How do you keep going as a Christian, let alone an ordained minister of the Church?
It’s now a few years since I got ordained in the Anglican Church and I feel like I’m just getting into my stride.
Will I still be enthusiastic in another few years, say another ten, or twenty?
Veteran pastor, Gordon MacDonald’s 2004 book, A Resilient Life is full of wonderful, gentle insights into ways to build resilience into a long life of Christian obedience to God’s call – water to a parched soul in my case, as I’d been struggling for a while to find anything to read that wasn’t a) on a Masters Bibliography, b) quick on soundbites and short on wisdom and c) relevant to Christian ministry in particular.
Two insights stand out: the need to explore the big questions for each decade of life and the need to do so in company.
He tells a great anecdote regarding the first. An experienced and wise pastor, he would often be invited to address groups of ministers or other leaders with some gems of godly wisdom about staying the course. On one occasion he was invited to speak to a room full of worship leaders, people who (in the style of many of the less liturgical churches) were charged with devising a programme of prayers and music that would lead others into the presence of God at the start of a service.
On entering the room he was shocked to register that everyone there was in their 20s or 30s; he describes them as a ‘bevy of youthful, hyper-energetic and lovable people’, but it occurred to MacDonald that the spiritual questions and aspirations of these young people was likely very different from the things that occupy people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. MacDonald wondered if they really would be able to know how best to lead a congregation of mixed ages into the presence of God: ‘They had better know their audience’, he thought; ‘…They had better know something about the big pictures that others brought into the sanctuary’.
Identifying the big questions for each stage of life is something that can help maturity. The things I struggled over and wanted to read about and discuss in my 20s, were not the same as those things I thought about in my 30s, or now (just about still) in my 40s…
He didn’t pull any punches with those worship leaders. He told them of a group he and his wife belonged to, of like-minded friends who would gather and tell each other the stories of their lives as they had unfolded in the last month. ‘There is one subject that never fails to come up – sometimes by way of a joke, a story or a piece of information about someone’, he told the young leaders. ‘Know what that subject is?’ There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence. The answer: ‘Death! The subject of dying always gets to the table’. He asked them then, how are you going to make sure the songs and readings you choose, minister God to people in this stages of life beyond 65?
He then goes on in the book to ponder the questions that face us in different stages of life. It’s all very accurate – I thought about myself going into Ordination training ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’, just at the beginning of my 40s, some years ago now: in his words, ‘the complexities of life further accelerate and – and this is worrisome – we begin to recognise that we can no longer fob off our flaws and failures as youthfulness and inexperience’ (ouch, yes that sounded familiar).
So finding out how to navigate the life questions at each stage is a way of being resilient as life goes on. It’s often said that to look at the bookcase of a Christian or minister whose books were all current five, ten or twenty years ago, is to look at a person who hasn’t continued to grow.
And secondly, what really blessed me in the book was the vision of doing this journey, this questioning and growing, in the company of others. Friendship has just begun to come onto the horizon as something one needs to be more intentional about when the children are poised to leave home.
MacDonald points to a time midlife when he was a busy pastor and father and had no time to nurture friendships. He regretted it deeply when a mid-life crisis loomed. He talks about the 30s as being the first time when ‘male loneliness’ begins to be a real problem. This is an issue in church life. If it’s true that men generally have few others with whom they allow themselves to be open and honest, as he suggests, it has implications for passing on the faith to each generation. And it’s certainly true that in a number of Anglican churches, men in their 20s and 30s are the significantly missing demographic.
So it repays us to build friendships and give them time. Quality time. Who are the friends with whom you have fun? Who are the friends who will be honest and even notice if your spiritual life is slowly dying from lack of growth or challenge? And for couples, maybe particularly clergy couples, who are the other couples with whom you can have genuine social and spiritual interaction?
And ultimately, who are the friends who will be at your graveside, who will be there even at the end, mourning your passing? This was probably the most sobering question in the book. But then he’s asking it as someone in his 60s. I must admit, it had never occurred to me before…
Growing through each life stage, and doing it in company. I have a feeling this book will have repercussions.