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Learning and the Life of the Pastor

The life of a congregational minister is varied, challenging and constantly changing. It is often noted that ministry today is strikingly different than it was a generation ago. The expectations are higher and the demands more numerous. In recent years, several studies have reported that the ministry is hard on the health of the minister. A 2006 study by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, cited rates of stress, depression and addiction dependencies  in clergy were across the board higher than in the general population. In a lecture at a 2004 conference in Washington, D.C., on public health and the environment, Bethann Cottrell also documented the high rates of obesity, mental health, heart disease and stress in clergy. It appears that ministry is a dangerous profession.
The strategies for sustaining pastoral ministry are wide-ranging and include a number of efforts, including maintaining healthy boundaries, exercising and participating in peer support groups. Another strategy is creating and then pursuing a lifelong learning plan. The rapid pace of change in the ministry and the multiple demands on the pastor mean that the M.Div. degree is the entry point, not the finish line, of theological education. A plan for lifelong learning can serve as one tool to encourage, strengthen and deepen the pastor. Such a plan, especially if supported by the congregation with needed budget and policies, can include continuing education courses and periodic sabbaticals for research and consultation. It should also include a regular pattern of reading. A plan of reading can be an individual exercise, or a small-group pattern, or both.
This essay will suggest particular ways that reading in the pastoral life can enrich preaching and pastoral care. Reading both fiction and nonfiction will open up areas of human experience at a level far beyond the pastor’s own circle of family, friends and congregation. In this way, the minister will be able to explore the particularities of people and the nuances of the gospel in ways that will empower preaching and inform pastoral care. Preaching in particular can benefit from reading, both in theological and biblical disciplines, and also in fiction and nonfiction sources. The preacher who reads consistently preaches more creatively and compellingly because resources far beyond the experience of the preacher are brought to the task of proclamation.
One readily accessible source of excellent reading material is the annual Pulitzer Prizes, awarded in journalism, commentary, poetry, fiction and other literary categories. The Pulitzer Prizes offer a range of options, from brief newspaper commentaries to full-length biographies and fiction. This annual list focuses on current global issues that are explored in the nation’s most respected newspapers as well as the best of new fiction and nonfiction. It is only the narrowest slice of what is worthy of reading, but it cannot be surpassed in terms of quality and timeliness.
The Pulitzer Prize winners from 2006 and 2007 provide an example of how reading like this can enrich and sustain ministry. Some of the winners of 2006 include Washington Post journalists Susan Schmidt, James Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smit, who investigated the tangled political connections of Jack Abramoff. A story like this, in all its complexities and layers, gives the preacher a vivid case study of sin. Here is a story of astounding deceit and patronage and blatant brokering of power and influence. Honest preaching on sin must display an awareness of the parasitic character of sin so convincingly displayed in the Abramoff story. The familiar deceit of sin is also displayed. Some of it is consciously perpetrated by the sinner, and some blinds the sinner with its layers of self-justification.
Another piece of high-quality journalism is a 2007 investigation by Debbie Cenziper in the Miami Herald. This article exposed the rampant corruption in the public housing administration in Miami. Again, it is a story that illustrates the contours of structural and personal sin and the broad ripple effects of sin in full momentum. No area of human life is exempt from sin. The sheer inventiveness and persistence of corruption in public housing is a high irony: even the effort to provide safe and affordable housing for the poorest members of the community is tainted with greed.
Other areas of human life that touch the work of the pastor every day are also illuminated in the list of recent Pulitzer winners. New York Times writers Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley won a journalism prize for their work on the ragged justice system in China. It is a story of success and failure, hope and despair. The poor farmer, the political dissenter, the urban factory worker—these are the ones crushed by a judicial system both antiquated and corrupt. Although a congregation is far different from an enormously populous country like China and the pastor not a ruthless judge, the basic dynamics of success and failure, hope and despair are often the dynamics in a local congregation as well. Although not as visibly dramatic, the currents and tides of human life in a congregation often reflect these same features of dispossessed and falsely imprisoned citizens in China. The pastor who is well-read in such literature will understand more deeply the human struggles in the congregation.
Biography is another category in the Pulitzer Prizes that can also play a part in ongoing ministerial formation. The professional hazards and pitfalls of the life of the minister come into sharp focus in the 2006 biography by Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. The successes and influences of the 19th-century preacher, in his tireless work for the abolition of slavery and the rights or women, are set alongside the equally sensational failures of his marriage promises in a widely publicized adulterous affair. The juxtaposition of faithfulness in ministry, on the one hand, and a breach of marital fidelity, on the other, is a cautionary tale for pastors who face unique challenges in their leadership positions. A book such as Debby Applegate’s will support that reflection.
Excellent newspaper journalism and biography are not the only components of a lifelong learning plan of reading for the pastor. Fiction and poetry can also contribute to the sustaining of pastoral minitry. Here, of course, the possibilities are virtually endless. Engaging and illuminating novels include Pulitzer Prize winners Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005), Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (2002) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1998). Many other contemporary novelists are especially suggestive when exploring the implications of grace in human communities. Wendell Berry’s wonderful series of novels about the fictional but recognizable town of Port Williams is a rich and enjoyable collection that yields heartwarming and heartbreaking accounts of faith, perserverance and community. Port Williams is a landscape of pastoral imagination. Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, The Memory of Old Jack and Andy Catlett: Early Travels are some of the novels in this series. Each breaks open in fresh and sometimes startling ways the issues that pastors deal with every day. My own understanding of living faithfully with the promises we make, promises that pull in their wake both joy and suffering, has forever been changed by a reading and then a rereading of Jayber Crow.
A lifelong learning plan will include many other goals as well, all of which can contribute to a healthy and long life of pastoral ministry. But there is hardly a more enjoyable learning plan than the steady reading of wonderful novels and nonfiction. Both pastor, in sermon preparation and pastoral care, and congregation, in listening and discussing, will learn to spot the deep incarnational resemblances between the themes of the gospel and the themes of human experience and observation. The sustaining of pastoral ministry through reading will, in fact, support both pastor and people.

Adapted from Best Advice, William J. Carl III, editor. Copyright © 2009 by Westminster John Knox Press. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville,Kentucky. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

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