Today is Part 10 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamthe ics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry.
One of my favorite findings during my sabbatical has been the discovery of a little book called “Sleeping with Bread”. The book was recommended by a clergy colleague of mine last Friday. The book is helpful because it teaches its readers a simple two-step process that can used to guide everything from one’s prayer life to one’s discernment processes.
The process is based upon an Ignatian spiritual practice called The Daily Examen. In the modern version presented in the book, individuals are asked to answer two questions at the end of each day: (1) what was my favorite part of the day; and (2) what was my least favorite part of the day. They present several ways you can adapt those two core questions based upon your circumstance. “What was your favorite part of the day?” for instance, could become “When did I feel most alive?” or “When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, others, God, and the universe?”
The three authors of the book encourage readers to write down your answers each day when possible. The things you record as the favorite part of your day are called consolations; the things you record as the least favorite part of your day are called desolations.
The process can guide your prayer life by inviting you to include prayers of thanksgivings for your consolations in your prayer time, and requests for help with your desolations. The process can also guide your discernment process by watching to see if a pattern develops in your consolations. The basic premise of the process is that God wants you to be happy. By tracking your consolations, you can see where your joy comes from – and make it easier to identify and then follow your bliss. Conversely tracking your desolations can tell you want you need to stop (if possible) or devoted less time and energy to.
So why am I sharing this with you?
When I started my sabbatical, I thought that my writing would be a consolation. I notice over the past three days that I’ve used the process, however, that my writing process had actually become my desolation. I wondered why that was. And then I thought of something that happened that changed things for me significantly. Let me tell you about it – and how I’m working to overcome it.
When I started writing, I was excited about being able to speak my truth in love without filters – and say things that I thought could be of benefit to those who serve local churches, and those who attend them. I began by speaking in pretty direct ways.
Then a few days in I received a text message from a reader from within my faith community. Text messages are hard because you don’t have the luxury of screening them like you do with an email. At least I don’t, since my personal and vocational texts all come to the same number. So I glanced at it.
The content suggested that there were some in my community who had read the early entries and were thinking that I was mostly unhappy with my position and that I might not return from my two-month sabbatical.
That experience was devastating to me on two different levels.
First, I feared I had not communicated my reasons for speaking my truth. I thought I had made it clear that I was speaking my truth because I truly LOVE local churches (and the church I am currently serving specifically) and wanted to help strengthen them. Apparently, I hadn’t.
There were some positives that came from this, however – as it encouraged me to do a couple things that perhaps made my blog better. First, I decided to split my time between talking about reasons for wanting to leave and reasons for wanting me to stay. It also helped me tighten up my language in my posts. I took out the phrase “Reasons I Wanted to Leave” and replaced it with “Reasons I Wanted to Leave Parish Ministry.” This helped readers from the community I currently serve better understand that my frustrations were not with them specifically. They were frustrations that seemed to be inherent to the practice of parish ministry these days. Those were the positives that came from the text.
The negative that has overwhelmed me for the past several days was that it triggered the one thing that is my greatest obstacle in my work as a pastor: fear. And one of the things that triggers fear more than anything else for me is when someone uses the old phrase “Some people are talking …”
Because of that triggering two-word phrase – “some people” – my whole attitude toward writing changed. I no longer felt comfortable writing what I felt called to share. And suddenly, my blog was devolving into a shell of what I hoped it would be. That’s why I came very close to deleting everything I had written last night and simply disappearing.
Here is where my 12 Step work clicked in and helped me make a different decision. For you see one thing 12 Step work teaches is that hard times are really a blessing because they have the ability to teach us something that we need to learn. The lessons that come from our hard times are particularly helpful, in fact, because they force us to look at things we would otherwise never explore. If you have the strength to hang in there and face the challenge head on, you can grow incredibly.
So that’s what I did last night and this morning: I hung in there, looked directly at my fear, and came to this realization. I believe that one of the biggest things that holds our local churches back is this thing called “fear”. Most leaders (lay and ordained) know what needs to be done in our churches to strengthen the life of the church. Many times, however, we don’t do things things.
For fear of what some people might say. If I had a dollar for every time this dynamic played itself out in my ministry over the past nearly 20 years, I could have retired to the Bahamas 10 years ago. 😊
So how did this somewhat experience transform itself from what many would expect to be a “reason I wanted to leave parish ministry” into a “reason I want to remain in parish ministry”?
That transformation occurred because the experience reminded me that parish ministry gives me an extraordinarily high number of opportunities each day to face my fears and overcome them. To speak my truth in love. If I chose to run from such opportunities and find a more serene job, I would cheat myself out of many, many, many opportunities to become the person and pastor God would have me to be.
So with that, I am going to take some time off from writing, and see if I can do some more of my work so that my writing can once again become a consolation. In the meantime, please know that the words I have written to this point have been shared in the spirit of love and concern for both myself and the church. I know that God, as The Daily Examen reminds us, wants the very best for us. And that path of becoming our very best self is one that is paved – every day – by our decision NOT to let fear run our lives and our ministries. Thank you, my readers, for being a critical part of this invaluable learning process for me!