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Learning and the Life of the Pastor

By Leanne Van Dyk

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.

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