Mel Williams: Sustaining ministry leadership for the long haul

A retired Baptist pastor whose ministry has revolved around social justice says doing grows out of being. Long-term social justice ministry cannot be sustained without a consistent spiritual practice.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Part one is here.

Throughout my ministry, I’ve been a part of maverick, social justice congregations. My ministry has been dedicated to the biblical mandate to alleviate poverty and to be an advocate for racial reconciliation and nonviolence.

Over the long haul, we cannot sustain these efforts on behalf of the community without a consistent practice of stillness and silence -- a commitment to our own being.

The doing of ministry grows out of being. When I trust the gifts of being, I find that I’m given all I need to stay gladly involved in the central mission of our calling: “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

Finding this balance between prayer and justice, contemplative life and ethical action has been a long-standing goal for me. We all need to find our “feeding station” that invites us back to “being” and to a rejuvenation of our spiritual practice. We need a space that nurtures being.

How does that happen? At a time when I was concerned about my physical and spiritual health, I was led to visit New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, Calif., and have returned for 17 annual visits since. These sojourns have been life-giving.

A few months ago, I asked one of the monks, the Rev. Bruno Barnhart, to help me get a better grasp of the abundance I experience there. The next day, he handed me two pages of biblical and poetic references.

Then I followed up by seizing a dishwashing moment for spiritual direction. After lunch, we took the dishes back to the big stainless steel sink, where Bruno, now in his 80s and the main dishwasher, sloshed in the soapy water as I dried each dish with a towel.

As we talked, I said, “Bruno, I come here to receive. It’s as if I’m holding my cup under a waterfall. That cup sometimes becomes a bucket with water sloshing out, and I have the sense that I need to get a bigger bucket.”

Bruno, lifting his hands from the dishwater, said, “You might change the image to a wellspring -- one that keeps flowing. It’s an abundance that can never be exhausted.” Bruno was echoing Jesus’ words to the woman at the well: “I will give [you] a spring of water gushing up …” (John 4:14 NRSV).

Our job is to receive, to be aware, to awaken to the abundance.

To awaken, we need “being time.” For me, the first part of “being time” is enough silence to permit inner work. In my case, going to a monastery helped, but it’s also possible to do this closer to home.

“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) can be shortened until that sentence reads, “Be still and know … Be still … Be.” For me, this is the beginning of prayer. Thomas Merton wrote, “How I pray is breathe.”

Back in North Carolina after my first sojourn at the Hermitage, I asked a group of local friends to consider forming an interfaith “monastery,” which we named “Peace Hill.” This group meets for periodic morning silence and occasional Peace Hill meditation days.

What benefit do these times of silence bring? Somebody said that the spiritual life is primarily about subtraction -- releasing the distractions, the addiction to doing, the things blocking the wellspring.

The first act of prayer is letting go of the inner clutter, doubts, discouragements, preoccupations -- all the attachments that prevent us from allowing the abundance to flow freely.

Romuald, the 10th-century monk who founded the Camaldolese tradition, wrote, “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” To which the apostle Paul might add, “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

Through annual visits to the Hermitage, I’ve discovered what I wish I had grasped much earlier: For effective ministry, doing grows out of being.

With clergy health now a major concern for mainline denominations, ministers need to spend much more time in silence, releasing the distractions. This health-giving practice can make possible the rediscovery of the True Self, our being-self that is the gift of God. Our worth is pure gift, not achievement gained through busy doing.

A daily observance of morning silence can bring a grounding for the day ahead. Daily meditation helps release anxiety, allowing us to be a “non-anxious presence.”

Much of ministry involves relationships. After my visits to the monastery, I’ve greeted my church members by bowing, a common practice at the monastery. “We bow to greet the Christ in each other,” Brother Daniel told me on one of my first visits.

By bowing, we honor the sacred worth, the being, in each other. This is conveyed as well by the Sanskrit greeting namaste.

With such grounding, pastoral relationships then take on a more welcome tone. It’s satisfying to listen to parishioners, to learn about family concerns, health issues, personal transitions.

When parishioners feel a need to give the pastor some criticism or push-back, I find that when I’m anchored in the silence of being, the wellspring flows. There my response is more likely to be calm and measured. It’s easier to say, “Thank you for your honesty. I may disagree, but I appreciate knowing how you feel.” Our goal is not agreement but understanding.

Preaching also becomes an opportunity to reflect on biblical texts through a contemplative lens. I remind myself that Jesus was both a contemplative and a social reformer.

Pastors are called to lead multifaceted congregations. The organizational needs can be daunting, but pastors can lead with a light touch, giving encouragement to staff and lay leaders by remaining calm, centered and connected to their inner resources. A central question to ask is, What practices sustain you, inviting you into a state of being rather than doing?

Likewise, community ministry can be an outgrowth of inner calm and clarity. If, as we believe, all members are called to be ministers, our job is to empower our members. In our congregation we’ve said repeatedly, “The church exists for the sake of those people who are not in it.”

Long-term social justice ministry cannot be sustained without a consistent spiritual practice. Kierkegaard said, “Silence is the measure of the power to act; a person never has more power to act than he has silence.” The effectiveness of our action, then, is directly related to the effectiveness of our silence.

In the silence of being, we find strength and courage to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus, to keep building the beloved community.

A few months ago, I departed from the Hermitage after my 18th annual visit. Settling into my seat on the plane, I pulled out my journal. As I wrote, four words came like a revelation: Trust, abundance, being, heart.

As I contemplate those words, I discover that I have all I need.