Individuals and institutions need intentional rest and reflection
I met with a group of faith leaders recently to listen and process their takeaways from a grant-reading program. During the gathering, I learned of an African proverb: “Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you.”
This image of the watering hole reminded me of a moment in Jesus’ ministry when he retreated for intentional prayer and centering. The moment is recorded in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is making his way to Galilee from Judea after having led his disciples in a baptism service.
While on his journey, he arrives on ancestral lands, a plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph, and here Jesus finds Jacob’s well. Tired from the journey, he rests at this old watering hole.
Often, we as leaders misunderstand rest as a reward rather than a requirement. It is easy to believe that some level of ministry must be completed before rest is warranted. However, rest is necessary to sustain ministry.
As we determinedly engage in meaningful work, not being intentional in tracking our patterns of burnout leads to a belief that there is no place or time to pause and think about how we both practice and teach well-being and rest. In truth, rest and reflection build ministry.
For Jesus, pausing at the old watering hole brings the arrival of a new friend — a Samaritan woman. In conversation with her, Jesus reflects on the worship practices of the day. He engages in the reflective and discerning work necessary to determine the next steps for his ministry. His discernment is both active and generative and reveals the unique spaces where God is clearly moving and raising people up.
This encounter between Jesus and this woman was quite unusual; cultural differences between the Jewish and Samaritan communities bred distrust. However, an opportunity met Jesus at this well.
As with individuals, our institutions need rest. Summer may be just the time to take a moment for intentional respite. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ faith in major societal institutions hasn’t improved over the past year following a slump in public confidence in 2022. While this news may be disappointing to some, I believe it offers a great opportunity for the church to intentionally rest and reflect on the lessons learned by visiting some ancestral wells.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together. These moments of connection can invite us to embrace the countercultural wisdom tradition and allow our reflection to reveal how our faith practices can adapt to different eras without losing their core identity and strengths.
There are questions about how we should process the learning from the pandemic in a way that continues or reforms our work. However, ministry leaders are moving from one crisis to another, from pandemic to pending recession, even as the weariness of our bodies is calling us to stop. Likewise, the exhaustion of our institutional partners is affirming our need to press pause.
We need the space for an “aha!” moment, which may arise only when we take time to admit our exhaustion and allow the Spirit to guide us to some fruitful organic conversations. Those conversations may very well become an opportunity for conversion.
Rest and reflection can promote internalization of what it means to thrive. This meaning needs to be integrated into our customs and practices. It should help us become more curious about how the Holy Spirit builds surprising connections in spontaneous moments. These are the moments of affirmation needed to sustain our work.
Jesus’ pause reveals that faithful leadership requires a commitment to rest and reflection. Leaders are called to continuously retreat to fill the wells of our souls.
And it is not just ordained leaders; it is our teams, our advisory boards, our stakeholders. We have to begin cultivating a culture of rest and reflection that opens us up to Christianity’s surprise.
What if we saw our lack of rest and reflection as a form of unfaithful witness to the word of God? Would this perspective change our practices?
We open ourselves to connection with God and our neighbors through rest and reflection. These connections give us the stability needed to navigate the challenges of ministry and respond effectively in contexts that require discernment toward a particular telos, or end.
In his 1980 baccalaureate address at Spelman College, Howard Thurman said, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. … It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
That sound, that holy sound, is the direction of the Holy Spirit if we will stop and listen for it, filling up at the well, pausing from what drains us. We can then connect with God and God’s people through surprising conversations, faithful witness and transformative worship. These connections convert our fear into courage, our deception into humility and our hatred into love.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together.
My daughter has entered a phase of development where she is starting to be more inquisitive about the customs and practices of our household. In this stage, she is starting to ask me simple but challenging questions about my faith.
As a “preacher’s kid,” she is accustomed to seeing her father preach Sunday after Sunday. Her awareness of the sermons has become more evident through her parading the preaching moment, running through the house shouting, “Yes” and, “Help me, Holy Ghost” — key phrases that I use when sharing the word with my congregation.
Recently, when talking about worship, my daughter asked me a question that I was not expecting. In our conversation about my sermon for that day, she asked, “Do you believe it?”
That particular Sunday, I had spoken about the faithfulness of God as seen through God’s abundance in the development of the early church. Luke, in the book of Acts, recounts a moment when
the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35 NRSV)
In this display of Christian community, the people were so compelled by the grace of God that they became living instruments of the sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. They denied themselves ownership and became stewards of resources that could be used to address the needs of people. I was challenged by my daughter to answer whether I believed this to be true.
Peter Storey made the claim in a 2021 lecture titled “10 Markers of Prophetic Ministry” that one does not choose prophetic ministry; it lays itself on you. Prophetic ministry rises out of a form of pastoral ministry that engages the least and the lost.
Luke provides a vivid description of what it means to care in a prophetic manner for those in need. The early church believed so much in the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God that they began developing customs and practices that served as glimpses of that kingdom.
Do Christians still believe that we are called to usher in the kingdom of God? Are our contemporary organizations and institutions willing to forsake ownership, or the need to control, to become communities and congregations that are meeting the needs of the oppressed? If so, how does that shape our thinking about ministry in our context? Do we believe that we have the capacity to be stewards of resources in a way that displays God’s abundance?
Mark Elsdon, discussing his book “We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry,” has said, “If everything we have is what God has given to us to be stewards of, is really the best use — the highest and best use of that money — to generate as much money as possible? Or might it be to generate as much good as possible?”
