The Healing Power of Nostalgia


An article in the New York Times this week highlights the positive impacts that nostalgia can have on a person psychologically.  It turns out that historically, nostalgia was seen in a negative light–“living in the past” and looking back with rose-colored glasses.  New research, however, shows that fondly recalling things that have happened can enrich our lives, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of comparing the present to the past.  The article explains,

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer… Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

The article was brought to my attention by a pastor who shared it on our facebook page, saying, “This is good news for all of us who itinerate.” In this season of unpacking boxes and inevitably pausing to think about what has been left behind in a move, it is encouraging to know that these thoughts can be helpful–can anchor us amid life’s unpredictability.  One nostalgia researcher, Dr. Constantine Sedikides, says, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.” Another researcher, Dr. Erica Hepper, says, “Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions.”


If you’ve moved recently or are facing another transition, what helps you feel rooted?  What do you take with you move after move, and what gets left behind?  If you have a story about nostalgia, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.  And for all those who have moved, we pray for smooth new beginnings.

–Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user CliffMueller via Creative Commons

Also by Caren Swanson: To Love a Place

Have We Fruit? Reflections on Colossians 1:1-14


This is the second in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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 Our second guest post is by Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, reflecting on Colossians 1:1-14.

“Have they fruit?” John Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service? Was there at least one person who had found faith through the word they proclaimed? A single person whose spiritual practices had been enlivened by what they taught? A hungry person who found bread? A homeless person who found shelter? Was there any sign that the ministry exercised by this person was waking the world to the dream of God?

Grapes on grapevine, close-up.

Have they fruit? It’s not a bad question for would-be preachers, and as a denomination, we’ve been asking it for more than two hundred years.

It’s also not a bad question for congregations to ask themselves.  Imagine the discussion that would ensue at the next administrative board or church council meeting if the question were asked, “Have we fruit?”  Imagine the conversation if the topic at the meeting became, “What evidence is there? What can we point to that demonstrates that the community in which we live is better, healthier, and more faithful because of the presence of our church? Are our ministries making any kind of difference to our neighbors? Is the Spirit, through us, actually changing lives, deepening faith, seeding hope in this neighborhood? Or are we just taking up space on a corner in town, an antiquated placeholder on this block?” I imagine a lively scene as a congregation deliberates and discusses its missional role in its own context, all the while answering the question, “Have we fruit?”

432463317_52f8853cfbCautionary tales of churches that can point to no fruit, churches that have lost their way and whose ministries have grown stagnant, are legion. One that has stayed with me since I first read it is in Mark Nepo’s book Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. He tells of a town in New England in which one church’s bells had rung to mark every hour of every day for generations. After decades of decline, that church was closed and eventually taken down. Years later, the farmers of that community were talking, and they all agreed – they missed the bells, not the church. While asking, “Have we fruit?” might not have prevented that church’s decline, it could have revealed that the church served no other role in their community than that of clock. You know similar stories…

But if the cautionary tales linger in our imagination, so, too, should the exemplary communities of faith – the churches that are bearing much fruit and are themselves signs of hope in and for the world. In the beginning of the letter to First Church Colossae, the writers praise the church for its fidelity; the Church there had earned a reputation as the kind of place that bore good fruit: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.” A few verses later, they go on: “just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it.” The writers are explicit – if the question was asked of the Colossians, “Have they fruit?” the answer would be a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

Which makes it all the more profound that, even as they praise, the writers of Colossians also pray for the community in powerful and passionate ways: “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks.” This intercession is a subtle – and not so subtle – reminder of the fact that faith communities that today are bearing much fruit can quickly wither. We can abandon our best practices of compassionate ministry, forsake our disciplines of outreach, and turn inward again.

Here, an analogy to health and wellness seems somehow fitting. The health we enjoy today, the wellness we have worked hard to achieve, can be lost to us if our discipline falters. Our weight can creep back up if we ignore what we know about proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. It is the daily discipline of good choices and the long-term practices of self-care that bear the good fruit of wellness.

So it is in our faith journeys. If our congregations are to emulate the faithfulness of the Colossians, if we corporately and individually are to keep bearing fruit that is salutary for the communities and contexts of our ministries, then we must attend both to the daily disciplines and the long-term practices of the faith. In so doing, we are readying soil, planting seeds, pruning vines, and bearing much fruit.

And the promise of the Scriptures?  That as we do so, saints here and saints above will be praying for us, celebrating our faithfulness, and rejoicing in the light of the love of God.


Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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  • On October 2, 2006, Carl Roberts shot five young Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., before taking his own life. The world watched in disbelief as the Amish brought the shooter’s family food, offered forgiveness, and – after attending their daughters’ funerals – joined the mourners as Roberts was laid to rest. Hell fears nothing so much as a proliferation of the Amish. Would it even notice if United Methodists were to double in number? What and where is our fruit?  

  • Much church growth literature is derivative of secular culture in its measures of success. Fruit equals more and younger folk in the pews, more programs, and more money for mission. This model sometimes overlooks the purpose of fruit, which is to serve as a vehicle for the seed. Where is the evidence in American culture that the real seed of the Gospel is taking root? Would some clarity about genuine fruit be conducive to the health of our souls?

These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

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)

Aging and the Church


5075432774_6aab1bc1de_bMay is Older Americans Month, a distinction that “shows [the nation’s] commitment to honoring the value that elders contribute to our community.”  Elders contribute significant value to our churches — membership, service and volunteer work, tithes and bequests are just a few areas of elders’ contributions — but to what extent do we openly address aging in the church?

In her United Methodist Reporter column, Missy Buchanan suggests that the church should “make it a priority to get people across the life span to start talking about aging in spiritual terms.”  This conversation would not only help congregants feel more comfortable with the aging process (it becomes viewed as “part of God’s plan,”) but also increase people’s awareness and respect for members of the older generation. The conversation would also encourage older members to explore their “spiritual legacy,”  helping them see ways of remaining a vital part of the church even as their physical abilities change.

Buchanan offers three main ways to introduce this conversation at your church:

  1. Develop a sermon series on aging
  2. Host health and wellness events at your church
  3. Invite Sunday School classes to have discussions and speakers on topics related to aging.

A fourth idea might be to create a Bible study and invite people spanning a range of ages to participate.


For insights on how the Bible addresses aging, check out these articles:

Do you have a unique way of talking about aging or valuing the contributions of older adults in your church?  We would love to hear about it in the comments section below!

-Katie Huffman

(Top photo by Flickr user FirstBaptistNashville, lower by viewminder, both via Creative Commons)

Overwhelmed by abundance


Too Many ChoicesIn a recent article at The New Republic, Tim Wu argues that for most Americans and Westerners, the abundance we’ve worked hard to create is now suffocating us.

Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. The path of least resistance leads to a pile of debt, a fat body, and an enormous cable bill; strenuous daily efforts are required to avoid that fate.

What a stark contrast to the true abundance that God offers! When God provided manna to Israel, there was enough for each day, enabling the people to continue their journey and perform their duties. But our society’s abundance, enough for far more than the day, makes us slow and lethargic, neglectful of our callings. When Israel tried to horde enough manna for tomorrow, they found what always occurs when we go beyond God’s provision: “it bred worms and stank” (Exodus 16:20, KJV).

So what can we do, as children locked in an endless candy store? A common answer is that we just need to “grow-up,” to learn some self-control and act like self-restrained adults. But Wu points out, citing the work of researchers Baumeister and Tierney, that this may not be as simple as it sounds:

One possible solution is to double-down on the self-control, and train ourselves to better resist temptation and stick with the program. But…there are good reasons to suspect that relying on willpower alone will not work in an environment designed to destroy it…Humans have tested and tried self-control in the face of temptation, and it has repeatedly been found wanting. After decades of dieting and good nutrition, Americans are fatter than ever…[We] have created conditions that exhaust our willpower, more or less guaranteeing failure.

So if strengthening our resolve and trusting in self-discipline won’t see us through this avalanche of abundance, what will? Is there no balm in our Gilead of choices?

It is time, as Baumeister and Tierney would agree, to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

We don’t need more discipline over ourselves; we need more creativity over our environments. I knew one friend who would turn her monitor off at work so that internet browsing would be less of a temptation. Some people set fruits and vegetables front and center in their refrigerators so that they’re easier to see and snack on. One pastor I know changed his route home so he avoids passing fast food traps.

How can we make living well less of a decision and more of a destiny?

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justmakeit /via Creative Commons.)

“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


How we pay attention


I heard a fascinating story about attention on NPR last week. Apparently, when our minds are focused on one thing, we often miss something else that is very obvious, like a man in a gorilla suit, for example!

