Boundless Gratitude for Going Deeper

Do not forget that you serve
a Mystery
that neither you nor your father’s father
nor your mother’s mother began.
And the laughter and the tears
that accompany your labor
are not born
of your cleverness
or your holiness,
but are reflections of the Mystery of God
in the still waters
of the eternal lake
by moonlight…
~ William C. Martin
The Art of Pastoring

Nine years later, I still think about that lunch.

I had joined a group of pastor friends at an Atlanta bistro for our monthly meet-up. We were part of a Lilly-funded clergy cohort that got together, ostensibly to discuss books but mostly to prop each other up.

That day, I was feeling anxious and raw because of conflict in my congregation related to financial and personnel challenges we were facing. While scanning the dessert menu, I mentioned to the group that I had a doctor’s appointment later that afternoon. “I need something to help me sleep,” I told them. “My chest feels tight. My heart won’t stop racing.” There were sympathetic nods all around.

Then, from the far end of the table, one of the pastors spoke up: “For what it’s worth, I swear by trazodone. My doctor prescribed it for my anxiety five years ago and it’s made all the difference.”

“Have you tried amitriptyline?” another pastor asked. “When my depression was at its worst last fall, my doctor prescribed that.”

“Yeah, but it dries out your mouth,” announced a third.  “I couldn’t preach while on amitriptyline. It gave me cotton-mouth, so I’m giving St. John’s wort a try.”

There was a brief silence, then we all broke into pained laughter at what a beleaguered bunch of shepherds we were. We talked together about the sobering reality that seven of the ten pastors at the table required medication for anxiety and/or depression related to the weight of congregational leadership.

Four years after that memorable clergy lunch in Atlanta, I accepted a call to a historic church in Washington, D. C., seven blocks from the White House. By this time, I was hungering for an essential change in my life, especially in relation to my vocation. While I had gained sufficient leadership skills and ministry experience over the course of thirty years, I felt within myself a yearning to live and lead more from a place of intimacy with God than from the corporate models of leadership I had known. I also was aware of my personal need for healthier, less anxious ways of responding to the pressures and conflicts inherent in congregational life.

When I learned that the Shalem Institute, an organization I’ve admired for years, offered a program designed especially for clergy, I took it as a sign from God and applied. Shalem’s 18-month Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership program was the Beloved’s answer to my innermost longing.

Three components of Shalem’s clergy program were particularly helpful in supporting my vocation:

  • First, the two clergy residencies, led by the superb Shalem faculty, in which we all received much-needed silence and rest, along with a deep dive into contemplative spirituality and prayer practices.
  • Second, the experience of meeting monthly with a peer group of other pastors in the program. Together we became a community of encouragement, accountability and prayer.
  • Third, the assignment of forming a “Lay Listening Group” composed of people in my own church. Over the course of a year, eight congregants and I met monthly in one another’s homes to pay attention to the stirrings of the Holy in our midst. The experience was so deeply meaningful, I decided to start a new contemplative listening group every year, even after I completed the clergy program. As of now, more than forty people in our congregation have taken up that yearlong contemplative journey.

Early in 2020, when Shalem’s Executive Director, Margaret Benefiel, asked me to consider co-leading the Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership program, after taking time for personal and group discernment, I responded with a joyful Yes and Yippee! The opportunity to invite other clergy to draw near to the Mystery and drink from Love’s eternal waters fills my heart with gratitude and delight.

I must add that last year’s clergy residency, while consigned to Zoom because of the pandemic, was just as inspiring as when I experienced it in the beauty of Bon Secours retreat center, only in different ways. I loved the sight of so many diverse faces on my computer screen each day as we experienced Divine Presence across multiple time zones. I’m looking forward to gathering in the same way this summer and next as the next Clergy cohort will be entirely on Zoom.

Thanks be to the One for the enduring invitation to Presence. And deep thanks to Shalem for responding to Love’s initiative. This pastor is boundlessly grateful.

March 03, 2021 by Julie Pennington-Russell
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