At Epiphany, new ways of being
As I laid out my nativity scene collection this year, I was struck by the odd gathering of poor Galileans, shepherds, magi and maybe a few animals. There’s no earthly reason for this group to be together, except that they each experienced an encounter with the divine that they could not deny.
In the young adult, biblical fan fiction graphic novel that exists only in my mind, I like to imagine that this divine encounter bonds them in a kind of friendship that lasts for a lifetime. Every year, they write one another Christmas cards, fondly remembering the hilarious things that happened when Jesus was born, and they conspire to meet in Bethlehem the next time the magi are passing through. I imagine the shepherds and their families some 30 years later hustling to Jerusalem to make sure Mary is eating when Jesus is imprisoned.
This sort of enduring friendship is a rare gift, but truthfully, any kind of friendship has become difficult for us.
The pandemic and accompanying social tumult has changed the ways we relate and congregate. During the past three years, many of us experienced profound change in our social and intimate relationships. We stopped attending worship services and large social gatherings; family estrangement increased; the friendly barista at our favorite shop lost her job and moved away before we had a chance to say goodbye. Our close ties and our loose ties all came untied.
Some of us were experiencing isolation before the pandemic began. In early, pre-pandemic conversations with pastors, many Thriving in Ministry project directors discovered that pastors were experiencing deep loneliness in ministry. Some researchers of adolescent social behavior argued that the declines in iGen (born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s) teen pregnancy had less to do with access to information and mature decision making and more to do with less time spent in the physical company of peers as socialization moved online.
The social isolation of the pandemic exacerbated these trends. In 2021, Americans age 15 and older spent less than three hours a week with friends, a 58% decline since 2013. These lost hours were not replaced by time with partners, families or even co-workers; they were replaced by time alone.
Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.
Christmas and Advent can be particularly difficult seasons for prioritizing our well-being. Family and cultural expectations crowd out opportunities to reflect upon the meaning of a virgin mother, an incarnate and infant Christ child, an angel chorus, a star in the night. I find it incredibly difficult to slow down enough to join the shepherds in the field or the magi in their journeys and to experience the awe of an incarnate God.
Thankfully, Epiphany is one of the few Christian feasts celebrated in the United States with a meaning that has been spared the vampiric effects of capitalism. It remains a refuge of spiritual care.
The church quietly celebrates the appearance of the star of Bethlehem that beckoned Gentile magi to go and seek out the King of the Jews. The star, much like the infant Jesus, miraculously manifests and changes those who encounter it, drawing them closer to one another as they dream of the new ways of being this child is bringing to the world: sight for the blind, rest for the weary, freedom for the enslaved, hope for all.
The shining star of Epiphany beckons us to gather with others whose lives have been forever changed by an encounter with the divine. We cannot dream these dreams alone. We cannot become these new ways of being on our own. We need friends and community, with all their unlikeliness and messiness.
We don’t always feel like being with friends, or we may find it complicated to do so. After fulfilling all the obligations of the Christmas season, many of us engage in a kind of emotional hibernation, cocooned in our homes, recovering from a month of overstimulation. Many in our community are not well enough to bear the risk of exposure to illness. Others among us find the vulnerability and trust required of friendship incredibly difficult.
Back in the fan fic nativity scene, I imagine that the original Epiphany crew, too, had seasons when staying in touch became difficult, when their feelings of connection and love suffered. But the brilliance of the stars in the winter night sky pulled them back to the wonder of Jesus’ birth and the miracle of enduring love and friendship. Those stars reminded them to keep dreaming, to keep believing in the promised new ways of being, to keep creating transformative and healing community and friendship.
I plan to keep my nativity scenes out a little longer this year as my own kind of Epiphany reminder that spending time with friends is sacred and divine work. It can be challenging; it is countercultural and can counter my own intuition. But it is in our being with others that we encounter the Spirit and our dreams of full freedom and healing come alive.
Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.
A colleague recently lamented that a potential donor had expressed skepticism about the need for pastors to get away.
“Peloton instructors don’t need to get away to better take care of themselves to do their job! Why do pastors?” the donor wondered.
This conversation is the first time my personal curiosity about Peloton instructors, users and culture became professionally useful.
“WRONG!” I blurted out. “Peloton instructors see physical therapists and acupuncturists on a weekly basis. They exercise with one another and other top fitness professionals in private gyms all the time! Getting away from the camera and focusing on their well-being is part of the job.”
Plus, those instructors are fit!
