ordination as our source of identity. Our first and never ending call, our life project is becoming who we are, our form of God’s image, “growing up into Christ-likeness,” as Paul put it in his Romans letter. Our pastoral role ends; our summons to transformation does not. We are so much more than our role.

I found this helpful to remind myself, “I have a pastoral ministry, but I am not my pastoral ministry. I am graced, intending grace.” Or, “Yes, ministry is about me; yet, more profoundly, it is not about me.”

How do you make sense of this role-soul thing?

I have this immediate response after reading this over. Drawing from Jung’s thinking, maybe establishing ourselves in our roles is primarily a first-half of life task; and transcending our over-identification with roles more of a second-half challenge.

Preaching from Astonishment

August 2, 2010

“The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. Awe precedes faith.” (God’s Search for Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel)

I heard it first from Heschel: awe/wonder/ radical amazement precedes faith. Astonishment comes first.

Did you not find it so? At some point, and many points after, you were overwhelmed with the outrageous generosity of God. You got it! You realized with heart and mind that all living beings, including yourself, are enfolded in a gracious Mystery, most clear but not limited to Jesus. Amazing! You “saw” it, that the love you are wired for is already present, a gift to be received and lived from. In those moments that interrupted times of doubt and despair, you turned (repented), trusting yourself to this “hold on to your hat,” astonishing Presence. And your initial “turnings” led you to ordination then on to pastoral leadership.

But astonishment is hard to sustain. Like love, astonishment is both an effortless happening and the result of constant effort. We fall in love; we create love. Love happens to us; we make love happen. So it is with astonishment, awe, radical amazement.

With this in mind, let’s think about preaching. It can be difficult to sustain astonishment in our preaching. After all, as pastors, you preach—say, forty sermons a year, not counting the funeral and wedding messages. How can something so regular maintain its mystery and wonder?

Let’s get even more specific and practical. And personal too. I’m remembering a typical week of sermon preparation. For me it started on Monday. I loved, well mostly, I loved the discipline of wrestling with a text. It’s a spiritual practice I miss. Early in the week my pattern was to live with the text—think, pray and play with it, carry it around with me to the hospital and committee meetings. The text for the week was always just over my right shoulder.

Then about Wednesday I would pull out the commentaries and take some notes. Thursday, for me, was “fish or cut bait” time, because Sunday was a comin.’ With earnesty now, I looked for a path within the forest of possibilities in my head and notes before me. If sermons make one basic point, then by Thursday I was agonizing over the question, “What’s the point in this text that pierces? Where am I going with this? Where is it taking me?” This could be a very anxious moment for me. Sunday is coming closer and no clear point is emerging. No clear path could be seen. By now it might be Friday or even Saturday.

Over the years I developed this practice: With various ideas and the text before me, I kept asking over and over, “What’s astonishing about this text? Where am I being surprised and radically amazed by this passage? What about this scripture both summons and confronts me, and through me the church and community?”

Recently I was overhearing a debate about how much of the preacher’s life should show in the sermon. I think this is a confusing question. If this means lots of personal references, then we should wonder about ego promotion. But if this means the passion of the preacher about the text, then that is another matter. I assume the person in the pew benefits from our open and lively engagement of the Message. This invites their lively engagement with the text. They want to feel our passion, our curiosity, our questions, and, yes, our excitements.

I’m saying that the most important aspect of sermon preparation is your wrestling with the text—however long it takes—until it blesses you with astonishment. It’s the place to preach from.

How do you hear this?