Shepherd’s Care: The Jesus Pattern–The One We Need

Jesus had a clear pattern for his life and ministry.  Luke described it in 5:15-16,

“Huge crowds gathered to listen and to be healed of their illnesses.  But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.”

His pattern was a rhythm between pastoral ministry and personal formation–between the public and private aspects of his life–a pattern which actualized the larger pattern of working and resting, doing and being, engagement and abstinence which is at the core of the spiritual life. [1]  In short, Jesus knew he could not sustain a vital public ministry if he was running on empty in his soul.

There is a need for a recovery of this pattern in the lives of ministers today.  We clergy are not good at self-care.  We are very familiar with Luke 5:15 (public ministry), but strangers to Luke 5:16 (private prayer).  Moreover, institutional ministry, by its very nature, leans toward the public side (with a host of criteria for it practicing it and related reporting mechanisms for assessing it), with a comparative lack of attention to the private side.

The consequence of the imbalance is a low-grade malaise, described this way by a young pastor, “I know what to do, I just don’t want to do it anymore.”  When this acute sense becomes chronic, we become dropouts, even if we remain in ordained ministry.

We clergy are good at asking for some things: money, people to hold church offices, etc.  But we are not so good at asking our laity to help us establish the Jesus pattern in our lives, so that both dimensions described by Luke are alive in us.  In fact, most laity don’t even know about the pattern; most of what they’ve been shown is a corporate pattern.

Nevertheless, I believe our laity are as willing to help us live well as they are to assist us in being institutionally  successful.  But the fact is, they don’t know how do that unless we bring them into the picture.  I offer these thoughts for doing so.

First, invite into conversation several people whom you know to be spiritually mature in general, and suppotive of you in particular.

Second, share the Jesus Pattern (Luke 5:15-16) with them, telling them you want his pattern to be real in you, but being honest to say that it is not in the kind of balance (on the personal side) as you’d like it to be.

Third, have a Rule of Life ready to share with the folks–one that includes a weekly sabbath day (not your day off), a monthly retreat day, and a sustained formation experience that enhances spiritual vitality over the long haul. There may be other aspects of your Rule besides these.  [2]  Ask the group to offer their ideas about how you can make this vision a reality.

Fourth, invite these people to be your support group, not just your idea-gathering group.  Ask them to pray for you as you take action to realize the Jesus Pattern in your life.  And develop a process (e.g. periodic meetings, social media messaging) to turn their initial help into spiritual companionship.

This formative process is not secretive, but neither does it have to be voted on.  A weekly sabbath and monthly retreat day are things you can implement without any diminishment in your public ministry.  Jesus’ periodic withdrawals were integrated into his public responsibilities.  Yours can be too.  In fact, the more natural you can make it, the better.

With respect to a sustained formative experience, consider having a spiritual director. [3]  And explore formation programs that unfold over an extended period of time. [4]. If the costs for either of these things exceed a budgeted amount for your Continuing Education, ask your support group for suggestions regarding increasing that budget, or funding these things in other ways.

The point of this post is twofold: there is a Jesus Pattern for ministry, and laity are willing to help you incarnate it.  But you will have take the initiative to bring the two realities together.

The relevance of this post lies in the context of the church’s institutional decline, the increasing none/done phenomenon, etc—and your wellbeing in such a time.  The simple fact is, the church must have a vision for its clergy larger than “religious CEO” or “institutiinal shopkeeper,” and you must have an experience larger than that for the sake of your soul.

[1] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). This is the best book I know of in describing the engagement/abstinence rhythm of the spiritual life.

[2] Stephen Macchia, ‘Crafting a Rule of Life’ (IVP Books, 2012).  Macchia draws on the Benedictine Rule to offer concrete guidance in making a personal rule today.

[3] A directory of certified directors is available online from Spiritual Directors International.  Also, if there are retreat centers, monasteries, or convents in your area, leaders there will likely know directors to recommend. Your denominational office may have suggestions as well.

[4] I am familiar with these programs: The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, the Renovaré Institute (part of the ministry begun by Richard Foster), the Apprentice Institute (begun by James Bryan Smith), the Living School (begun by Richard Rohr), and the newly-established Spiritual Leadership Certification Program (begun by Matthew Fox).  Each one nuances spiritual life and formation differently; what they have in common is that they are sustained experiences in community, not one-time events.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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