The workout videos that we can stream at home are not the whole story of Peloton instructors’ well-being. I can barely breathe during one of Alex Toussaint’s rides. Meanwhile, he is dancing, joking, singing and motivating me to keep doing a ridiculously hard thing — evidence he does even more ridiculously hard things on a regular basis. Other instructors share stories of running ultramarathons and post their personal exercise routines to social media.
I am generally disinclined to look for advice on how we care for pastors from a highly polished fitness and media company, but my time as a Peloton user has surfaced a few insights that resonate with themes we are observing in the Thriving in Ministry projects.
Spiritual self-care is not selfish — it’s sacred.
During her workouts, Robin Arzón regularly says, “Self-care is not selfish — it’s sacred.” The same is true of spiritual care. For a pastor to tend to her soul away from the pressures and distractions of congregational ministry is not selfish. It’s sacred.
We don’t have to rely on Arzón’s observation, though. Jesus’ proclivity for slipping away to a quiet place to pray is a strong biblical justification for this soul care.
My hunch is that pastors struggle to find or create spiritual self-care space because there is a strong cultural assumption that they already have the spiritual resources they need. They are already “the most spiritual person in the room.” Yet just as a Peloton instructor’s most important self-care happens off camera, the deepest spiritual care for a pastor often happens in the quiet places away from the needs of the congregation.
Many pastors do not feel that they have the agency to say yes or no in their lives and ministry, leaving them overwhelmed and spiritually exhausted. Pastors need support to get away for the sacred work of spiritual self-care.
Much like caring for pastors’ physical well-being, caring for pastors’ spiritual well-being looks like supporting them in the development of a concrete plan with accountability and resources.
There is real joy in having a community of people who understand your weird job.
Flourishing in Ministry research calls this a relationship with “similar others” — people with whom we can share jargon and knowing glances without explanation. Having similar others helps us feel known and supported when we work through challenges as well as when we celebrate accomplishments. Similar others can provide us with critical feedback about our work.
Pastors need support to get away for the sacred work of spiritual self-care.
It’s impossible to know whether the Peloton instructors are the kinds of friends they portray themselves to be on social media. But their presentation of their connection with one another reminds me that my life is better when I have people who yearn for the renewing of the world as I do, who understand the quirky ups and downs of my daily life, and who nerd out on the same very specific things that bring out my inner nerd.
Meanwhile, we continue to hear stories of lonely and isolated pastors — ministers who yearn for connection with similar others but have no space in their lives to nurture these critical wisdom-sharing friendships.
My strong singular recommendation on how to care for pastors in this season of a receding pandemic, based on my listening to many who are caring for pastoral leaders, is to help pastors befriend other pastors.
Congregational ministry is particularly idiosyncratic and unpredictable right now. Economic supports may solve one set of challenges but are not able to address a multitude of other, adaptive challenges facing ministerial leaders. Whether a congregation thrives, decides to close or attempts something in between, pastoral leaders need friends to help them navigate this difficult new terrain and determine their next most faithful steps.
Wisdom and friendship are renewing resources that can accompany pastoral leaders and all who care for them through what lies ahead, whatever it may be.
Workism is the new religious tradition in town.
Workism proclaims that we must “do what we love and love what we do.” “In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings — from necessity to status to meaning,” writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. For educated professionals in the United States, our work identity has become central to our sense of self. We are what we do. When we meet a new person, “What’s your name?” is quickly followed by, “What do you do?” Those of us who try not to define ourselves by our titles — or who have been pushed out of jobs aligned with our sense of purpose — are left feeling inadequate and needing to explain ourselves.
As a culture, we worship work success stories, even at our peril. Our relationship to work is distorted, if not toxic. The problem, Thompson argues, is clear: “Our desks were never meant to be our altars.” It’s no wonder we are so eager to buy into the wellness industry’s latest gimmicks to erase the pain of our overidentification of work with worth.
Wellness is workism’s co-conspirator, luring the weary, overworked and wealthy among us. Wellness often looks like a willowy white woman in flowy monochromatic garb selling a juice, powder, cream, class or strategy to cure our existential ills. Wellness promises that the purchase of the right set of products, put to use diligently in a self-care regimen that includes just the right quantities of steps, meditation and sleep (all tracked on that expensive device on our wrists) will eliminate our woes. Its gurus sell us aspirations of a life with good vibes, spa days and raw-food diets that look better than they taste.
But all of this falls short, because wellness fails to address workism itself, the root cause of our weariness.
Yet what if my job is a calling and my desk is an altar?
In a culture of workism and wellness, pastoral leaders have an unusual challenge. Pastors come to their work because they have experienced a call to serve God and the people of God. And so, in this moment when work is worshipped, pastors are uniquely vulnerable.
