The Greatest Healing of All


Jeremy Troxler ends his reflection on the 2 Kings 5:1-14 with the thought, “Sometimes a sickness of the body can heal the spirit by stripping away our illusions of command and control.” Have you ever encountered a physical sickness that has drawn you to a place of greater spiritual depth and reliance on God? Here are some further questions to consider as you meditate on this lectionary passage:

Like Abraham and Sarah, Naaman is asked to leave behind what he knows, trusting that the journey will lead to God’s destination. What privileges in the pastorate keep us away from healing? Is there a simple salve that pride or lassitude is hiding?

The United Methodist Book of Worship introduces its two Services of Healing with these words, “The greatest healing of all is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God.” Should every service of worship at which we preside, in some way, announce that?

The following prayer is taken from the United Methodist Book of Worship. It is a prayer after anointing, from the healing service found on page 621. May it be so for us all.

Sea and Sky

–Caren Swanson

Image by Caren Swanson

What is God’s Dream for Me?: A Pastor Creates a Personal Rule of Life


Sacred RhythmsIn her book entitled Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton includes a chapter about how to develop a personal rule of life. Barton explains that a rule of life seeks to answer the question: How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be? The following entry is provided by Rev. Dianne Lawhorn, a Spirited Life pastor from Cohort Two. She recently crafted a personal rule of life for herself and wanted to share her perspective.

I was given an assignment recently to create a “simple, sane, rule of life.”  As I looked over the instructions for this assignment, I saw words that resounded with my soul like “arranging our lives around our heart’s deepest desire . . .  patterns most conducive to leading full & joyful lives . . . getting a bodily sense of where we might be called to live most vibrantly.”

This is something that I have been considering for quite some time now.  I am convinced that the rhythm that our culture advocates is not good for our minds, bodies, or spirits.  It’s an endless hamster’s wheel of activity, responsibility, and availability that is anything but life-giving.  I think that Jesus desperately wants more for us and from us than this.  I believe Jesus wants new life for us and this life requires a new pattern for living; a new rhythm that incorporates work and rest, and one that results in wholeness.

This lesson has been a difficult one for me to learn, being a person who has pursued activity, productivity, and most of all, work, my whole life.  I feel that Jesus speaks tenderly to me in this saying, “Oh, dear one- your heart is so good, but this is not what I wanted for you, or what your calling requires of you. I want more for you than this- I want you to be well, healthy, and whole.  Then, what you’ll have to offer will be so much better than anything you can produce on your own.” 


This message has inspired me to look towards finding a better way to do life and ministry.  It has reminded me that what I need most is a new rhythm.  This draws my mind to what God’s dream for me in this might be.  This has not yet been revealed, but I believe in time, it will.  For now, my job is to create the kind of life that will allow me to be receptive to discerning whatever this dream might be.  My first step is to create a balanced rhythm, where work, rest, and play flow together in harmony.  This is the piece of the dream that is my work to do on this particular day.  The rest will come; it will be revealed in time. 

How I envision this rhythm is like a dance, to a Trinitarian beat, that is full of intentionality, but expressed with the kind of holy ease that I have been longing for.  So, the rule that I have created is a dance of things that I believe Christ wants for me like silence, solitude, and stillness.  I offer this to Christ and pray that the Spirit will lead my every step in the dance; that this rule will become my guideline for abundant living, thanks be to God.

– Rev. Dianne Lawhorn, M. Div.

compiled by Angela MacDonald

‘Tis the (moving) season


‘Tis the season for moving in the United Methodist church. Even if this isn’t a move year for you personally, you are probably not immune to the associated stresses of appointment changes; from friends and lectionary group members to accountability partners and trusted mentors, there’s likely someone in your life who is gearing up for a move right now.  moving truckConsider these move-related statistics:

  • Individuals move an approximate 11.7 times during their life. (US Census Bureau)
  • In 2012, 12% of the US population, or 36.5 million people, moved residences.  64% of these people moved within the same county; of those people who moved to a different county, most of them still only moved less than 50 miles away. (US Census Bureau)
  • In North Carolina, approximately 14% of UMC pastors move each year, with elders moving more frequently than local pastors. (WNCC and NCC data)
  • Moving is the third most stressful life event, coming just behind the death of a loved one or divorce. (Employee Relocation Council)

That last statistic is pretty compelling.  Moving is stressful for anyone, and pastors have the added pressures of preparing final sermons, uprooting your spouse and children, packing up a house in record time, submitting conference paperwork, and making good first impressions with the new congregation.  And what about those moves that occur unexpectedly or against your wishes?

