Flourishments and Faith

Author: Philip Amerson

Confessions of a Romantic

What do we know about the wellbeing of clergy in their work?  What things contribute to a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and joy?  What can be discovered about the thriving of any human being in his or her work? 

The Flourishing in Ministry research project at the University of Notre Dame is a scientifically based gathering of data to better understand wellbeing of clergy.  The research also focuses on comparative data with other professionals.   New insights are emerging.  We are discovering the significance of a clergy person’s calling, identity, sense of transcendence and important relationships.  Based on questionnaires, in depth interviews and the reflections of theological faculty and experienced pastors we are better able to understand the sources of clergy wellbeing.

This research is particularly important for me.  I write this blog, Flourishments and Faith, reflecting on what is being discovered.  As a consultant to the project, this is intended as another public voice.   In these occasional reflections, I will share about wellbeing in ministry generally and the flourishing of clergy specifically.  Delight in the work of ministry, a sense of the abundance and beauty surrounding the work of clergy come in many expressions.  Flourishing may be episodic or it may be regular and routine.  It may be the culmination of the steady, daily encounter with others or it may come in a burst of laughter or tears, at a surprising time or place. 

Let me confess at the outset that I write as a romantic.  You might even categorize me as a “hopeless romantic” when it comes to the vocation of clergy.   I bear the joys and the scars of this romance.   As someone now in my forty-eighth year of ordination and one who has spent much of the past two decades focused on clergy education, I tend to see the fulfillment, the joy, and beauty of this vocation.

I have known times of lingering doubt and despair.  Yes, I have known times as a clergy person that are perhaps best diagnosed as times of clinical depression.   I have stood tongue-tied next to a family who has experienced the tragic loss of a loved one in an auto accident.  There were no prayers I could believe in some of those moments.  There were no words I could own, other than the rote language from the prayer book.  

I have stood with folks following a suicide of a loved one, even been there at murders or the sudden death of child.  Sometimes I found a sense of agency; often, however, there was doubt.  I have walked with persons going into a courtroom facing sentencing and continued beside them as they went to prison.  There has been the heart-rending witnessing to alcoholism, drug abuse and a variety of personal betrayals.  

While other “more realistic” folks saw unresolvable challenge and deprivation, mostly I tended to still believe, to carry hope beyond hopelessness, that my work was making a difference.  Yes, there have been dark nights of the soul – perhaps even dark months and years of the soul!   Still, there were the joys that come with sharing the sacraments, the births, the witnessing of transformation, growth and the recovery of physical or emotional health.  I look back on years as pastor, teacher, chaplain and counselor with a sense of wonder and awe.  And I now as I live “forward” it is my joy to discover how to encourage others in this work.  I confess, even now despite the times of brokenness, to being enraptured by the romance of it all.   

How have I survived as a romantic?  Let me briefly suggest three things.  

1. First, there is my sense of call, my sense of vocation.  A widely known quote regarding vocation comes from Frederick Buechner “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  [Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95]  That definition gets close to my sense of calling – the sense that what gives me joy can make a difference in the lives of others.  

I like the language of “deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger.”  This is sometimes misquoted as suggesting it is a person’s gladness meeting another’s need.   This suggestion that a clergy person is only to “meet needs” is troubling.  It plays into a problematic construction where the clergy is hero, the one who is to rescue the victims all around.  Such a “hero and victim” construct is a recipe for failure and despair.  It arises from poor theology, even messianic theology, where the pastor becomes the savior.  The romance in ministry comes from walking beside others and together there is a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.

2. My romance with the vocation arises out of this sense of partnership with others.  Ministry makes sense as I partner with others, clergy and lay, who are welcome, and welcome me, at a table of abundance.   That abundance is beyond my individual efforts or my conjuring.  My work as a clergy person is a calling to discover the gifts and vocations of others.  This work is to join in the building of communities of conviviality.  Some speak of this as “accompaniment.”  It means that even in the places that appear to be the most devoid of resources, there will be the surprise that God’s presence and abundance will arrive ahead of me often in the guise of the stranger.  It is tempting to seek to be the hero or to see only brokenness and limitations all around.  This is understandable, especially when there are many voices urging a focus on problems and limitations.  Still, the romance comes in an openness to discover “streams in the desert” and “friends among the stranger.

3. Finally, there is a sense of my ever-evolving identity as a child of God.  Sometimes jokingly I will say that I have had dozens of spiritual conversions, spiritual awakenings.  Folks who accept the idea that persons are limited to one spiritual awakening in life will miss this meaning.  Christian scripture often speaks in the future perfect tense.  “I will be calling you by name” or those in the early church “who were being saved.”  This ever-developing sense of being lead into new arenas of learning and faith is a significant part of the romance of ministry for me. 

So, I begin with these three: a sense of call, a sense of partnership and a sense of ever evolving identity as a child of God.  These I would point to as three elements of my romance with ministry – and each brings to mind a bounty of stories.   Speaking of flourishments, as a noun, indicates the belief that such human experiences are a gift to be explored, better understood and encouraged as a potential resource for others.  [I will share many of these stories, the experiences of others, such flourishments, in future.]

The research will offer new lessons ahead for us.  Perhaps you, good reader, wish to comment on the questions of clergy wellbeing and personal flourishments.  Perhaps you wish to affirm or challenge some of the perspectives here.  I welcome your responses, the dialogue and the lessons we may learn together.