Category Archives: Clergy

Of Pastors and Love

chapel cross

People still think the pastor can save the church.
I am 30 years old and I do not want to be a hospice worker.
My church is so scattered. The task is to try to get them to focus.
One third of the church split off and left.
I had nine years of a dark night.
                                                                -overheard at a retreat for clergy

I have been listening to the conversations of small groups of clergy about their lives in a once, honored profession. Pastoral ministry has suffered loss of prestige, respect, and influence over the past thirty years in the eyes of many Americans. Some of the reasons for this include sexual misconduct, greed, hypocrisy, ethical failures, cultural upheaval, and changing demographics.

In addition, the rise of fundamentalism produced considerable confusion about what a “real” Christian is or is not. Some  Christians have promoted particular understandings of Christianity as normative for all disciples of Jesus. Often these perspectives have held media attention, while many other Christians do not share the same understanding. When only extreme and headline grabbing faith expressions are discussed, distorted impressions of faith end up defining religion in ways distasteful to many, including Christians themselves.

Most of the conversations I heard from pastors were about adjusting to sweeping change, which, though in the long view the human species excels at, at the same time, has never come to embrace without struggle.

Statue follow me

Cultural differences in what people are valuing
I worry about the bottom dropping out
My congregation worries that I will leave.
I want to be fully employed. I have all this stuff I want to express.
I want to finish well, stay fresh, and spiritually dependent on my God.

Earlier this month, I listened to new pastors engaged in ministry for four years or less. More recently I immersed myself in the wrenching, painful, joyful, and, yes, hilarious stories of men and women serving churches in Iowa from a range of Christian traditions. They were invited to attend a retreat by their judicatory heads and supervisors from nine different denominations, including AmericanBaptist, Lutheran (ELCA), Roman Catholic, Reformed Church of America, Church of the Brethren, Episcopalian, Presbyterian (USA), and United Church of Christ. The gathering called, The Imagination Retreat, was sponsored by the Des Moines Center for Renewal at Grandview College and held at The Shalom Retreat Center in Dubuque, Iowa.

We were all from what are generally considered mainline churches. These include the once great, proud churches with huge stone buildings, in some cases, now nearly empty and in need of repair, as well as fifteen member rural churches, bustling parishes, and missional congregations.

I want to get to know my daughters and grandchildren.
This is the first time off I have had in 32 years.
There is a whole generation ignorant of the language of God.
I am really content and happy, but maybe I am not supposed to be content.
My church worries about dying.

We had two pregnant moms in the group, older clergy nearing retirement, and ones in the middle wondering if it was time to pull up their roots and move on to a new parish. We probably did not all agree on the hot social/political issues our governments are fighting about. However we had not gathered to solve problems, debate, or convince others of the rightness of our positions.

We came because we were weary, hurting, looking for something more, and needing a safe place to be ourselves and be honest. We came because we were exhausted from being in charge and offering living water to thirsty souls, while our souls had dried and shriveled for want of the refreshment of Christ Jesus. We came for Sabbath and renewal and to imagine what seemed nearly beyond our comprehension as we began: peace, hope, faith, unexpected freedom, and joy – all gifts, which amazingly arrived pretty much on schedule at the end of day three of our four days together.


All of it is about this one woman,[or – man, secretary/choir director, organist, trustee, Sunday School teacher, family/person who runs everything,] . . .

They don’t see themselves as a vehicle for Christ. They just write checks.

How long… before I retire, leave, this church dies,
do I have to wait, until we start seeing some growth?

There isn’t a Roman Empire anymore, but there sure are a lot of Italians.

Church happens. It just happens.

I hear recurrent themes in their conversations. I hear the subtext of the laments, the confusion, and fatigue of these pastors as the groaning of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ. We use Walter Brueggemann’s masterful little book, The Spirituality of the Psalms. Brueggemann relates the form of the Psalms to the realities of human experience as –

Psalms of orientation: songs of guaranteed creation
Psalms of disorientation: songs of disarray
Psalms of new orientation: songs of surprising new life

Christians find in these psalms, not only the story of Israel’s suffering and God’s redeeming love, but also the foreshadowing of the Paschal mystery: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as their own personal and corporate experiences of orientation, disorientation, and surprising new orientation.

One recurrent theme is that of impasse, a condition of disorientation, when one doesn’t know what to do next. Our response to impasse is often anxiety and rising panic. Soon anxiety’s children show up: shame, blame, judgment, polarization, disengagement, or the increasing need to impose control or force. Learning how to manage the inevitable anxiety of change, my own, as well as that of my congregation is vital for spiritual leadership.

I have changed. They have too.

So this guy on the board says,
“That’s not what it was forty years ago.”
And I think, “I wasn’t even born then.”

On my Sabbath I ask, What is going to give me life today?
The ministerial association is horrible.
There are local pastors’ groups, but they are not nurturing.
Change means giving up something and that is scary.

And God said, “Why don’t you let me do that for you?”

For me – I am always sort of thinking I need the next class,
books, conference, skill set. Now I see I have everything I need.

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I also hear isolation and grief. I hear resilience, like the fertile, spongy sweep of a bog, a rich, deep, ground of being. I hear love, sometimes entangled and enmeshed, sometimes pure as a meadowlark’s song, sometimes self-emptied and sacrificial, always full of passionate yearning for Shalom.

It only takes me about twenty minutes before I am in love with them all.

It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man [or woman], in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.                            Flannery O’Connor


May Jesus hold us all close in that hidden love.


Special thanks to those who dreamed up this gathering: The Rev. Dwight DuBois, Director of the Center for Renewal, the Rev. Myron Herzberg, and the Rev. Mary Beth Mardis-LeCroy. And deep gratitude to all who gathered!

For more information about this retreat you may email Dwight DuBois .
Photographs by Suzanne Gorhau.


AUGUST 17-18

I will be Scholar in Residence at  First Presbyterian Church, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa on August 17-18, 2013. I will lead workshops on Saturday afternoon, and preach Sunday morning, followed by a Q&A forum.

     . . .from one degree of glory to another
Growing in the Knowledge and Wisdom of Love

We live in a time of sweeping changes in our personal, corporate, and global lives together.  The rapid pace and depth of change reach into every corner of our lives and leave many feeling confused, fearful, and grieving.

This presentation will consider what Christ teaches us about such change and how we may respond to the changes we face from the stance of a growing and deepening faith required for such a time as this. Our particular focus will be on the practice of contemplative prayer, which fosters wisdom, creativity, compassion, and love.

Find out more here