Whether you are in the midst of packing (literally and metaphorically) or whether you’re supporting others in this transition, we hope you’ll make time for some self-care in this busy and stressful season:

  • Schedule a massage or pedicure.
  • Write a letter of gratitude to the lectionary or accountability group you’ll be leaving behind.
  • tea and readingWhen the going gets tough, take a coffee or tea break, or read a pleasure book for a few minutes.
  • Keep to your normal routine and regular self-care habits (exercise, good nutrition, prayer time, journaling, Sabbath, etc.) as much as possible.
  • Grab lunch with a neighbor whom you’ll miss.
  • Stop by your favorite restaurant or park one last time. Take pictures of places and people that have been meaningful to you in this town. Do this with a sense of gratitude for these experiences, rather than of loss.
  • Take time to jot down highlights of the current appointment — ways you’ve grown, and ways you’ve been challenged.
  • Embrace your emotions and live in the moment; don’t try to power through this stressful time just by focusing on logistics.  Check in with your spouse and kids to see how they’re feeling about the move, too. Read more here about the emotional side of moving.

I leave you with these words of encouragement from an old standby, Isaiah 40:31–

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

-Katie Huffman

(Top photo by Flickr user ishootreno, lower photo by Flickr user Anna Saarinen, both via Creative Commons)

The Secret Pain of Pastors


Through our research with Spirited Life, we discovered a particularly surprising finding: pastors show high rates of job satisfaction, along with high levels of job stress. While there are a few theories behind such a contrast, pastors admit their love of the Church does come with a unique combination of stressors. For example, most pastors devote well over forty hours each week to sermon-writing, hospital visits, and committee work, yet they continue to hear from church members that they “only work on Sunday mornings”. This misunderstanding of the nature of pastoral work is one of many consistent issues faced by clergy.

secret_pain_small_216226948In the article entitled “The Secret Pain of Pastors”, Pastor Philip Wagner names and explores six common problems that clergy face. Those problems are listed below and include quotations offered anonymously from various Spirited Life pastors.

1. Criticism. With so many structural changes within denominations, pastors are often assigned fault for a church’s lack of growth, sermon length, service length, and lack of interest in community outreach, among other complaints. We have heard from many of the pastors in Spirited Life how criticism can come in many forms, either directly or indirectly, including withheld offerings.  The sense that pastors should be perfect often feeds into this tension.

2. Rejection. Pastors face rejection based on race, gender, age, ideas, etc. Wagner explains that “one of the most difficult conditions to achieve is to have a tough skin and a soft heart.” Although the rejection can oftentimes feel very personal, Wagner encourages pastors to “love people, hold them lightly, and don’t take it personally.”

3. Betrayal. Pastors learn to trust their church members, but they also experience violations of that trust, sometimes in the form of “telling the pastor’s personal issues to others,” according to Wagner.

4. Loneliness. One SL pastor has said that many clergy are warned to expect feelings of loneliness. “Clergy are told in seminary that their District Superintendent is neither their pastor nor their friend. This leaves clergy with no one to cover their back so to speak. Who can clergy turn to for support?” For more on this theme, check out Wellness Advocate Tommy Grimm’s blog post about the isolation experienced in ordination.

5. Weariness.SL pastor has described feeling weary from dissatisfied parishioners: “When members become dissatisfied with clergy or antagonistic, they choose to withhold their offerings because they believe it will punish the clergy.”

6. Frustrations & Disappointments. One SL pastor has said, “If you bring in 10 new members, but you have 11 members die (no control on that!) then clergy are deemed inefficient because of a negative growth rate.”

Below are some suggestions of how pastors can counter some of this secret pain they face:

  • Remember the Call. Think back to your first hint that you were Called to ministry. Was it a ‘Damascus moment’ or a ‘Slow Glow’? Remember the first time someone called you Pastor. Too often, pastors deal with emotionally draining situations; reflecting on your Call may bring back a renewed perspective on why you entered ministry.
  • Steal away and pray. Take your Sabbath!
  • Kate Rugani reminds us in her article that ‘Self-care is not self-ish’.
  • Remember that you are NOT alone. You are not the first member of clergy to face any of these challenges. Seek counsel of clergy outside of your denomination. If you are a pastor in the Spirited Life program, this is an area where your wellness advocate can provide a listening ear while also helping you find ways other support resources.
  • Laugh! While Spirited Life researches improvements for a pastor’s mental and physical health, WebMD maintains that laughter is one of the most reliable of medicines.  Here’s something to get you started:

–Angela MacDonald

(Quotations shared with permission from current SL participants; video clip from YouTube)

Good Rhythm


Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s blog post!  Thanks to everyone who participated in making this month-long celebration of our “blog-iversary” so much fun!

