by the Reverend Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The first time I recognized the lag was some time into pastoring my first congregation. The sermons were getting harder to germinate. The typical grousing of a family church – where the families did not always get along – was bothering me more than usual. I was starting to visualize ministry as fire-fighting on a burning roof with only burlap bags to beat off the flames of fire bursting out faster than I could jump.
Three things made it better.
I figured out everyone was right. I really did need to pray. Daily. “Everyone” was not right was in saying that prayer had to happen first thing in the morning, you know, give the best/first part of the day to God. I could not make that work. My small children had some sort of extra sensory hearing – meaning that no matter how quiet I was, I could not get out of bed quietly enough. If I was up, it was time for them to get up, too. Time for just God and me could not happen at or before dawn. Lunchtime became my prayer time. The kids were at day care. My husband was at school. The members of my church were out in the fields. Then, I went to the spare bedroom in the parsonage to pray. For me, it’s always been centering prayer – not too many words. Maybe I normally let too many things spin in my head. I worry too much, try to do too much. So centering myself on a repeated phrase – often a new one everyday – calms my spirit and makes room for me to connect with God’s Spirit always waiting for me. I need to pray. Daily.
I got back on my bike. Probably not everyone has a bike – at least not one that you ride anymore. But for me, a healthy spirit requires exercise at something I love – mostly outside. Without it I get depressed, and I don’t pray. The biking and the centering work together. Being outside helps. I remember my first times of deep, deep prayer at camp. Morning watch. We went outside alone, with Bible or study guide in hand and found a place to sit and pray. Those early mornings with the backdrop of insects whirring, the fields still sparkly with dew, the hay bales golden against green fields, were my first experience in centering, too, although I did not know or name it as that at the time. Being outside deepened the praying for me, helped me feel closer to God out in God’s world. Being on the bike does much the same.
And third, I got with peers. My spiritual health has always depended on finding a peer group. That first time, when my spirit was dry and my brain was empty, someone invited me to an ecumenical lectionary study group in town. The sermon ideas, spun out in conversation about the text helped, of course. But more than that, the camaraderie felt like spring. Since then I’ve mostly stumbled into peer groups, but they have restored my soul. A women’s clergy group reminded me often of God’s presence. While working for Phillips University and Seminary and in their D.Min. program, a requirement to find a peer group lifted me at another time of sinking. Back in congregational ministry, being part of a Bethany group taught me again to pray, even more deeply, in centering and silence over many hours, even days. And now, a heads of communion peer group provides an annual oasis of retreat for worship, silence, camaraderie and, yes, prayer.
Praying and riding and connecting spiritually with peers. When I do those three, my images of ministry are of joyful connecting: hands clasped, table set, lives restored – my life included.