The Flourishing in Ministry research directed by Matt Bloom, an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Notre Dame, has revealed that while pastors believe their work matters and report high levels of job satisfaction, they also are vulnerable to high levels of burnout. A third of pastors surveyed reported high to severe levels of burnout. Evidence suggests that women, people of color and pastors over 40 are especially vulnerable to burnout.
Alongside this research, Lilly Endowment Inc. has funded 103 projects in the Thriving in Ministry initiative intended to pilot interventions for pastors in a wide variety of contextual and transitional settings where burnout, fatigue and a lower sense of well-being are likely to occur.
These interventions, unlike the wellness strategies marketed on Instagram, encourage pastors to strengthen their sense of community, forming collegial relationships with peers and mentoring one another. Many of the projects employ contemplative prayer practices, cohort groups and retreats.
Further, unlike the wellness-industrial complex and its celebrities selling pseudoscientific moon juice, this initiative has deep theological commitments — to the incarnation, to Wesleyan discipleship bands, to a reimagining of theology that takes seriously the lived experience of vulnerable groups, to the rejection of “success” as limited to the quantifiable, and so much more.
Thriving in Ministry is an opportunity for Christian institutional leaders to walk alongside pastors and empower them to address the myths of workism and wellness that have thwarted their thriving. It’s an opportunity for pastors to reclaim the relationship between work and well-being, taking the call to minister as seriously as the command to honor the Sabbath. And it’s an opportunity for those of us who are committed to the health of pastors and congregations to imagine new ways of doing God’s work in the world.
Earlier this year, I spoke to 150 mostly middle school youth at a winter retreat focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. The assembled youth were mostly white, mostly middle class and mostly looking forward to rambunctious free-time activities.
Before I arrived, I had prepared the first two sermons and thought through ideas for the remaining two. On Friday night, I preached about God’s holiness. On Saturday morning, the topic was God’s provision.
Later that morning, as I pondered daily bread and deliverance from evil for the remaining sermons, it hit me in a new way that these were young people, the same age as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Most of the young people at this retreat didn’t look like Jordan, Trayvon and Tamir, but they might attend school with them. Or perhaps they attend schools intentionally built to keep out the Jordans, Trayvons and Tamirs.
I often pray for young people who have died or been brutalized in racially motivated violence. But I have observed that discussions about police brutality against black and brown people are rare in a white youth ministry context.
The more I learn about my own identity as a white Christian youth minister, the more I am convinced that these conversations with young white people lie at the core of my calling as a Christian. I’ve come to know a Jesus who interrupts violence with peace, and hate with love, who doesn’t sit idly by, overwhelmed by a challenge too big to overcome. In drawing closer to God, I have been called into that work of interruption alongside a community of faithful people.
So in that third sermon, I said that God cares about the black and brown young people in their schools and communities who are mistreated and maligned. I said that black and brown lives matter to God, and that God’s protection is made real when we act against mistreatment and the racism in our communities. We live the Lord’s Prayer when we speak and act against racial brutality.
While I had been passionate about the evils of racism in my country, that moment marked the beginning of my journey toward anti-racist youth ministry in the white church. I’m learning that this is not an identity to be achieved — or a place at which I will arrive all on my own.
Rather, anti-racist youth ministry in the white church is a daily practice of calling myself and my fellow white youth ministers to imagine a world in which the lives of black and brown youth are as valued as the lives of white youth, and to work with others in making that imagined world real.
It is a daily practice of vocal repentance of the cultural violence done against people of color in this country and in my community, and of the ways in which I’ve benefited from that violence. It is investing in and partnering with people of color to protect their lives and dismantle the systems that oppress them, allowing them to change me and the content and form of the programs I lead. It is asking my white friends who are also striving to be anti-racist to hold me accountable and challenge me to think bigger about our collective work to dismantle racism.
Since the sermon that awakened me to the work of becoming an anti-racist youth worker, I have been asking God how I might use my role as youth worker and leader of youth workers to empower real change in our culture, our communities and our churches.
How might God use me and the work of youth ministry to usher in the kingdom where daily bread, release from debt and deliverance from temptation and evil is not just for some but for all? How might white youth ministers like me actively partner with those who are hurting — listening and following their lead in transforming the world to be the kingdom of God we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer?
Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a call to a new way of being in the world. Today, in the United States, in our communities, in our churches, and even in our white youth ministries, we need a new way of being. We need to speak honestly about our histories, repent of and repair the harms inflicted, and live the prayers we speak.