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My new medical term for the month is “A-fib.” It’s short for atrial fibrillation, a type of cardiac arrhythmia. I’ve learned the term because Steve, a friend of mine at church, has the condition.

Doctors treat A-fib with electrical impulses to “tune” the heart back into its proper wave pattern. Steve has to ease carefully back into work and exercise. But he is confident he’ll master a new routine, with God’s help and support from friends and family. He is back at church now and feeling good.

My pastor offered a simple prayer for Steve that could apply for all of us:

“Give us good rhythm.”

The beating of a heart, the rhythms of breath, of laughter and crying, show us how vibration is at the core of our being. We hear and feel rhythm in nature: birds singing, crickets chirping. The philosopher Alan Watts has a lovely meditation on the delights of rhythm. Most forms of play and entertainment depend on rhythm — variety and complexity within a regular pattern. Watts concludes, “[A]n essential component of my heaven… would be absorption in rhythm.”

I am reminded that dance can be incorporated into Christian liturgy. Indeed, the origin of dance in human history may be rooted in spirituality and worship. Liturgical dance is not a recent innovation; it is a way of recovering an ancient tradition of communing with God through rhythm and body movement. Music and dance can be employed as therapy for mood disorders, neurological disorders, even in cases of stroke and heart disease.

Pastor/writer Jeffrey Cootsona shares his thoughts about the rhythms of leadership. Echoing Alan Watts, Cootsona reminds us that rhythm exists through a relationship between work and rest, sound and silence, yes and no, presence and absence.

We sometimes use balance as a metaphor for wellness and right living; Cootsona proposes rhythm as an alternative metaphor. Balance, after all, suggests something static, something delicate. If we lose our balance, there is often a painful fall. Rhythm is dynamic, it is robust. If we lose the beat, we often can recover it quickly. Indeed, there are often other people, partners in rhythm-making, to coach us back into the groove.

"Sabar Ring" - Théâtre de St Quentin en Yvelines 17/03/07 (répé)

Cootsona cites neuroscience research, as well as advice from his father about carpentry, to make this point: Gritting our teeth to power our way through a creative block is counterproductive. It may even be unhealthy. Better to take a strategic break: Go for a walk. Listen to music. Fold a load of laundry. A well-timed break allows our stress to leach away, and our creativity to emerge.

How will you build constructive breaks into your routine?

A bigger question: Is there a “groove” in ministry where your best work happens, where your best self shines through, where a divine rhythm propels you or carries you along? Are there tricks or tactics to help you find the rhythm when you need it?

–John James

(Top image, “Endless Rhythm,” by Robert Delaunay, 1934, Tate Modern. Lower photo by Christophe Alary, both used with permission via Creative Commons.)

Sabbath space for Christian leaders


The following is a guest post by Dayna Olson-Getty of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School:

We all know that conflict can take a heavy toll on our physical and emotional well-being. When our calling to embody the gospel leads us to intentionally enter into deep and long-standing conflicts within a congregation, denomination or organization, or to seek to bridge divisions in our communities for the sake of working for justice and peace, the toll can be even higher. A safe space to rest, receive, and be renewed among like-minded peers can provide a powerful antidote to the stress and isolation that this work often brings.

summer-institute_450x300The Duke Divinity School Summer Institute is designed to be just such a space, and we encourage you to join us for it May 27 – June 1.

Our goal is to empower and sustain those whose ministry takes them into difficult spaces and relationships for the sake of leading the church towards more fully embodying God’s kingdom. We provide Sabbath space for deepening and renewing the Christian leaders whose work involves reconciliation, social justice, and peace-building.

We’ve designed the Summer Institute to be a space for clergy and other Christian leaders to develop new friendships with like-minded peers and mentors in the context of a diverse community (our participants come from a wide range of denominations, ministry contexts, and roles).

