A well-woven pastoral life

Posted Nov 27, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Bob Burns


Bamboo weaveI had the privilege of coordinating the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) project at Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO) for seven years. One of our primary initiatives was a peer group activity called the Pastors Summit. These groups of pastors met regularly over a two-year period.

All participants agreed to allow their group experience to be part of a qualitative research program studying pastoral sustainability. A significant outcome of the Summit research was the identification of five primary themes for sustainability: (1) spiritual formation, (2) self-care, (3) emotional and cultural intelligence, (4) marriage and family, and (5) leadership and management. Together with Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie, I recently wrote a book entitled Resilient Ministry discussing these themes (published by InterVarsity Press).

In many respects, these themes are evident in all of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence projects. We don’t believe we found the “holy grail” of pastoral survival! At the same time, we are convinced that an understanding of these themes, and an intentional evaluation of life and ministry through them, greatly affects the health and resilience of pastors and other ministry leaders.

While each theme can be looked at individually, it is our belief that when considering pastoral health all five topics should be reviewed together. Each is dependent on the others. They are like the strands of a tapestry woven into one piece. So, for example, we can’t really reflect well on self-care without considering spiritual formation. And we shouldn’t review emotional and cultural intelligence unless we understand their function both in our home and leadership.

Taking this idea of weaving all themes together one more step, we were impressed at how pastoral ministry affects and defines all areas of life. Work, family, and personal responsibilities blur together through the week, so that pastors have difficulty distinguishing when they are on and off duty. One Summit pastor put it this way: “Being a pastor is not just what I do – it is very much who I am. I live with that persona twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

One of the most poignant comments made in the Summit recaps the challenge of pastoral life. This person shared,

Most people in our church have a life that is like a stool with three legs. They’ve got their spiritual life, their professional life and their family life. If one of these legs wobbles, they’ve got two others they can lean on. For us, those three things can merge into one leg. You’re sitting on a one-legged stool, and it takes a lot more concentration and energy. It’s a lot more exhausting.

Likewise for pastors, each dimension of our lives needs careful attention and intentional cultivation. Otherwise, we “wobble” through ministry.

Donald, Tasha, and I are very grateful for all we learned from the varied SPE projects! We hope that our experience in the Pastors Summit adds to this rich learning to enhance pastoral life and improve gospel health in congregations.

Image used by permission courtesy of Exsodus/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Bob Burns (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is senior associate pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, and adjunct professor of educational ministries at Covenant Theological Seminary. Bob has been a pastor and teacher for more than 40 years, with experiences ranging from church planting to family ministry and from worship and the arts to youth and singles ministries.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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