Finding Partners

April 18, 2011

The pastor was presenting to a few of us a conflict that centered around one of the sacraments, namely, who could participate, who could not. The pastor took the issue to the appropriate committee and sought counsel. The committee, along with the pastor, decided that she should lead a class on the sacraments in which the history and polity of the denomination, along with the congregation’s policy, could be reviewed and discussed.

A pastor friend asked this question: “Is the committee saying, ‘We like the idea. Go do it;’ or ‘We will recommend to the church that this class be offered with you (pastor) leading. And we’ll be there with you.’”

It is the difference in these responses I want to accentuate. The first response — “good idea, go for it” — makes the pastor responsible and takes the “heat” off the committee. Thereby, the tension between committee and congregation is diminished by triangling in the pastor as the one to solve the conflict.

See the difference in the second response. The committee and pastor are together assuming leadership. It is “we,” not “you.” They become partners. Perhaps, even in the teaching, the committee could join the pastor.

Going alone, especially amid conflict, is dangerous. Finding partners is critical. In this case, the pastor is seeking partners in the committee. Some extra energy and patience will be required to work out what “we” will do. Collaboration takes time, may slow her down, and erode some felt autonomy.  But making the effort pays off. As the African proverb goes, “ If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And notice this. She is finding partners outside, as well as inside the church. She turned to us, a few collegial friends, and asked for our questions and other responses (not our answers and advice).  As partners outside her congregations, we were able to provide some objectivity. Even more to the point, we could access the wisdom from knowing this pastoral role from the inside out. And this too. Outside partners are not as likely to be attached to outcomes.

I have found this puzzling: With the resources available in other pastors, why are most pastors reluctant to call or email a collegial friend with the request — “Hey, ___ when you have a minute or two, can I run a situation by you? Another set of eyes would be helpful.” Even better, pastors who meet regularly with a pastor friend or two or more create an on-going peer community in which this kind of mutual partnering can take place.

Is finding partners, both inside and outside the congregation, an intentional part of your practice of ministry? If so, I would be interested in how this works for you.

For more, look at Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s Leadership on the Line

Ministry As Spiritual Practice

April 4, 2011

I, like many of you, live from three public vows: baptism, to love from/with/as Jesus loves; marriage, to love Janice (and children); and ordination, to love and serve the church. Of course, at the time, I knew so little about the promises I was making. (Aren’t you also amazed at your leaps of faith?) Nevertheless, these oaths framed my core identity, frames on which I have been hanging life experiences ever since.

The pressure I felt as a pastor, both external and internal, was to give priority to ordination. This priority was fueled by my need to do well and the needs of the congregation for my time and energy. That’s appropriate. My baptismal journey toward Christ-ness is my responsibility, not theirs.

In this reflection, I am wondering about the ways that ordination, that is, serving the church, gave me a spiritual practice, a way of inner transformation dramatized in baptism. These come to mind.

Preaching was one. It seemed to come around every three or four days. But, more often than not, it was a rigorous spiritual discipline, a kind of extended “lectio divina.” All during the week I could ruminate on the upcoming texts, listening for the Word of life for me as well as the congregation. In my better moments, I carried the text with me into pastoral conversations and institutional concerns, on the look out for connections with the text. If I allowed it, the text would be working on me, more so than me working on the text. In retirement, someone asked if I would miss preaching. I remember my response: “How will I know what I believe.” I miss this regular spiritual practice.

Second, I think of our presence with the dying, death and subsequent layers of grief. It is our specialty in a generalist vocation. Along with the “fear and trembling” of being present in such vulnerable, sacred moments, there was also a mirroring of my own mortality. Always I left pondering, “what really matters?” Each time I felt more keenly the gift of “now” in all its preciousness. And returning home, invariably I hugged Janice a little longer.

Third, there is pastoral care in other contexts. Because of our calling, we enter, upon invitation, into the private places of a person’s life and be there with presence, and sometimes sight. But also we are there as learners. We are privileged with a “ring side seat,” close to the fight for meaning and the yearning of faith. We are students. They teach us, each one.

I note one other way that ministry was a spiritual practice of transformation, when I allowed it. We engage in so many difficult conversations, difficult relationships, difficult crises. When we declared our ordination promises, none of us anticipated so many difficult interpersonal challenges. But, if I had the courage to see, each encounter would unveil my huge needs for security, approval, esteem, power and control—all characteristics of the egoic self. Each one offered the opportunity to transcend self-preoccupation. Each challenging difficulty invited the option of letting go, trusting, forgiving, and surrendering to Spirit at work for Shalom in all things.

A couple of quotes address this very point:

“Christ is revealed in those with whom we have the good fortune to be stuck.” Stanley Hauerwas

A Tibetan prayer: “Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion may be truly fulfilled.”

This too about a stance of ministry as spiritual practice. Nothing is wasted. Everything that happens is grist for transformation. Everything can contribute to our baptismal journey.