We begin and end each day with a worship service that is crafted to nurture, challenge, and sustain weary leaders. Throughout the week, theological teaching and reflection from world-class theologians is woven together with inspiring and challenging examples of vibrant Christian leadership in difficult contexts. The result is a framework for personal and communal transformation that leaders can use in a wide range of contexts.

For many pastors, Summer Institute has been tremendously rejuvenating.

Chip Edens, rector of the 5,000 member Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, attended the Institute in 2009.

The Institute offered me the most important continuing education experience I have had in my 15 years of ministry. The combination of outstanding lectures from experienced leaders, the conversations I had with a very diverse group of individuals, and the extraordinary worship all challenged me and renewed my determination and hope in the work of reconciliation and justice in my own community. I thank God for the experience.

Gene Graham, a lay-leader from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, attended in 2009 and 2010. She characterized her experience as a week of learning and inspiration.

The leadership was outstanding. The participants represented a world-wide network deeply committed to a myriad of reconciliation initiatives.  I left the Institute awakened to the hope and the pain of the reconciliation journey and armed with stories, contacts, and resources to enrich my church’s commitment to the Beloved Community.

Graham has since helped to found reVision, a program that provides a place for youth in crisis in Southwest Houston to disengage from their gang culture, develop a strong peer group of new friends and take control of their futures.

Summer Institute participants spend their afternoons in small interactive seminars that focus on a particular topic and provide opportunities to address their own strategic and pressing concerns and questions. This year’s Institute seminars include:

  • Living in the Tension: Human Sexuality in the Time between the Times with Andrew Marin and Tracy Merrick
  • Shaping Congregations for Faithfulness across Divides with Curtiss DeYoung and Cheryl Sanders
  • Building Beloved Communities of Justice and Advocacy with the Poor with Mary Nelson
  • Everyday Practices for Reconciliation Where You Are with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • Introduction to Reconciliation with Edgardo Colón-Emeric
  • Listening Together: Muslims and Christians Reading Scripture with Ellen Davis and Abdullah Antepli
  • Transforming Academic Institutions for Reconciliation with Peter Cha
  • Pursuing Reconciliation Institutionally with Chris Rice and Abi Riak

I encourage you to consider joining us this summer. The “Shaping Congregations” seminar — which focuses on diversity as an increasing, unavoidable and defining force within many congregations — could be particularly insightful for pastors serving churches at all stages of readiness for change.

More information about the program is available on our website: We’ll be accepting applications until April 30, and we do have scholarship funds for those who need them.

“Nice guys finish…?”


Give More Than you TakeYou’re at table with a couple other pastors and your district superintendent  (or a comparable denominational leader). As you discuss and report on life and ministry, two competing impulses arise.

The first impulse: what a chance for fellowship this is! I’m meeting with my spiritual adviser, and if I can listen openly to my colleagues while sharing honestly my successes and struggles, I may finally find that support I need.

The second impulse: what a chance to get ahead this is! I’m meeting with my boss, and if I can throw my colleagues under the bus (framed as offering them prayer for their struggles) while promoting my skills and accomplishments, I may finally get that promotion I deserve.

We know we’re called to follow that first impulse, but we also know that in this world, nice guys finish last. But do they really? Wharton Professor Adam Grant begs to differ. In a recent interview about his book Give and Take, Grant makes his case with the research he’s collected.

In one of my own studies, hundreds of salespeople completed a questionnaire on their commitment to helping coworkers and customers, and I tracked their sales revenue over the course of a year. I found that the most productive salespeople were the “givers”—those who reported the strongest concern for benefiting others from the very beginning of their jobs. They earned the trust of their customers and the support of their coworkers. Similar patterns emerged in a number of other fields, and before long, I had many data points showing that the most successful people in a wide range of jobs are those who focus on contributing to others. The givers often outperform the matchers—those who seek an equal balance of giving and getting—as well as the takers, who aim to get more than they give.

Does this mean that giving guarantees success? Not exactly, says Grant. While the most successful tend to give most generously, the least successful also give generously. What makes the difference?

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the givers who rise to the top and those who sink to the bottom is the boundaries that they set. Givers who burn out consistently put the interests of others ahead of their own, sacrificing their energy and time and undermining their ability to give in the long run. Those who maintain success are careful to balance concern for others with their own interests. Instead of helping all of the people all of the time, they help many of the people much of the time. They’re careful to give in ways that are high benefit to others but not exceedingly costly to themselves.

