By Ellen Culpepper
I stood at a whiteboard in the circle of faces in my small group at the most recent workshop. “I’m really anxious about this, guys,” I said, as I drew a triangle between me, my 85-year old widowed father, and the woman in assisted-living that he’s quite interested in. The bonds of deep familiarity and trust within my group enabled me to relax in the face of their brewing playfulness and honesty—I knew they would not go easy on me as we looked together at my functioning. What began to emerge in our shared reflections surprised us all. “Would you please add your husband up there in that diagram?” one requested. I did, and we looked at the interlocking triangles. Then with dawning insight another said, “Now put your church up there.” Startled, we all saw together that my dad’s lady-friend was merely my handiest target of anxiety. As I recognized some options to strengthen my functioning in other key relationships, she was no longer a significant issue to me at all.
Insights like that are the reason Leadership in Ministry is my most valuable gift to myself both as a pastor and in my personal life. I wouldn’t take anything for it. And it is not at all difficult to “treat” myself to it even though the entire costs come out of my own pocket, my church doesn’t give me a nickel toward expenses of attending LIM. I don’t need them to. I know that I want to grow into the highest maturity I possibly can as a pastor during very anxious times, and I know that I am the one who decides how and where I will stretch toward my best, not my church. So I come freely on my own, as twice a year I observe this process working for me. I watch myself doing ministry in ways much wiser, and better self-regulated than I ever could do without it.
Journaling is an extremely valuable daily tool of insight for me, yet it cannot provide me with the insights from others’ perspectives that my small group has given me for three years. Similarly, I have a best girlfriend with whom I share hours of phone conversations weekly, but those chats, undisciplined by family systems concepts, do not tug me into the deeper insights that small group work and the content sessions at LIM provide. Local clergy coffee groups offer warm companionship with fellow pastors but they do not attempt to invite me to deeper self-awareness and calmer self-regulation that helps me do my work better. They are no substitute for LIM.
The spiritual aspect of my twice a year drives to Workshop A at Lost River is another vital aspect of the value I receive in these retreats. After leading Sunday worship I head out on my 12 hour drive, and I frankly relish the quiet miles in the car as spiritual preparation for the event that will begin the next day. I think carefully about the cases I’ve decided to present. I take prayer time. I find the unfolding miles giving me new perspectives on my life, my work, my values, my priorities. I enjoy the solitary motel room along the way, the unhurried arrival at the cozy cabin in woods, lavish with spring or autumn beauty.
In the mountains of West Virginia, I treasure the lack of cell phone and internet connection. It helps me take needed “time out” from my own anxious fusing with my parishioners—they can’t reach me and I can’t reach them, apart from the emergency phone number I’ve given them. My fellow LIM retreatants are similarly stripped of electronic distraction, and we rest in the Present Moment with God and with these friends who have deep values like our own. We leave cell phones in our rooms and simply (gasp!) relax and relate to each other. We share lots of smiling eye contact, and we sustain lines of conversation til the voiced thoughts feel fully completed. We listen to the texture of quiet pauses as well as to the layers of meanings in our shared stories. How rare is that these days?! We actually practice with each other at being less-anxiously present and connected.
I make a point of arranging for my drive home afterwards to be leisurely. I do not schedule meetings I’d have to rush back to. I line up someone else to preach for me the next Sunday, so that as I drive home I am free to mull about and absorb the gifts I’ve just received. After thee years my parishioners have begun to notice how good this is for my ministry with them, they value it for me. A couple of wise ones actually perceive that not only do they get back a pastor who is refreshed and calmer but that I have invested in becoming a more astute, more self-aware and a better self-regulated leader for their benefit.
When I attended my first session of LIM three years ago, long-time folks told me that the best benefits come to those who keep at it for years. This third year is the year I am starting to see that is true for me. I’m investing about the same amount of money, time, preparation and spiritual engagement each time, but the “bang for my buck” is growing deeper and more resonant. By now it is more like a “Boom for my buck.”
It’s a richer sound. I really like it.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops, a post-graduate program in clergy leadership development. The workshops are offered in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Lost River WV, and Portland OR. Check the schedule for the workshop dates at the various locations.