7 words of guidance for young clergy

January 5th, 2015

I write from the perspective of a pastor and a bishop. I have served in a mainline denomination for 32 years, and am now in a role that gives me a vista that is, in the language of Ronald Heifetz, more balcony than dance. If there is any wisdom here, it comes in substantial measure from mistakes I’ve made; it reflects both doors that have opened (or been opened) for me, and also, in the words of one of my favorite bluegrass songs, “the trains I’ve missed” (Balsam Range).

So, seven words of guidance.

1. Find a disciplined way to read Scripture. Some years you may read through the whole of Scripture; other years you may read through the New Testament, or the gospels or the prophets. Spend the days between Christmas and New Year’s developing a plan, share your plan with others, and then follow your plan. Most of the clergy in my own annual conference preach thematically, in series; this year, simply for contrast, I am reading the lectionary passages from Scripture each week. And, yes, most years I begin with a new Bible, wise guidance from my spiritual director.

2. Cultivate friendships. Along the way you will come alongside men and women who are life-giving to you. They share your enthusiasms, hobbies, passions and obsessions. Do not take these relationships for granted. While they arrive spontaneously, they require care and, to use a cliche, intentionality. Clergy can live in the default of befriending those who seek us out, in our congregations, and this is good. But friendship cannot be simply our passive acceptance of social invitations; instead, we move toward others, include them, learn from them and delight in them.

3. Don’t worry about the next assignment. Instead, becoming immersed in the present setting. The most effective clergy I know, across all kinds of theological differences, are the ones who are fully engaged in the life of their communities and congregations. The least effective clergy I know are more focused on the next assignment. Yes, the future will bring change. But the future will most often be shaped by what is happened in the present. Indeed, as the management theorist Peter Drucker observed, the future has already begun. Be attentive to the sacrament of the present moment.

4. Detach or detox from the culture wars. Find your own voice that speaks for justice and freedom, and listen to voices that differ from yours. Avoid the groupthink that is the inevitable result of enclosed life in one checked box or another. Purge (or at least question) the assumptions you may hold about your own politics, or the politics of others. In so doing you will confuse some people and disappoint others, but you can be at peace about that.

5. Don’t obsess about the decline of the mainline church. Are there troubling vital signs in American Christianity? Yes. Is there an age demographic trend that is reshaping congregational life? Yes. But there is also the awareness that young clergy are worthy of attention, prepared for leadership and positioned for mission. There is the additional sense, across denominations, that an alignment of resources toward the flourishing of younger clergy is necessary, and not merely for the survival of the institution. Paradoxically, younger clergy will have more substantial support than their predecessors, and a more interesting and flexible climate for ministry.

6. Get as much education as possible. The world is an increasingly complex place, and no educational degree program prepares an individual for a lifetime of ministry. So … learn a second language, imagine that you are a social entrepreneur, develop a skill that seems to have little relationship to ministry, read outside of your discipline. Spend a year reading the writings of one author. Learn as much as you can about your own family system. Explore the dynamics of podcasts, like “This American Life” or “Serial,” that seem to hold the attention of listeners for 40 plus minutes. Find a mentor, and allow her to teach you.

7. Stay close to the theological sources of life. Never forget that you were saved by grace and not by your works. Never doubt that your life is a journey made possible through God’s providence. Always remember that reconciliation, not estrangement, is God’s preference. Always claim the reality of the incarnation, that your very presence is a sign that God is at work in a given situation. Know that the church is human and divine, sometimes imperfect and at times even corrupt, and yet, at its best, the hope of the world. If there were a substitute for it, you would have found something else to do with your life. And remember your baptism. You have more in common with the laity than you may imagine!

Yes, Christendom, and a church culture which depended on conformity, is dying. Yes, a pluralistic society, with global patterns of migration and multifaith expressions of religion, is rising. These shifts were anticipated in the writings of Lesslie Newbigin and Stanley Hauerwas 50 and 25 years ago, respectively. You will live your entire ministry in this context. But the constants remain: the Triune God, who created you, who saves you, who sustains you, who sets you apart, through a strange mercy, for this calling.

I hope you will set aside the temptation to despair or arrogance, embracing instead this adventure with hope and confidence. God is faithful.

Your colleague in ministry,

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