Pastors Celebrate and Renew Their Call

5/10/2011

By Eric Anderson
Minister of Communications and Technology
Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ

WALTHAM, MA (05/10/2011) -- Hundreds of pastors, most from the United Church of Christ, were joined by some lay leaders and denominational staff for three days of renewal, fellowship, worship, and learning in Waltham, Massachusetts. The "Celebrating Call, Celebrating Challenge: Ministry in a Changing Landscape" conference rooted itself firmly in the soil of God's summons to these individuals to lives of faith and of leadership in worshiping communities.

Unlike many gatherings for clergy, the "plenary" sessions at Celebrating Call were mostly for worship rather than addresses. The Rev. Dr. Curran Reichart, pastor of the Community Congregational Church of Tiburon-Belvedere UCC in Tiburon, California, led the assembly in rousing choruses of favorite hymns which came from several strains of faith music. Accompanied by a jazz combo led by Old South Church's Willie Sordillo, the congregation brought additional vigor and a funky beat both to familiar tunes and to new melodies.

Wednesday evening, the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver of the Wellesley Congregational Church UCC in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and the Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel of the First Congregational Church UCC of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, offered alternating reflections on the Apostle Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 1 to "Consider your call." Copenhaver mused on the odd assignments to which ministers might find themselves summoned -- sometimes ones they shouldn't accept. Among those which he had heard from other clergy were:

  • helping a widow write a personal ad
  • helping a widower fill out the form for an online dating site
  • cleaning the bathroom where a parishioner shot himself
  • checking to see if a woman's husband was actually dead
  • the dishes
  • an exorcism of evil spirits from a classroom where a number of women had been abused
  • a funeral for a seeing eye dog
  • spraying a streak of green hair coloring in the white hair of a 103-year-old woman

"Why are pastors called to such odd assignments?" Copenhaver wondered. "Well, who are you going to call? When people don't know where to turn, they often conclude that they can turn to their minister, no matter the circumstance."

Daniel told a story about an odd trip to a ministers' conference, when a snowstorm canceled her flight, and she chose to drive there instead. Three men who had also been stranded joined her -- "four strangers, invited to some kind of strange banquet" -- sharing the seven-hour drive in bad weather. One was another minister bound for the same conference, another a retired Army lieutenant colonel. The fourth, whose offers to drive Daniel resisted for some time, turned out to be a stunt driver, and his sure skill brought them safely through the stormy night.

Aside from being a great start to a joke ("Two ministers, a lieutenant colonel, and a stunt driver met one night..."), the experience recalled Jesus' story of the banquet whose invited guests refuse to come. The host directed his servants to bring in the poor instead, said Daniel, "and that, my friends, was the first clergy conference. I am glad you have decided to attend the banquet. May it be a feast for your souls."

Matt Bloom delivered the keynote address on the nature of well-being, in its two disparate components -- one best thought of as "happiness," or a sense of pleasure or fun; and the other which he suggested as "flourishing," corresponding more to a strong sense of living purposefully having having a meaningful life. Bloom is a professor at Notre Dame University, and is directing a study on pastoral well-being.

Some early findings in his research show that ministers, in general, report a higher sense of well-being than most Americans -- 8 of 10, vs. 7 of 10 -- but that clergy spouses, asked about their mates, report that pastors are at 5.5 of 10. The difference is a subject for further study.

Bloom also noted that relationships are enormously important for maintaining clergy well-being. For happiness, clergy find the most support in strong relationships with a spouse or partner. For flourishing, other friends among the clergy are also important along with the spouse.

"I believe that worship is no benign activity," said the Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South Congregational Church UCC in Boston. She challenged her colleagues, asking, "Have we adequately told [parishioners] that those who enter the house and home of God, who dare enter into the presence of the Most High God, those who come to eat of God's words, so bitter, so sweet... Have we told them that worship will change them forever? Shape and remake them partisans for justice? Into devotees of mercy? Into practitioners of profligate generosity? Into wagers of peace in this violent world?"

John the Baptist would be unlikely find himself called to a church, observed the Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Perr and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. "John's a prophet, and nobody wants to hire a prophet. Can you imagine his pastoral care sessions? 'Please have a seat, you brood of vipers.'"

But his ministry, Powery said, was fruitful. "The crowd gets it," he said. "They want to do Christian as a counter-narrative to the kind of discipleship that makes some people say atheists make better Christians than Christian themselves because they will actually do something. The crowd reveals that baptismal discipleship costs something, it does something, it requires something from us: repentance, then forgiveness of sins."

The conference left time for leisure, fellowship, and reflection over its two nights and three days. Hour-long breaks separated workshop times, and participants enjoyed each others' company over the meals. Workshops ranged across a variety of topics, with presenters speaking about technological innovation just down the hall from others leading a group in prayer.

The Celebrating Call conference was made possible by a significant grant from the Lilly Foundation to the Massachusetts Conference's Pastoral Excellence Program and by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. The worship offering during the event will support further work of the PEP to continue the education and support of pastors.



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