Robert Frost said, “There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.” I find his poetic confession sobering because in the suburban, urban, and rural settings in which I have found employment in ministry, I have encountered an abundance of scared people – frozen in fear. They come in all shapes and sizes; accountants, single mothers, high-power attorneys, government executives, educators, retirees. Some are survivors of violence, others are perpetrators of it, and even more are confused children lost in the maze of it all. Some are regular church attenders and some are not. Their needs are varied, but they have in common that Jesus’ resurrection hasn’t impressed them to steadfastly live with hope.
On my first Sunday as a senior pastor, I attended a vigil for a young man who was fatally shot in broad daylight just a few blocks from the church. I learned that evening that standing in the same spot where someone’s last breath was taken is a sobering affair. It should draw you closer to God, render you more obedient and attuned to humanity’s needs. And it may; but it can also suck your soul dry.
I reminded myself that evening that God is good no matter what points our circumstances may debate, and other than the Spirit’s guidance, my only hope of faithfully caring for God’s sheep is to first care for myself and my wife. As a 2013 Guthrie Scholar, these are lessons I learned to keep close to my heart.
The biggest “tool” provided by Guthrie Scholars was simply an understanding that self-care is a biblical necessity for everyone, including those of us in vocational ministry. It's so easy to feel apologetic in attempting to care for oneself when we spend an inordinate amount of time otherwise caring deeply for others. To be honest, I was already well along in that journey, but the time I had at the Center for Lifelong Learning, to sit still, commune with God, speak with professors, and write/research was instrumental in encouraging me to even further affirm, without apology, that if I am not, first, seriously committed to caring for myself (and my wife), holistically, then ministry, no matter how noble it is, is really all for naught.
I am overjoyed to serve as Senior Pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, DC. Given my assorted theological influences, God hit a homerun in placing me at a nondenominational congregation with Mennonite roots and is more diverse than you can imagine. I am not a sheriff or dictator entrusted to guarantee that everyone toes the spiritual line. No, I am called to be an example who boldly points to the example, Jesus; testifying faithfully in eternity’s courtroom. That is only possible when I properly care for my own life, heeding the divine counsel that I preach and teach every week.
The Guthrie Scholars Learning Cohort at Columbia Theological Seminary was a godsend. It allowed me to rediscover the importance of honoring the Sabbath, spending time in conversation with the Lord, investing in my marriage, and generally, and unapologetically, having “a life” outside of my designation as “Reverend.”
The Rev. James Ellis III is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and the University of Maryland. He was a 2013 Guthrie Scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary and 2012-13 Lewis Fellow at Wesley Theological Seminary, a post-graduate, post-ordination leadership development program for clergy under 35. In 2011, Day1 selected him as a ‘Young Leader of the Church.’ His writings can be found on Day1, The Huffington Post, and Ethics Daily. Smyth & Helwys Press is in the process of publishing his book, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors. He is currently the senior pastor of Peace Fellowship Church, a nondenominational church in Washington, DC.
For more information on the Center for Lifelong Learning's Guthrie Scholars Program, click here.