I don’t like change. But change is constant. And change always bring questions.
We are experiencing a season of change in my family. One of the things I have signed up for as a United Methodist pastor is regularly scheduled change and the questions that come with it. Change has come again this year as we are in the middle of transitioning from a church we know that has loved us well on the North Side of town to a new place with wonderful people who we look forward to serving God with on the South Side of town.
And so my life is full of change and full of questions – how to say both goodbye and hello well, how will our dog adjust to a new place, and perhaps most importantly, what hip coffee shop will be the new place where we solve all our problems over caffeine in this new part of town?
The personal questions that have come our way are fairly predictable. But it is the professional ones that have a way of sneaking up on you. My role will change from associate pastor to lead pastor and that change has hurled questions at me with more speed and intensity than I was prepared for.
But fortunately I haven’t had to solve these riddles on my own. I’ve been able to talk with friends and mentors. I’ve been able to listen to family and depend on the anchor of Scripture and the faithfulness of God in prayer. And I’ve also been reminded that I’m not the first person to make this journey as I read and listen to wise preachers and leaders who have traveled this road themselves through articles, blog posts and books.
And so s a way to give thanks for those who have eased my anxiety and to share with those of you who might need some help too, here are five writers and books who are shaping my thoughts about pastoral ministry in the midst of transition.
1. The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, David Rohr. John the Baptist wasn’t popular in his day and hasn’t been popular as a type for modern pastors to emulate in a consumer church culture. There’s good reason for that. You brood of vipers isn’t generally the best opening line on your first day in a new place. But Rohr casts John as a faithful model for pastors to emulate. John reminds us that ministry is about pointing – not to ourselves or our dreams or talents or insights on church growth – but instead to the life and person of Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease.” Pastors can’t guarantee numerical growth or success, but faithfulness is about pointing people to Jesus and facilitating an encounter with the God who is revealed in him. Put simply, this is probably the best book I have read on pastoral ministry.
2. The Pastor, Eugene Peterson: I read Peterson’s memoir when I was on medical leave a couple of years ago. And it was while I was on the sidelines that this passionate call to true pastoral leadership reshaped the way I do my work. There are too many insights to name, but the most powerful is that the pastor’s work isn’t primarily shaped by the latest tricks or techniques. Instead, pastors are shaped by the story of Scripture and a deep and committed love to people and place. These are the tools that have nurtured and strengthened the church for more than 2,000 years and are the ones we need to sustain us and the people we love.
3. Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey: I read Jesus Feminist on my way to California earlier this year. The title might scare some, but it is less about becoming a feminist and more about living Christianly within the church. Sarah is one of my favorite writers and someone I want to be like when I grow up, because her writing and what I know of her living is full of passion and humility and intelligence and grace. Resurrection faith isn’t as much about being right on the right issues as it is about listening to and living with people in a way that enables us to see God in them and they see God in us. None of us have arrived and we need everyone in the kingdom. In an era of increasing division and winner-take-all fights, I don’t just want to write this way but to lead and live this way. Because this way is the way of Jesus.
4. The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel: I don’t know any pastor who doesn’t struggle with being a workaholic. So any reminder that there is another way I am going to read. Herschel reminds me that Sabbath isn’t a strategy for success but is a gift that invites us to imitate God. This is less a how-to book on a Sabbath than a poetic call to God-inspired resistance. Heschel is trying to teach me what Israel has experienced throughout its promised yet imperiled existence: The Sabbath is so important to God and in the life of God’s people that no force, no matter how powerful, has been able to take it away. Thank God.
5. The Pastor, Gordon Lathrop: The second book by the same title. A beloved seminary professor commended this book to me a few years ago and I am just now getting to it. There are hundreds of tasks for the pastor in a congregation – administration, pastoral care, preaching, teaching, social media, being an unofficial mayor, etc – but three stand out because they come from the earliest liturgies of the church – to preach a Biblical sermon, to preside over the sacraments, and to collect an offering for the poor. Preaching, serving at the table and the font, and helping people come together to bless the poor. Lathrop is clear about what is important. That is a gift we all need to be given.