Discovering stability in the pastorate
As popular as the story of Elijah’s prophetic showdown on Mount Carmel may be, another dramatic event comes at the end of Elijah’s life: his chariot ride to the realms of glory. As Elijah and Elisha “were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (2 Kings 2:11, NASB). The Hebrew here can also be translated as “in a gust, in a windy moment.” In other words, Elijah was whisked off this earth in one sweeping movement into God’s presence.1
For those of us still in “Beersheba”—like Elijah, wrestling with our own struggles in ministry—we long for a similar transition. And like Elijah’s successor, the word of a new post of service in a distant church district falls upon receptive ears like a mantle of possibility. It would appear that the closest we will get to a fiery chariot is a tightly packed truck on its way to new pastures.
Woe is me
There comes a point in every pastor’s tenure where one begins to contemplate, perhaps even fantasize, about moving on. In a 2010 Ministry article, Ivan Charles Blake shares his concern for struggling congregations and the apparent dearth of experienced pastors to shepherd them. Instead of leaving the pastorate for another form of ministry, his burden is “for more pastors to stay in pastoral work exclusively, giving themselves to quality preaching, teaching, leading, and training.”2
While agreeing with Blake’s assessment, I would like to address this issue by exploring the spiritual underpinnings of what is going on when pastors are deciding whether to move on. My proposal? Although there are legitimate reasons for changing posts of service, stability—the practice of persevering in a particular place or vocation—is a much-needed discipline that opens up an entirely different conversation.3
In all honesty, this article is really more of a confession of my need than a testimony to my spiritual triumphs. To those who know me, it may seem odd that I am writing about stability. My last tally yielded more moves than I am willing to admit. As a pastor, each move and each church may have brought new and exciting opportunities; but in a few years’ time, I found myself becoming discontented with the present and dreaming of the future.
So why write? The short answer I have grown weary of moving. I am tired of being entrenched in a lifelong pattern of escape, hoping God will find me just over the next hill or the next church. Upon reflection, it seems that my sojourns have instilled a degree of restlessness and even discontent common to a contemporary Western culture of life on the go. This has produced a precedent whereby putting down roots has been discouraged. Approaching the middle years of my life, I am finally beginning to realize, as one author put it, “it is not important to get by unscathed but it is important to not run away.”4
Making haste in the pastorate
What motivations lie underneath a pastor’s move? We will never plumb the depths of a pastor’s heart in its entirety, but I think I have been able to identify at least one undercurrent: speed. For many pastors, speed and busyness are the litmus tests for ministerial success. Speed is almost worn as a badge of honor. Why? David Whyte insightfully observes, “Speed gets noticed. Speed is praised by others. Speed is self-important. Speed absolves us. . . . When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking.”5 The great disadvantage of speed, however, is that we begin to lose sight of the fact that everyone does not travel as fast as we do, including our colleagues, family members, and children.
For many of us, the only thing that slows us down is when we are humbled. Humility is a virtue that counteracts our perceived need for speed. The root of the word humility is the Latin word humus, meaning soil or ground. Thus, when we are humbled, “we are in effect returned to the ground of our being. Any fancy ideas we have about ourselves are shriven away by the reality of the moment.”6 For the pastor, “being humbled” occurs whenever our breakneck quest for attainment has been impeded. At precisely these moments, we are forced to face ourselves and reevaluate the direction we are headed.
Humbling experiences are generally something we try to avoid, but in hindsight these experiences often serve as a call to go deeper and grow spiritually. My most recent transition serves as a fitting example. This particular move was not precipitated by my need to move on, but rather by my wife’s career. Nevertheless, I thought with advanced theological degrees, a number of “successful” pastorates under my belt, and favorable recommendations from respected administrators, it would not be long before I would be unpacking my books in the office of a new church. But God seemed to have other plans for the next 18 months of my life. In a matter of a few short weeks, I went from preaching, counseling, and leading a congregation to changing diapers full time. Going from respected pastor to an unnoticed stay-at-home dad challenged my identity and place in ministry to the very core.
In retrospect, I can see how it was all for the best. In an attempt to steadily climb the ladder of success, I learned that my real need was to fall down and pay close attention to where the ladder stands. In the words of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats: “Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”7 Stopping, paying attention, and becoming rooted in a particular place—these are the elements of stability, the rich soil of humility. Throughout this experience I have begun to learn that stability’s call to stop and stay put for a while is really the best way to get somewhere.8
Historically speaking, the concept of stability emerged out of a very real spiritual problem during the Middle Ages. Certain Christians known as gyrovagues, meaning “to run around in circles,” never stayed longer than a few days at any one Christian community. By seeking to avoid interpersonal conflicts, as well as the tedious and mundane aspects of everyday routine, they lost the experience of conversatio—continual conversion of life.9 To counteract this bewildering and exhausting rush from one thing to another, the practice of stability challenged these followers of God to root themselves in a particular place with a particular people, come what may.10
Likewise, when accepting a call to pastor a specific church, the call means to serve as if we were planning on spending the rest of our lives there—preaching, baptizing, counseling, marrying, and burying generations of God’s people. The problem is that sometimes it seems downright dreary to consider that God has given us this church congregation. We may think to ourselves, Surely we are meant for more important things, and our talents will be better appreciated by a more sophisticated crowd.11 Yet, this composes the wisdom of stability—real growth comes in the context of community, not in isolation or perpetual movement. “Only when we stay in relationships long enough can we be known in such a way that we are confronted with the reality of ourselves and are challenged to convert.”12 The sobering truth? Pastors are probably shaped more by their congregation than the other way around.