Give WayThe most successful give generously, but they’re strategic about it. They set boundaries and look at benefits over time, which allows them to sustain their contributions.

Of course, for pastors, it’s no surprise that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and there’s good precedent for giving so un-strategically that it’s scandalous (think of the “wasteful” beauty of the woman in Bethany lavishing expensive perfume on Jesus). But because we’re all tempted to think that in this world success only comes from self-seeking and miserly ambition, it’s nice to know that “this world’s” research supports giving–generously and strategically!

Tommy Grimm

(First picture by flickr user Your Secret General /via Creative Commons. Second picture by flickr user slimmer_jimmer /via Creative Commons.)

Being yourself in ministry


After The Christian Century ran a story on the state of clergy health late last year, the magazine published several thoughtful letters it received in response to the article.  These responses appeared only in the print version and not online, so I’m reprinting one below for us all to consider.

What questions does it raise for you?

Amy Frykholm’s article “Fit for Ministry” (Oct. 31) reminded me of the conversations I sometimes have during pastoral visits, when the person I’m visiting mentions in an offhand way an issue of real importance just as I’m getting up to leave.  Frykholm spends most of her article talking about Spirited Life, a program that helps United Methodist clergy in North Carolina take steps toward healthy eating and wellness.  In the article’s last paragraph, researcher Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell is quoted as saying that what is really needed for congregations to change the way they think about their clergy: “I would want them to think about the pastor as a whole person.”

This comment is more than a suggestion for future study.  Proeschold-Bell has discovered the real challenge to clergy health — the inability of many clergy to feel like they can be themselves in the context of their role as pastor.

I read the article after leading a week-long session for young clergy.  We talked about the gifts and the costs of “showing up” as ourselves in the context of ministry.  Among the costs that these young pastors identified: “Spiteful people will take what they learn about me and use it against me”; “People will judge me and lose respect for me”; and “I will no longer be able to protect myself from people who want to undermine me.”  In short, these pastors do not feel safe in their congregations.  No amount of weight loss or exercise or talks with a wellness advocate will address this issue.  What is needed is honest support for clergy from their denominations and from their congregations.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff
Columbia, Md.

— Kate Rugani

Image courtesy of torbakhopper via Flicker/Creative Commons


Catching up with Lent


My pastor, out loud: From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.

[smears ashes on my forehead]

Me, silently to myself: That’s not a very nice thing to say!

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  Lent ain’t nice, it’s necessary.  It’s the time for taking stock of ourselves, remembering our mortality and our frailty.  During Lent we reflect on our place in the human community in which Jesus lived and taught, and eventually …inevitably… was betrayed and killed.

You wouldn’t think it was possible—it’s on the calendar about this time every year—but Lent sometimes sneaks up and catches me by surprise.  After working a full day and rushing home, I went to the Ash Wednesday evening service at my church “cold,” having given no thought to what was about to happen, to the journey the congregation and I were beginning.

Sitting in the pew, it occurred to me that I hadn’t identified a bad habit to give up.  Time to pick one, quick: Lent is already 18 hours old!  I thought, here’s one vice of mine… only, shoot, I was guilty of doing that earlier today.  Another candidate… darn, I did that one today as well.

Even in that moment in the sanctuary, I realized this was too fussy an approach.  Starting my Lenten resolution a day late is something that Jesus would forgive.  Besides, swearing off a vice is a means, not the end; the true end is self-examination and repentance.  I recalled a conversation with a co-worker here at the Clergy Health Initiative a few years ago, whose Lenten practice is to take up a good habit (it was exercise goals for him that year) rather than to give up a bad one.  That strikes me as a fine practice: positive, constructive, and future-oriented.

The theologian and fiction writer Frederick Buechner has a lovely meditation on Lent that is similarly constructive — and challenging.  Here is an excerpt:

When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

Buechner invites us to repent of the past and to commit passionately to the future.  He inspires us to treat our lives seriously, because they matter greatly.  With this in mind, I’ve resolved to reshape my habits, allowing some to die, others to rise in their place.  Lent may have gotten off to a late start, but I’ll catch up in time for Easter.

* * *

I would to offer a special prayer for our Spirited Life Group 3 participants and our program staff taking part in workshops this season.  May the Holy Spirit fill your hearts as well as the meeting rooms and the interstitial spaces.

– John James

Photo by flickr user Coolm36 via creative commons