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Pastoral Renewal: Everyone benefits

Pulled in so many directions, dedicated pastors give and give, risking burnout. Congregations that encourage pastoral renewal will likely see the results in sermons and worship services. A feature story exploring the importance of time away for pastors.

Sermons, committee meetings, emails, phone calls, funerals, counseling appointments, budget shortfalls, sparring parishioners, fellowship events.No wonder many pastors feel that urgent tasks often crowd important goals from their lives.

Recent studies show that clergy in America tend to be far busier than their parishioners realize. Overwhelmed by ministry demands, clergy often weigh more and are less healthy than the general population.

Stepping back is vital. Congregations that encourage their leaders to take time for pastoral renewal will realize the benefits, according to those who've recently had the opportunity to read, study, and worship with other pastors.

Preachers as minor poets

"It's tempting for preachers to assume other roles foisted on them: religious CEO, manager, counselor, janitor. We're also used to traditional images like shepherd," says Kevin Adams, senior pastor of Granite Springs Church in Rocklin, California.

Attending the week-long workshop on "The Preacher as Minor Poet" gave him a fresh way of claiming his identity as a pastor in a local church.

Workshop leader M. Craig Barnes drew the minor poet reference from T.S. Eliot, who said that every culture needs major poets, whose eternal words guide generations of people for centuries, and minor poets, who apply those words to particular people in a particular place. Like minor poets, preachers help their congregations understand and reframe their lives in the light of God's story.

"One implication of 'pastor as poet' is to preach less prescriptively ('don't do that; do this.') and more descriptively ('isn't it interesting how Jacob keeps grasping for things, and isn't it interesting how we do that too.')," Adams explains.

Participants read and discussed five books about ministry and poetry, including Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. "Lamott's ideas about writing easily transfer to preaching. Her fresh illustrations and honest, heart-wrenching struggles are entertaining and freeing. Richard Lischer's Open Secrets helped us fall in love with our congregations all over again," Adams says.

For Tim Blackmon, lead pastor of River Rock Church in Folsom, California, discussing the books with  Barnes and other participants clarified and redefined his calling to "tell the story, to help the congregation see there is a sacred subtext to their lives."

Preachers who see themselves as minor poets are conversation partners who listen to God in the biblical text, listen to the life of their people, and then imaginatively present the conversation through sermons. "I want to pay better attention, daily, to what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. I want to help people tend to the transformation going on in their lives," Blackmon says.

Helen Havlik, pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, wanted to be a poet when she was younger. After a stint in corporate communications, she answered the call to pastoral ministry. "So having the link made between preacher and poet has brought me full circle-a great blessing," she says.

Reading and discussing five books was for Havlik both "a rigorous intellectual workout" and a reminder that "my well was going dry. The workshop was a wake up call to get back into a more nurturing routine," she says.

Imaginative reading

 Pastors who attended "Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching" immersed themselves for three weeks in novels and memoirs. Led by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., president of Calvin Theological Seminary, they explored sources, methods, and homiletical impacts of applying vicarious experience to their sermons.

As a church planter at The Gathering in Natomas, California, Ron Vanderwell says he often feels an "unrelenting pressure to be productive. I found it very refreshing to become temporarily immersed in a world of reading and literature. The seminar helped me see life with a writer's eye, seeking to come to grips with the human experience. As a communicator of God's truth, understanding the listener's experience is half my job."

Jul Medenblik, senior pastor of New Life Church in New Lenox, Illinois, signed up because he's always loved reading and preaching. "Reading helps you enter the world of others, even if it is a fictional world," he says. Medenblik usually reads history and biography, so reading memoirs such as The Color of Water by James McBride and Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner broadened his outlook.

After nine years in church planting ministry, he wasn't surprised that the seminar helped him "renew, refresh, and refocus. The church (I hope) will see and hear the benefits from this seminar for years to come," he says.

Medenblik also discovered that reading in community is different than reading alone. "It's invaluable for stimulating the imagination and to gather insights," he says. Some of his seminar classmates already belong to preaching and reading groups. Medenblik would like to start one with pastors in his region. He also wants to start a book club at his church.

"I will remember the morning prayer time of reading scripture together and singing together as especially soul-affirming. They helped us focus on God and his work in the world (including the literary world) we were about to enter," he adds.

Afro-Christian worship

Just as pastors in other seminars applied vicarious experience to their sermons, participants in "Afro-Christian Worship and Social Transformation" explored how to bring real-life challenges into worship.

Andre Daley, pastor of Mosaic Life Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, describes Diverse Worship, by workshop co-leader Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, as "a goldmine of information, bibliographic references, and helpful principles. Learning about the historical contributions of Caribbean and Hispanic people was especially helpful, because we're trying to reach people from those groups in our new church."

Daley says that Mosaic Life, an intentionally multiracial congregation, tries to create worship experiences that "engage the urban culture and context with the gospel message. We want to develop a link between personal transformation in worship and being agents of social transformation in the world around us."

He especially appreciated Maynard-Reid's discussion of the difference between the sacred and secular and the sacred and profane. "The important distinction is to learn how to discern the profane in what is considered sacred or secular and hold that up to the light of the gospel. It was wonderful, refreshing, and affirming to be around others who are working on this issue," Daley says.

Gather into one

People came from Ghana, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.S. for the month-long seminar "Gather into One: Praying and Singing with Christians Worldwide."

