Friday, December 4, 2009

Book Review: "Four Seasons of Ministry"

When a couple is expecting a baby, the most commonly read book is What To Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s a classic and practical book that helps couples navigate the complex journey of parenthood. While parenthood always remains humbling and challenging, What To Expect helps parents to make this voyage with a little more insight and confidence. It’s an important book. But what does a person read when s/he becomes involved in vocational ministry? Like parenting, the journey of ministerial leadership is humbling and challenging. Pastors, too, need help in making this journey with greater wisdom and poise. We need a book such as: What To Expect When You’re Expecting…A Career in Vocational Ministry. Thankfully, Katherine and Bruce Epperly have written a book about just this topic.

The Epperlys’ book, Four Seasons of Ministry, is a guide to navigating the complex seasons of a lifetime in ministry. They bring their theological insight, spiritual depth, and practical wisdom together to help pastors be able to more mindfully engage in healthy and vital ministry through a lifetime in ministry. Their book helps to empower pastors to be able to say “yes” to the following question: “Can a life devoted to ministry continue to bring beauty to God, our congregations, our families, and ourselves” (6)? While each person has a unique journey, this book helps pastors to say “yes” to that question in the various contexts out of which they traverse. In order to break this broad topic down, they divide their book into four seasons of ministry.

The first season is Springtime. The spring is a time of discernment of call, nurturance of gifts, and seminary education. Seminary is the initial major step in this process. During seminary people learn an overwhelming amount of information and theology. This can feel overwhelming and deconstructive. It’s the challenge of the seminarian to explore the practical implications of these theologies as well as find time for self-care and spirituality. As the Epperlys point out, “spiritual formation” and “theological reconstruction” are often parts of the theological education that get downplayed unless one comes to seminary with the goal of exploring these important elements (38). In order to thrive in this season, the Epperlys suggest vital-yet-sensible practices such as: finding a mentor, healthy eating, exercising joyfully, praying mindfully, and practicing Sabbath.

Then comes the Summertime. This is a season of exploration and growth in one’s first call. During this time, feelings of anxiousness and inadequacy can emerge when one encounters the enormity of tasks (and ministerial “firsts”) that are involved in ministry. To get through this phase, the Epperlys suggest seeking the council of colleagues, developing a vision for life, being intentional about budgeting one’s time, practicing healthy relational stewardship, developing a flexible-yet-defined sense of pastoral authority, acknowledging that one’s call is to be faithful but not perfect, etc. They also add a koan-esque question to continually ponder: “Will your spouse, partner, children, and closest friends also thank God for your calling into ordained ministry” (86)?

Third is Autumn. This season is about the “challenges of endurance and new opportunities for transformation” that come mid-career (6). Elements such as perfectionism, grief, and burnout can challenge one’s endurance. The authors suggest that during this season, it’s important to transform one’s ministry through a variety of practices: continuing education, fostering self-awareness, dealing honestly with grief, resisting perfectionism, facilitating one’s own growth through a clergy coach, etc.

Winter is the last season. Obviously this is a time of finding meaning, purpose, and ministerial role in retirement. Some experience this time as exciting while others see this time as disheartening. In either case, the Epperlys argue that it’s important to face this stage of the adventure with mindfulness. Part of that mindfulness is engaging in the following practices: exploring alternative ways to stay connected to ministry, celebrating one’s ministerial history, opening more deeply to forgivingness, expressing gratitude, accepting praise, trusting that God is faithful through all of life, sharing one’s wisdom, etc.

The Epperlys’ exploration of these four seasons gives pastors at all stages of ministry a description of some of the realities they will face, and some of the practices that can help them navigate each season with grace. It’s descriptive without being prescriptive. It’s practical without being overly simplistic. And it offers user-friendly wisdom without offering user-ignorable platitudes. The gift of this book is that it takes on a broad topic yet manages to provide down-to-earth insight: “a commitment to self-awareness, openness to God’s leading, and professional self-care are at the heart of vital and healthy ministry at every stage of life” (153). Simple yet profound. The Epperlys are the “Thich Nhat Hanhs” of practical theology. And if we’re smart enough to practice their wisdom, we might all experience a little more Zen.

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