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Spiritual Practices as a Pastor

A Pastor's Reflection

I will never forget sitting in my office at the church one afternoon during the season of Lent, ready to read the scriptures. I pulled out my newly acquired leather-bound Oxford Annotated edition and let it fall open. I don’t remember what it was that I was aiming to read, but I do remember what was on the pages that I opened to. Nothing. It was a complete blank. There I was, coming to the scriptures and there was nothing there. It was startling and the contrast between what I was looking for (God’s word) and what I found (nothing) seemed utterly significant in that instant.

It was over quickly. I had happened to open to some intentionally blank pages for notes in between the testaments. So much for significance.  But the image stuck. What if God really had nothing to say to me? What if I were to come to hear the word of the Lord and found only an empty, blank silence?

In his book, Homiletics, Karl Barth tells us, “Pastors ought to seek guidance from the scripture more often then for the purpose of preparing their sermons.” It seems glaringly obvious, but when one finds him or herself in the midst of the pastor’s daily work—visitation, unexpected visitation, planning, meetings, emergencies, complaints, counsel—the regular practice of coming to the scriptures for personal guidance and formation can quickly become an almost unattainable ideal. With all there is to do, who has time for practices that bear no clear fruit to which the congregation can point and say, “Look what the pastor has done”? No one in the congregation ever asked me if I had read scripture lately. And so Barth’s injunction that the pastor should seek out the scriptures for more than the sole purpose of getting the pastor’s work done may have more merit than its clear obviousness might lead us to believe.

This fits nicely into Barth’s larger vision of the preacher as one who comes to the congregation first and foremost as someone who has been personally stricken by scripture and now stands as a witness to what the scriptures have done in and to him or her. And it was this that made the blank pages staring at me from the bible on my desk that Lent startling. What if God had nothing to say to me? How could I speak to others as pastor if God had not first spoken to me? For me the image of the blank scriptures was a sort of warning that the pastor who neglects his or her own spiritual practice—those things which cannot be pointed to as “things done”—is a pastor who comes from nowhere. The pastor has to have a rich practice of spirituality outside of what can be pointed to as a thing accomplished.

At the same time…

A strong distinction between the pastor’s own spiritual practices and the work of ministry can lead to an dangerous dualism. Here the pastor’s spiritual practices are seen as representing the good and spiritual, while the everyday details and work of doing ministry represent the mundane, the things that “have to get done”—almost necessary evils—and the pastor turns into a sort of pastoral Gnostic. Just as the Gnostics in the first centuries of the Church—with their degrading of things physical and holding up of the spiritual and immaterial as the only good—challenged the Church to affirm the goodness of the created world and God’s presence in it, so any tendency toward a pastoral Gnosticism challenges us to see the goodness and spiritual depth in the everyday workings of practical ministry. Visitation, unexpected visitation, planning, meetings, emergencies, complaints, counsel—all these are in themselves their own spiritual practices.

This is something that I didn’t come to fully realize until I had left working full-time pastoral ministry in order to go back to school. I have to admit to being a bit of a pastoral Gnostic much of the time in parish ministry. The more mundane tasks often felt burdensome and “unspiritual.” And so I was surprised as I witnessed my own spirituality suffering after leaving parish ministry. No longer being responsible for the very real task of daily ministry with the very real people of the Church in the same was as I was in my role as a full-time solo pastor, in some ways, left me a bit cold. As it turns out, the daily work of the Church was its own spiritually fulfilling practice. I often missed it—not always, to be fair. But I didn’t cultivate a sense of doing ministry (in all the ways it must be done) as an expression of my own spirituality.

Barth is right, I believe. The pastor must cultivate a spirituality and commitment to spiritual practice apart from what can be pointed at as contributing toward a ministry task. But perhaps we should also feel challenged to keep ourselves from becoming pastoral Gnostics. What might the everyday tasks of parish ministry be like if we could incorporate them into our understanding of spiritual practice rather than accusing them of being necessary evils?