But these experts-in chant, ritual studies, ethnomusicology, choral education, liturgy, contemporary worship, and theology-didn't just talk about music and worship with seminar leader Michael Hawn. They practiced it. Three mornings a week, participants took turns planning and leading morning worship for classmates, those in concurrent seminars, and anyone else who came.

Swee Hong Lim, a doctoral student at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, says that planning worship, reviewing it later in class with peers, and worshiping together at various churches in metro Grand Rapids "reaffirmed the vocation of liturgical scholarship that God has called me into." Lim, who also composes sacred music, says he got valuable tips from classmates and presenters on copyright, publishing, and research related to his dissertation on inculturation and congregational song.

"Michael Hawn's teaching style fuses worship and learning, theory and practice, planning and reflection, lecture and discussion. It felt whole in a way that I haven't experienced in previous academic environments," says Greg Scheer, director of music ministries at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

It wasn't easy to achieve harmony among so many cultures, including places where Christians sometimes feel their distinctive music or worship practices have been put down, ignored, or misused by other cultures. Cultural miscommunications were inevitable.

Scheer recalls a morning when leaders piled stones on a world map. They asked worshipers to pick up a stone, break into small groups, and pray for the needs of the world. "Most of us found this to be a powerful reminder of the burden we bear for others in prayer. However, one African participant had the opposite reaction. In many African religions, stones are used as fetish objects, so he later told us that he simply put the stone down while he was praying.

"But a spirit of Christian love permeated our discussions. It felt like a foretaste of heaven as we went beyond our cultural differences to find our unity in Christ," Scheer says.

Ron Toering, a trumpet soloist who teaches music in the Grand Rapids (MI) Christian Schools, wanted to experience liturgical rituals, artistic expressions, and musical forms common to several North American denominations and world cultures. He also wanted to identify hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs used by Christians in other cultures.

"I was not disappointed. The seminar opened my ear to the wonderful world of oral tradition. I found myself intuitively wanting to learn exactly how to worship as if I were in another culture," Toering says. He plans to teach new songs to his band students and notes that planning a worship service "was especially profound."

Lisa Linnea Koops, a Michigan State University doctoral student studying the use of global music in education, valued the opportunity to understand the context of worship music from five specific cultures. She met global musicians with diverse views on questions of customary practice-whether people should use music from other cultures unless they understand and play or sing the music just as it is used in the original culture.

Perhaps most important, Koops discovered "that in order to better theorize I need to practice. Worshiping together was important for us spiritually and communally. It was a great venue for learning new ways to worship, both in song and ritual. It also added a level of community that would not have been possible otherwise."

Learn More

Hear M. Craig Barnes speak at the Fall Preaching Conference on Thursday, September 30, 2004, at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Barnes, who is head pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian in Pittsburgh and a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, posts his sermons online. Listen to an interview about his latest book, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls, or order a tape (under Speaker/Talent click on B, then search for 11899) in which Barnes explains his concept of the preacher as a minor poet-which is the topic of his next book.

Gather a group to read and discuss one or more books recommended by summer seminar participants. Peruse a Pew & Pulpit survey about Catholic and Protestant pastors' reading habits. Think further about why pastors need other pastors as friends. Discover what a Lutheran pastor and a Missionary Baptist pastor learned from worshiping and reading with peers.

Check out funding resources for clergy renewal, as well as renewal and sabbatical opportunities for clergy, lay leaders, seminarians, and doctoral students. Prepare your church for a pastor's sabbatical. Get inspired by Rev. Jack Wall's account of how stepping away from busyness helped him revive a Roman Catholic parish.

New books and music are renewing, because they help us get out of ruts. Read why Methodist pastor and professor Tex Sample sees storytelling and country music as ways to reach working-class culture.

Open your mind and ears by listening to and learning about music and worship new to you, such as from Asia. Hear Swee Hong Lim's song "Lord, Have Mercy," based on Isaiah 1:18. It's in the Asian hymnal Sound the Bamboo, published by the Christian Conference of Asia-an excellent source of news, social justice perspectives, and resources for celebrating Asia Sunday. View Asian Christian art.  Listen to new songs in an issue of EthnoDoxology, a journal of global Christian music. Swee Hong Lim has compiled even more links to Asian worship resources.

Start a Discussion

  • How aware is your congregation of your pastor's many responsibilities?
  • In what ways does your church encourage your pastor to take time for renewal? Do you know how to tap denominational or foundation funds to help your pastor attend retreats, seminars, or other renewal events?
  • What are the pros and cons of referring to books in sermons? What are the best ways to choose books so listeners feel welcomed and intrigued, not excluded?
  • Pastors and lay leaders who attend seminars on worship say there's a big difference between theorizing about worship and actually worshiping together. How well do your church's educational events on worship, music, or prayer combine theory and practice?

Share Your Wisdom

  • Have you designed effective ways to involve area pastors-or people in your congregation-in starting book clubs?
  • Do you designate a "book of the month" or "book of the quarter" at your church, offering multiple copies in the church library, writing reviews, mentioning the book in sermons, and planning discussion sessions?
  • Have you discovered how to help pastors and other church members balance the desire to be productive alongside the need for renewal?
  • If your life experience gives you special insight into a body of literature or music, have you volunteered to help other Christians understand the context of these books or songs?