“When pastors start with spirit–that is, begin their ministries with a commitment both to faithful excellence as pastors and to well-being of body, mind, spirit, and relationships–they experience a sense of joy and meaning amid the challenges of ministry.”
Such is the central message of Dr. Bruce Epperly, most recently of Lancaster Theological Seminary, in his lastest offering (Alban) on pastoral ministry and spiritual practice. Those familiar with his previous works (or who have just looked him up on Amazon) will know that Epperly has written or co-written dozens of books on similar subjects, mostly focusing on a renewed emphasis in spiritual practices within mainline Christianity. In “Starting with Spirit,” he applies this perspective to the exciting though often unsettling experience of transitioning from seminary into one’s first ministry call.
To do so, Epperly draws heavily from his years of service as a university chaplain and seminary professor. The bulk of the book is taken from conversations and correspondance with current or former seminary students, often listing one reflection after another with short summaries at the end, or not. This structure is at the heart of the books strengths and weaknesses.
On one hand it is helpful to have so many different examples and perspectives included in one book and organized around important topics for young ministers (pastoral authority, boundaries, scheduling, continuing education, when the ‘honeymoon’ wears off, etc.). I often found myself nodding in agreement.
But at times this structure can get monotonous, and even a bit confusing. Individual accounts and reflections make for helpful illustrations but the repetitive, abrupt way in which they are often presented here risks a slightly thrown-together feel.
That being said, Epperly is right on the money in his chapter foci and understanding of the major concerns of young ministers, or at least this young minister. A few chapters particularly stand out.
Most impressive was his chapter on the trials and tribulations (and also joys and gifts) of being an associate pastor, “Associate Ministry as a Creative Challenge.” This common reality for young ministers does not seem to be addressed enough in seminary or in these sorts of books on pastoral ministry. (Incidentally, “things not addressed enough in seminary” is the topic of Chapter 2. One could argue, tellingly, that this subject is addressed with far greater regularity both in and outside of seminary than its object.) I applaud Epperly for including associate pastor ministry here, and found the perspectives offered to be helpful and encouraging:
“For Leigh Ann, being an associate is a spiritual discipline, ‘Your relationship is key to partnership in ministry. You need to figure out the nature of the relationship, and you also need to be humble. You need to recognize that you have something to learn from him [or her].'”
Also helpful was his chapter on the new minister/congregation “honeymoon” period, “When the Honeymoon’s Over, If There Ever Was One.” I was intrigued by how many of the young ministers surveyed noted how important the interim pastor who preceded them was for healing wounds and leaving the congregation in a position to have this sort of “honeymoon” period, or conversely how much they wish the church had had an interim.
In summary, Epperly has compiled a useful collection of reflections on transitioning into ministry, rounded out with his own perspective on the importance of spiritual practice to the life of the minister.
My experience in seminary (or divinity school) was that an emphasis on spiritual practice and self care were well-integrated into the curriculum and general culture of the school. Some would argue too much so with regard to self care. I heard one guest speaker, when asked to comment on the issue of self care, remark only half jokingly, “If I hear one more seminary commencement speech on self care I don’t know what I’ll do!”
For some, this book will rehash familiar topics, but hopefully provide new perspectives and fresh anecdotes. For others, this book will provide some helpful insights and concrete suggestions concerning spiritual practices. And for others still, particularly those young pastors for whom post-seminary life has been marked by loneliness and seclusion, Epperly’s book will be a timely reminder that they are not at all alone in their experiences.
A helpful reminder for us all.