Graham Ford: The young and the restless

How do I work as a pastoral leader without slipping into despair? By asking whether and how every act aligns with God’s coming kingdom.

I had a confession for the bishop: "I'm not very encouraged about being a church leader when I meet with fellow pastors." This confession arose from recent experiences in denominational meetings: the not-so-quiet desperation I've encountered coupled with fruitless searches for formulaic solutions.

"That's good," he replied, "don't lose that."

Bishop Will Willimon's absolution came a few weeks ago as he made a pilgrimage to speak with us young Presbyterian pastors, continuing his focus on young leadership in the church. He warned us against the ennui and stagnation that marks the lives of too many clergy. He challenged us, as Lilly pastoral residents, to find new ways forward in a mainline world that is quickly being sidelined. He had no hard and fast answers.

We pressed one question with him in particular: "Why do you get out of bed in the morning?" Bishop Willimon stressed the need for a robust theological motivation for the work of being a pastor. A sense of God's calling to find energy and flexibility, when mediocrity and cynicism are modeled as the popular options. What does it take to avoid being an overweight, chronically busy and quietly desperate pastor? A strong sense of God's calling to the work is a good start.

My early experience in working in the corporate church environment has been instructive in this regard. I resonate with Professor Brian Bantum's description of being a new university faculty member: "One thing I was not prepared for was the influx of information and the energy required to filter through all of it." The same can be said for the work of a pastor. The information overload that marks all of corporate life in America is more than an equal opportunity player in the church world. Ad hoc meetings, email pile up, and lunch at the desk are often welcomed opportunities for self-justification. How can anyone this busy not be doing important work?

As the busywork of the pastor can always fill the available hours, we need discernment and focused attention. Like many pastors, young and old, I yearn for more space to reflect, to slow down, to pay attention to the ways God is working in the church and in the world. How do we achieve these elusive goals?

In the face of information overload and busy-ness as usual, it seems most important to be able to say “no.” A threatening word to be sure for many pastors, myself included. To say "no" as a practice requires a conviction that "yes" is not a default. Rather a "yes" should be able to pass robustly theological lithmus tests: Project X that will keep us occupied in the office but vague about what God has to do with any of this? “No.” Risking failure in order to align ourselves with the Kingdom of God? “Yes.” Easier advice to give than to receive to be sure, and yet vitally necessary criteria if young Church leaders are to find sustainable models for ministry in the coming years.

“We are the leaders we've been waiting for,” as the saying goes, yet we remain restless and hungering for daily manna for the uncertain journey ahead.

Perhaps that other wise bishop, Augustine, put it best in his own confessions: "God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.”

Graham Ford is a pastoral resident at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church (USA) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.