Researchers at Harvard, led by Trafton Drew, conducted a study in which they showed slides of lungs to radiologists, who are trained to find cancer nodules where most us wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Inspired by the famous “Selective Attention Test” featuring a gorilla suit (see the video below!) the researchers planted an image of a man in a gorilla suit on some of the slides, and asked the researchers what they saw. 83% didn’t see the gorilla! From the NPR story:

This wasn’t because the eyes of the radiologists didn’t happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. “They look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla,” Drew says.

There is a beauty in being so focused on a task that we don’t notice anything else around us. Psychologists call this “flow.” My daughter, working on an art project in her room, is a beautiful example of that. But there can also be a danger when we focus so much on one thing, particularly, as the NPR piece points out, when that is something we are trained to or expecting to see, that we are unable to notice anything else.

In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. So, Drew says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don’t see.

Pastors are asked to pay attention to a great many things, often at the same time. What do you notice about yourself when you are trying to do a focused task, like write a sermon, versus when you are visiting with parishioners after church, which requires a totally different kind of attention? Are you better at one kind of focusing than another? Would you see a man in a gorilla suit if he wandered past your door?

–Caren Swanson

Image by Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, via NPR’s Shots blog


Courage, cancer and poetry


Courage takes many forms, and for some who struggle with cancer or terminal illness, courage is the ability and willingness to notice beauty in the midst of fear and suffering.  The New York Times recently published an article about the growing number of individuals who have begun writing poetry in response to their cancer journeys, and what a healing tool poetry and other forms of creative writing can be.

When Kyle Potvin learned she had breast cancer at the age of 41, she tracked the details of her illness and treatment in a journal. But when it came to grappling with issues of mortality, fear and hope, she found that her best outlet was poetry.

How I feared chemo, afraid
It would change me.
It did.
Something dissolved inside me.
Tears began a slow drip;
I cried at the news story
Of a lost boy found in the woods …
At the surprising beauty
Of a bright leaf falling
Like the last strand of hair from my head

“The creative process can be really healing,” Ms. Potvin said in an interview. “Loss, mortality and even hopefulness were on my mind, and I found that through writing poetry I was able to express some of those concepts in a way that helped me process what I was thinking.”

The article profiles, among others, Karen Miller, who started writing poetry when her husband was first diagnosed with cancer, while she was pregnant with their first child. She has since gone on to create a series of anthologies called the “Cancer Poetry Project.”  On her experience of talking with the various writers, many of whom have cancer themselves, she said:

“They say it’s the thing that lets them get to the core of how they are feeling.  It’s the simplicity of poetry, the bare bones of it, that helps them deal with their fears.”

Though not all of us have had to face the presence of cancer in ourselves or those we love, we do all have fears that must be dealt with.  Poetry is something that is accessible to anyone–there are, literally, no rules. Have you ever used poetry or other creative writing as an outlet for expressing worries or emotions?  What other healthy and positive methods have you used to deal with your fears?

Caren Swanson

(Top image by flickr user Insomnia PHT, bottom image by flickr user churl, both via creative commons)

Isolation in ordination


In my work with clergy, pastors often lament over how difficult it is to build friendships and social support.  For many, the clerical call carries with it a sense of isolation.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, calls it a “crowded loneliness”–a challenge that he reflects over in a recent article with the Christian Century.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships.

Vocational ministry leaves little time for relationships of mutuality, so it’s only human that pastors would desire reciprocation and friendship from congregants. But this is only half the problem. Even when pastors use discipline in their relationships within the church, making these relationships ones of service, they still face pressure from congregants to be one among them, as a neighbor, partner, and friend.  Barnes continues,

When I knelt to receive the laying on of hands before I was ordained, the elders of the congregation were being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, “We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.” It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.

Barnes doesn’t shy away from naming this unavoidable burden for what it is.

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

He goes on to describe how he’s learned to maintain friendships outside the church, mostly with other clergy members. He speaks to them on the phone weekly and is intentional about gathering with them for retreats (many pastors use Duke’s Study Leave program for just this sort of gathering). It sustains him, but it doesn’t remove the awkwardness and longing he experiences in the “crowded loneliness” of ministry. Whether congregants know it or not, this sacrifice is for their sake and good, a service of devotion and love. Israel’s priests were set apart from the people to make intercession and mediate before God for them.

Does this reflect your experience?  What ways have you found to maintain honest, supportive relationships of mutuality amidst the work of ministry?

–Tommy Grimm

(Photo by Flickr user dMad-photo/via Creative Commons)