Sharpening our focus

Posted Jul 31, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Kevin R. Armstrong


Kevin ArmstrongSearching for lost coins, lost sheep, and lost children seems to be the gospel’s reminder that sometimes we become inattentive and neglect the people, places, and events that matter most to God and to each of us. After 25 years of ministry, I recognized I sometimes lost focus, overlooked the obvious, and neglected what was directly in front of me. The vision blurred, the mission became unfocused, and relationships once at the center of my attention became peripheral. Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Program grant to North United Methodist Church not only allowed me to restore those practices of attentiveness through the arts of poetry and photography, but also provided the congregation a way to join in that journey.

Both arts have been a passion of mine for many years and provide not only a venue for self-care and creativity but a way of “seeing” the world around me more clearly. When busy-ness and carelessness reduce the Word to wordiness, poetry points to the spaces between the words where I’m most likely to see what’s worth saying. Photography’s wisdom also helps me frame and focus the familiar in a way that offers a different point of view, an unexpected glimpse of beauty, or an otherwise overlooked epiphany concealed in the shadows. Time apart from the congregation allowed me to cultivate new skills in reading and writing poetry and in photography. Simultaneously, the congregation was gathering members and neighbors who shared interest in poetry and photography. What transpired renewed our relationships with family and friends as well as refreshed and refocused areas of creative ministry.

While retreating to a favorite beach with my family for an extended stay, I had the opportunity to revisit the poems I had written and half-written. As I fooled with the words and images I had stowed away for such a time, members of the congregation were meeting weekly to share poetry they had written and to learn from community poets.

In Barcelona, Spain where our daughter lived and studied, we enjoyed a change of scenery that both inspired poetry and opened our eyes to new places and people. The day-to-day experience of a different language is both disorienting but also reorienting in terms of seeing and hearing in fresh and creative ways. My wife and I had the chance to see and hear our daughter’s “other home” where the people and culture have deeply influenced her.

I love the American West and had long wanted to spend time camping and photographing in Glacier National Park. Known as the “Crown Jewel of the Continent,” Glacier improved both my eyesight and hearing. Patient photography teachers encouraged me to see the beauty that is all around us and the even deeper beauty that impatience and inattentiveness often overlook. Back home, a university instructor was guiding North members and neighbors to connect by using their photographs to share one another’s stories. An unexpected discovery was that many neighbors had no pictures of themselves so members took and gave away photos to our neighbors. Many responded that they would use their photo to send to a loved one in jail, to a relative far away, and even as a photo for their obituary. Awareness and friendship grew in the light of such attentiveness. 

I’ll never be a professional poet or photographer, but the Clergy Renewal Program grant reminded me and the congregation that some of the most important lessons and moments of our life can become a bit blurred. Some of the important, life-giving people and possibilities can get pushed to the edges by the urgent. Some pastoral practices get lost or pushed out of the picture completely. A time away for me and a time together for the congregation provided renewal, refreshment, and refocus for the journey ahead. And I’m pleased to report that two years after the renewal grant, photography exhibits still rotate in the congregation and members inspired by the poetry workshops still share their work. A renewal grant prepared together over 18 months will hopefully shape our attentiveness, focus, and friendships for a lifetime.

Kevin R. Armstrong has been president of Methodist Health Foundation since 2012. Before then he served as senior pastor of North United Methodist Church and Roberts Park United Methodist Church, both in Indianapolis.

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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