As Christians, we are to work for the good of the people. Christian leadership is different from any other form of leadership, because we believe and we confess that we can be the instruments of the foretaste of the kingdom of God. Therefore, our customs and our practices tend to be countercultural.
Scarcity is not in our vocabulary. However, when we are good stewards of the assets we have been blessed with and we cultivate an environment of faithful stewardship, we get a glimpse of the abundance that dwells in our community.
Too often, we think we must own the resource to operate the resource. However, we are surrounded by abundance, especially when we work together. The people in need did not have ownership, but they had access. We, as well, do not have ownership, but God has given us access to a host of resources that are meant to be used for the good of the people.
Our ministries should begin to think in terms of being catalysts to inspire others about how we can utilize resources we have access to for the good of the people. That we might not own the resources does not mean that the resources are not in our community. What if we got outside the boundaries of our institutions or even the mindset of ownership and, seeing the assets of community, cultivated a culture of generosity?
Glory is not meant for our institutions but for the God we serve. We do not need to get credit — our greatest testimony is to be a part of the transformation. As my daughter asked me, Do you believe it? Do we believe it?
Luke provides a vivid description of what it means to care in a prophetic manner for those in need.
Each year during the liturgical season of Lent, I intentionally engage in spiritual practices that strengthen my devotion to God and God’s people. Typically, I have chosen to give up something so that I might better focus on wrestling with the deep questions challenging my faith. Sacrifice can minimize distractions.
But I have come to recognize that Lent isn’t just about taking something away. It can be about adding something too. You can be more attentive to your relationship with God by praying, reading the Bible or serving others, growing your faith through thought-filled actions.
With that in mind, I decided last year to cultivate my relationship with God’s people further by intentionally engaging in acts of kindness as my Lenten practice. These actions ranged from buying someone lunch to putting change in a vending machine to leaving a letter in a library book to share a kind word. While seeking to learn more about Christ, I was hoping that these acts would also show me more about myself and my role in building the kingdom of God.
I was inspired by the narrative of Paul and his accompanying party sailing toward Rome, as recorded in Acts. After a perilous storm ending in shipwreck, they reach safety on the shores of Malta, where, Luke records, “the local people showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2 NOAB). Describing the Gentiles on Malta, Luke uses philanthrōpia, which can be translated as the “love of human beings” but also, in Hellenistic Greek, was commonly used for “hospitality.” The Maltese people’s acts of unusual kindness were an expression of love and hospitality; these acts were so impactful that they were included in the biblical text.
My kind acts during the Lenten season do not rate addition to the biblical canon, but I do know that they had an impact; if not on the recipients, they had an impact on me. I enjoyed the level of intentionality that it took to try to be a person of unusual kindness. Were there days when I missed an opportunity? Yes. But in those moments when I was able to engage in expressions of unexpected love and hospitality, I knew joy.
Having experienced transformation myself, I enter this Lent wondering what such a practice might mean for our institutions. What if they were committed to greeting people with unusual kindness? With the possibility of an impending recession and rising costs, what if our organizations were committed to expressing love and hospitality in extraordinary ways, even in the face of scarcity?
F.S. Michaels, argues in “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything” that a master story enthralls our culture. This master story argues that the human actor is a rational, self-interested individual who, given a choice, will always opt for what brings happiness and avoids pain. But what happens when our self-interest is in direct conflict with what is communally good?
Because the master story shapes not only our imagination but our organizations’ imagination of what is possible, it impacts our ability to imagine what supporting our communities could look like. In these times of increasing division and polarization, and of limited resources, it is easy for the master story to create narratives of exclusion and scarcity in our organizations, which in turn create limits on our kindness.
As leaders, we often confront the related narrative that institutions and organizations are in competition with each other. This narrative also alters our imagination.
Shannon Hopkins and Mark Sampson, in their essay “Seeing Our Rooted Good,” write: “In the midst of the challenges of meeting urgent needs, changing patterns of work, and supporting vulnerable congregations, it can easily get lost that the most important question is not ‘What do we do next?’ Instead, we suggest the defining question is always ‘What do we see?’”
Do we see images of unusual kindness?
I recently have come across several organizations that are helping faith-based institutions think through ways to open their buildings to others who need space for public benefit programs, such as community kitchens, co-working spaces and even affordable housing. Other organizations are intentionally developing co-ops to raise funds to invest in startup ideas that have the potential to lead to transformative outcomes.
When we focus on acts of unusual kindness, we see communities become unburdened by isolation, exclusion and scarcity; indeed, unusual kindness can unlock the door to abundance and generosity.
It’s simply not enough to know and recognize the mindset of scarcity; we as leaders need to be able to strategically offer and embrace kindness, acknowledging all the resources we have in our toolbox.
Unusual kindness can create a new narrative of connectedness. As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano have argued in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations. Instead, they must build capacity outside of their organizations. This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; and on being a node, not a hub.”
How is your organization building its capacity to be kind? The challenges of these times present our organizations with an opportunity to engage in acts of kindness, and to build trust in our communities.
Trust is equity for more relationships, allowing us to ask the most important question in concert with others: What do we see?
What resources are made available when we look at our communities through a lens of unusual kindness? If we are just willing to be unusually kind to one another, might we see that we have everything we need to address the challenges facing our communities today?
This Lent, I believe, unusual kindness can help our organizations achieve lofty missions even if we have decidedly humble means.