Ministry As Spiritual Practice

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.

2 Responses to Ministry As Spiritual Practice

  1. Joyce Hollyday says:

    Mahan,

    I felt called to ordination because of my passion for sacramental life and preaching. But it’s the pastoral situations you’ve mentioned that most stretch me and call me out of myself into the ministry of presence. It’s not what I expected, and it’s not always what I want, but the needs continue to arise, and I continue to be stretched to respond.

    Thanks,
    Joyce

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  2. David DeFoor says:

    How I love these bi-monthly glimpses into a mind I miss more than I can say.

    I love your comment, “How will I know what I believe?” My version is “How will I know who I am?” 21 years after my last full-time pastorate, I still wrestle with feeling like I’m ‘between churches.” I’ve spent more years now out of ministry than I did in, yet I still feel like a minister ‘without portfolio.’

    Thanks for your posts. I love tapping into your artery of grace.

    Peace,
    David

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