Jenny Williams: You can't lead without others

For SEVEN years, when my accountability group asked if I engaged in daily devotion, I reported “No.” It was the patience and prodding of my fellow clergy brothers and sisters that helped me actually do it.

I haven’t posted on this site for awhile. I’ve wanted to, but I haven’t had time. My new church falls under one of those models of the church that I learned about in seminary and promptly disregarded. It’s called the “program church.” Its size often runs a pastor to death: too small to have more than one “program” person (that’s me!) but too large that that one person cannot possibly tend to all the pastoral tasks and demands. As a detail person I have to rip myself away from the nitty-gritty of administering the life of the congregation. It’s a matter of letting the parts of Christ’s body be the body, instead of my trying to be elbow, toe, hip, and eye.

The demands of this appointment have forced me to do something I’ve wanted to do for years: take a monthly day of spiritual retreat. God must really have some patience with me because for every spiritual discipline in which I attempt to engage, years of floundering pass before I can ever establish it with regularity.

Ask any of the pastors in the two Covenant Discipleship groups that sustained me over my first ten years of full-time pastoral ministry. For SEVEN years, when we reported on a clause that simply read “I engaged in daily devotion,” I reported “No.” For seven years I could not live up to the commitment I had made to God, my colleagues, and myself. I definitely thought that a daily time of devotion was a good idea, and over the years I grew to desire it, but it took seven years before I could establish it. It was the patience, prodding, encouragement, and exhortation of my fellow clergy brothers and sisters that helped me see the need for a daily discipline of prayer and to help cultivate within me a strong enough desire to actually do it. Then they were there to rejoice with me when for weeks I could finally answer “Yes” to this clause.

Covenant Discipleship is the United Methodist Church’s attempt in the last few decades to recover the 18th century Wesleyan tradition of mutual accountability. It is made for someone like me…someone with Ideas about spiritual disciplines, who thinks those Ideas are good, but can’t see any way to put those Ideas into practice. I truly need the help of others to practice discipleship. Thanks to specific pastors with whom I gathered weekly for four years in North Carolina (Kevin, Brent, Erin . . . ) and others with whom I gathered weekly for five-and-half years in West Virginia (Brian, Elizabeth, Jody) today I faithfully engage in the practice of daily devotion, and am ready to take the next step of taking a monthly retreat.

I have not fooled myself into thinking that if I desire to take monthly retreat and pencil it in on my calendar that I will actually do it. That’s why I had to take baby steps to do even this. I’m retreating not far from home, in a building our church owns, so I can’t let bad weather or distance be my excuse for not going. And I invited several other local clergy to come retreat with me on a specified day each month. Since I’m the host (read: the one who has to unlock the doors), I have to show up. It’s the possibility that others will come that holds me to the practice of retreating monthly.

I know that I have to stare down the demons of busy-ness and frenzy which lurk in the corners of my life. I not only do that for myself but for my congregation. I pursue personal holiness for their sake, so that when they come to their pastor for counsel about a personal matter or for direction on a church matter, I am not so worn out that I cannot respond in a grace-filled manner. Pastors will always be busy. Some of that busy-ness we cannot control, but some of it we can. I am grateful for my friends, colleagues, my husband, and my kids, who keep me accountable to my spiritual disciplines. For it is spiritual disciplines—among them retreat and daily devotion—that help me maintain perspective on what in the church I must do, what others can do, and what does not need to be done at all.

Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, West Virginia.