Mike Cope: Contemplation, relationships, emotional maturity and self-care are key to pastoral thriving
My undergraduate and M.Div. programs were packed with all the stuff I’d need for ministry, or so I assumed at the time: seven years of Greek, a few years of Hebrew, and lots of courses on exegesis, theology and church history. If the following decades of ministry had turned out to be little more than studying and preaching, I would have been fine. But of course they didn’t.
My theological training had produced ministers with the muscular build of Popeye — massive forearms, but seriously underdeveloped elsewhere.
For example, no one had taught me how to remain calm in a room where the emotional temperature was rising. Nor was I equipped to say no to some requests in order to preserve my personal health. And I most certainly didn’t have the tools to handle the Ferris wheel of emotions during our daughter’s illnesses or through the long grief following her death at age 10.
What did I need to be better prepared to handle the myriad demands of pastoral ministry? Through a Thriving in Ministry grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we have developed a program at Pepperdine University that aims to discern an answer to that question.
Our program, one of 103 funded to support pastoral flourishing, focuses on 12 to 15 ministers per year who form a peer group, or “Sanctuary” cohort, that meets in person and then connects through calls, private Facebook groups and emails. We are concentrating on resourcing pastoral leaders around four areas that we believe are critically important to their sense of meaning, purpose and connection: contemplative spirituality, relationships, emotional maturity and self-care.
This is not work we expect them to do alone; support and encouragement from laity is essential to the program’s success.
Straight out of seminary, I was devoted to spending 30 minutes each morning in prayer. But as the years and demands piled up, this half-hour dwindled, until one day I realized that my prayer life was emaciated.
That’s when others taught me to quit trying to pray and just enter into the church’s prayers. In the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms and other cherished prayers of the church, I found daily the words to sustain my journey of contemplation.
We launched our second Sanctuary cohort this year by focusing on contemplative spirituality, reminding each other that the urgent tasks in which we’re immersed must not move us from this place of prayer and silence where we remember that we are the beloved women and men of God. We soak in the great truth that there is nothing we can do this day that can make God love us more.
Members of their congregations might find it odd that ministers have to be encouraged to pray. But that points to a larger problem: that laypeople sometimes have a difficult time imagining their ministers struggling with doubt, grief, fatigue, or questions of identity and mission.
Wise lay leaders can encourage ministers in their contemplative practice, praying with and for them. Even spiritual leaders need the reminder that maturity comes from the slow, sometimes arduous work of spiritual formation and discipleship.
Building on the primary relationship in ministry — our intimate walk with God — our program’s second focus is on relationships with friends, spiritual companions and spouses.
During the darkest part of my journey with grief, friends basically intubated me; they breathed for me, offering the prayers I couldn’t choke out.
The need for trusting, have-your-back friendships became evident in the responses we got after each cohort meeting in our first year of our Thriving in Ministry grant. No matter how strong the program content was, the highest marks always went to the times when the ministers were free to eat, play and visit with one another. And what we hoped would happen did: they began finding each other in between our “official” gatherings.
Part of why we build our Sanctuary cohorts regionally, inviting ministers who live within a couple of hours of each other for a given cohort, is so they can connect more deeply as safe places for each other.
In addition, we focus on marriages. Where does a minister turn when he or she has marital challenges? Again, most churches want to believe that their ministers are immune to those! Our program, beyond the structured marriage retreat for each cohort, includes spouses at every possible opportunity.
Lay leaders can help ministers by creating an environment where relationships are valued: where ministers are allowed to form close friends (without others getting their feelings hurt), where marriages aren’t expected to be perfect, and where it’s all right to seek marital help.
I so wish I could go back to my early years as a minister and change my reactions when people were upset. Looking back, I realize how often I reacted out of exhaustion and immaturity. It wasn’t until my 40s, with the help of a therapist, that I learned how to hold on to myself in the midst of conflict.
Drawing especially from the writings of Peter Scazzero, our program is focused on helping each other lead more out of who we are than what we do. We are leaning into the insight that the best thing ministers can do for our leadership teams and our churches is to become more emotionally mature.
And how can lay leaders assist in this maturing process? Perhaps most importantly, they can model emotional maturity themselves. They can show what it means to be close to people with whom there are significant disagreements. They can listen to criticism without absorbing and reflecting the anger.
Finally, in our Sanctuary program, we focus on the broad area of self-care. We know that as followers of Jesus, our primary rhythm of discipleship is laying down our lives for others. But that doesn’t mean that we become Gnostics who pretend that our bodily existence doesn’t matter. We are digging down with one another into a way of life where rest, laughter, eating and exercising are valued and practiced.
As a lifelong runner, I know that runners experience both stitches and cramps. Stitches are the nagging tugs in your side that try to get you to quit. Athletes know that you just have to accept them, breathe deeply and press on.
Cramps, however, are a different story. There is no pushing through them. You have to stop, stretch, rest and rehydrate.
Ministers benefit when they learn healthy habits that allow them to pause and experience restoration from concerns and fatigue and be refilled by the spirit of God. And they benefit when lay leaders in the church insist on rest, Sabbath keeping and other practices that feed the mind and body.