“Even though leaving our current church might be our first thought, it should not be our only thought. In fact, it may not be our best thought.”15 James M. Antal suggests numerous options for persevering. For example, some long-term pastors find refreshment in taking a sabbatical, which affords the opportunity to read, talk to friends, and attend a workshop. Other pastors, like myself, experience renewal by furthering their education. Another way to bring fresh perspective would be to identify one’s personal passion and channel it into launching a new church ministry. Stability is not the easy way out; all of these options can create additional stress and attract criticism. However, “no price is too great to pay if a minister who is lost rediscovers his or her call.”16Thus, when thoughts about moving on begin to surface, for whatever reason, “It is critical that we stop and take a long, prayerful look.”13 We need to probe deeper. Why? Why now? After examining our hearts and the options available to us, we just might conclude that the best alternative involves staying put. Benefits of ministry longevity are numerous: developing deeper relationships, learning to love one another through difficulties, a sense of belonging to a larger community outside the church, and the “adoption” of a pastor’s children by surrogate grandparents, aunts, and uncles.14
Ultimately, stability is much more profound than drawing a line in the sand. Perhaps this is one of the great lessons we learn from Elijah’s life. In the cave, God was not in the violent wind but the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11, 12, KJV). On the other hand, when Elijah was taken up from this earth, evidently God was in the whirlwind (1 Kings 19:11; cf. 2 Kings 2:11).17 In other words, God’s faithfulness was seen regardless of the circumstance or where Elijah planted his feet.
Stability begins by accepting the gift of God’s presence where we are, viewing it as holy ground. We know this first and foremost because God’s Son took on human flesh and refused to abandon His call to “ ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ ” (Matt. 15:24, NASB), despite continual opposition and, in the end, crucifixion. This is the definitive testimony to the revolutionary power of stability and, by implication, entails a way of life for the disciple of Christ.18
In situations where sticking it out in a congregation may not be an option, internal stability of heart is always within reach. Stability is a continuous process of holding on against all odds, involving us in the mystery of the Cross. In the end, “The one thing that we can hold on to is the certainty of God. Our stability is a response to that promise which reassures us that he is faithful and steadfast and that we should ‘never lose hope in God’s mercy.’ ”19
1 The prophet’s grand exit was not in the chariot itself, but rather on the wings of the wind. However, it is important to note, “These chariots and horsemen symbolized strong protection as well as the forces of God’s spiritual presence.” Donald J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 195, 196.
2 Ivan Charles Blake, “Pastor for Life,” Ministry 82, no. 7/8 (July/August 2010): 7.
3 Legitimate promptings to transition to a different church are numerous, such as a change in personal circumstances (spouse’s career needs, a child’s schooling, death in the family, medical concerns), or church circumstances (an impasse of church and pastoral leadership and vision). Additionally, one can never rule out the occasional times when, despite contentment in a congregation, God clearly (read also, miraculously) intervenes and indicates it is time to go. See James M. Antal, Considering a New Call: Ethical and Spiritual Challenges for Clergy (Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 2000), 11–17; Michael J. Anthony and Mick Boersma, Moving On—Moving Forward: A Guide for Pastors in Transition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 85–99.
4 Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 64.
5 David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead, 2001), 117.
6 Ibid., 125.
7 W. B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1994), 297.
8 This phrasing is taken from the title of chapter 8 in Dennis Okholm’s introductory text, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007), 89.
9 See Timothy Fry, ed., RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981), prologue 49; 58.1, 17; 73.1. According to Terrence G. Kardong, conversatio means “a lifestyle, a ‘turning-around’ in a given milieu.” Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 24.
10 De Waal, Seeking God, 57.
11 Kathleen Norris, foreword to The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan WilsonHartgrove (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), ix.
12 Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People, 95.
13 Antal, Considering a New Call, 19.
14 Anthony and Boersma, Moving On—Moving Forward, 88.
15 Antal, Considering a New Call, 19.
16 Ibid., 21.
17 Though the Hebrew words used in both of these passages for “wind” are different (ruah and se’ara), biblical scholars of diverse schools attest to the manifestation of physical phenomena as connected with theophany. See Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 236, 294; Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 232, 271.
18 Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability, 136.
19 De Waal, Seeking God, 64.