Reclaiming the Deeper Why

By Kent French
November 7, 2019 - 7:56am

This past week I attended a long-awaited clergy conference sponsored by the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ (PBUCC). It’s called CREDO. “Credo,” is Latin for “I believe,” or even “I give my heart to…”

The conference was an intentional six-day period for church pastors to assess the different aspects of their lives: vocational, spiritual, physical, psychological and financial. There are preparation materials, presentations, workshops and individual consultations. By the end of the conference, each participant drafts a CREDO covenant, articulating our core values, delving into the “deeper why” of our lives and offering working plans about how to move forward in each of these areas.

The PBUCC generously picks up most of the cost of this conference. I am grateful to the Pension Boards and to you, for helping fund your pastors’ pensions and health insurance, allowing us to experience this amazing benefit.

Why this kind of conference? Well, the truth is, a lot of clergy get burned out. The reasons we went into ministry --spending time immersed in God’s love and Word, proclaiming the Good News, shaping and leading worship, helping people with their spiritual lives, working actively for social justice — often get overwhelmed by the mundane realities of trying to keep the non-profit of the local church alive and thriving. This is especially challenging in a world in which the institutional church is dying (or probably just transforming in unpredictable ways) all around us.

One of my colleagues, who’s both a local church pastor and a kind of inspirational rock star in the UCC denomination, says that the real secret about local church pastoring is that it is 90% administration. There’s a lot of “air traffic control” that local church pastors do among various internal and outside groups, buildings and grounds, financial challenges, staff and volunteer management. This is juxtaposed against the other, “deeper” work of spiritual transformation. It helps to think about this coordinating, nitty-gritty work as holy ad-ministry-ation. 

A few years ago, I was seated next to two seasoned senior pastors at a denominational conference and I asked them what was the most important thing for me to know in learning to be a senior pastor. Without missing a beat they both said: know how to fire people and how to do staff performance reviews. Really?!? This is what pastoring a church is about? This is what I committed giving my heart to? You have got to be kidding me. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve come to learn firsthand the significance of their advice. I’ve also learned about criminal investigations, the threat of lawsuits, misguided restraining orders, check-kiting schemes, and all sorts of other worldly realities.

The truth is that all of us may start on a path with great, grand, and rose-colored-tinted ideas about what our lives will be about. We have a clear sense of why we’re doing what we’re doing, what we believe, how it lines up with our core beliefs. It might be parenting, a new job, a chosen profession, a real lifelong vocation. And then, life sets in. Things don’t go as planned. There are hassles, or even devastating setbacks, that we didn’t anticipate. And the question is: is this really worth it? What has happened to my core values, the reason I went down this path in the first place?

Which brings me to sabbath. The conference was a kind of extended sabbath. A time to step back and look at the totality of the pastoral life, to remember our relationship to God and our core commitments. Our Minister of Music spoke beautifully in worship about her own recent sabbatical and how it restored and renewed her commitment to the work she does. (And with our blessing, she’s going on a pilgrimage to Israel this week with her good colleagues at Temple Shir Tikva.)

The Fourth Commandment is: Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11), and goes on to explain how God did this at the advent of Creation. The Gospels report that Jesus was always trying to get away for some quiet, “me” time, and kept getting interrupted (proving that it’s not always easy to take sabbath — see Mark 1:35-39, Luke 6:12-16, Matthew 14:13-14, Mark 9:2-13). On Sunday we’ll talk about the importance of carving out sabbath time so that each of us can remember the Deeper Why of our lives.

With the blessing of our staff, Church Council and Human Resources Ministry Team and the insistence of my partner, colleagues and friends, I am taking some intentional sabbath time in the coming month. It is spiritual renewal time which you gave me, but I did not take in the preceding fiscal year. In September it became clear that I needed this time. I will be away November 12-December 3, which will take me through Thanksgiving and into the first week of Advent. It’s a great gift and I am grateful to get away, to think, to pray and to listen more carefully for God. I welcome your prayers during this time, just as I will pray for you.

Meanwhile, I look forward to worshiping with you this coming Sunday and thinking about how we all may carve out sabbath time in big and small ways.

If you'd like to hear the sermon from last week, or subscribe to our podcast, click here.