By Eddie Pipkin
August 1, 2016
Frederick Buechner turned 90 on July 11th. The great writer and Christian theologian has published more than 30 books, and is one of the most-read Christian authors of all time. His inspirational, deeply thoughtful work is being celebrated in a new collection called Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner. You can read about it in an article in “Frederick Buechner at 90: the road goes on,” which includes a lengthy excerpt that includes Buechner’s amazing commencement address some years ago at Union Theological Seminary. If you are involved in the work of ministry, I highly recommend that you take the time to read it. In fact, if you have a limited amount of time, and it is a matter of reading this blog OR following the link to Buechner’s address, leave me now and follow the link.
Buechner’s mediation on ministry and service to Christ, offered to seminarians who are just about to embark on their professional and ministry careers, includes this paragraph:
It’s a queer business that you have chosen or that has chosen you. It’s a business that breaks the heart for the sake of the heart. It’s a hard and chancy business whose risks are as great even as its rewards. Above all else, perhaps, it is a crazy business. It is a foolish business. It is a crazy and foolish business to work for Christ in a world where most people most of the time don’t give a hoot in hell whether you work for him or not. It is crazy and foolish to offer a service that most people most of the time think they need like a hole in the head. As long as there are bones to set and drains to unclog and children to tame and boredom to survive, we need doctors and plumbers and teachers and people who play the musical saw; but when it comes to the business of Christ and his church, how unreal and irrelevant a service that seems even, and at times especially, to the ones who are called to work at it.
I write a lot of blogs about the “business” of doing ministry—the nuts and bolts, the ins and outs, the ups and downs. But one of the things as leaders we have to be most careful about is not losing eternal perspective as we go about the tasks of day-to-day. We need to set aside time to get lost in the words of poets and theologians, so that we may be inspired and re-energized. It’s too easy to be enslaved to the logistics of ministry life. (Even as I was working on this blog and taking a few minutes to get lost in the eloquence of Buechner, my phone buzzed with a text from the Preschool Director about exactly how much caution tape we needed to put up to block off the new playground construction. We are all constantly tasked with making the mental leap from pondering the mysteries of faith to calculating the proper ratio of yellow warning tape to imminent danger. That’s the job.)
There are constantly decisions to be made. It’s hard not to elevate them in importance and elevate our own importance as the deciders. Spending time with great thinkers is a terrific tool for re-balancing our thoughts and helping us to not take ourselves too seriously.
I found it supremely ironic that in addition to Buechner’s deep thoughts on community, service, and contemplation of spiritual mystery, the other article that popped in my reading queue on his birthday was this New York Times blog called “The Narcissist Next Door” The article itself reflects upon the narcissistic tendencies of our technology-laden culture. It specifically explores the idea of whether Facebook and Twitter promote narcissism. It sure feels that way, doesn’t it? But the scientists, so far, don’t see evidence that these social media platforms actually make us more narcissistic—they do, however, attract and encourage personalities that are already narcissistic.
We are all, as humans, obsessed with ourselves to some degree, and we all have limited time in which to get everything done—including recharging our souls by filling them with the nourishment of essays, poetry, music, and sermons that challenge us and transport us from the mundane. It feels counter-intuitive to argue for setting aside time for these things, but just like praying and physical exercise, attention to reading the “greats” makes us better prepared for the grind of the tasks at hand. We should all be reading good work, intellectually curious, and eager to learn. And if we lead teams, we should model this for our teams.
Any ministry team meeting that happens, in addition to featuring moments of Scripture reflection and prayer, is an opportunity to share a snippet of wisdom and insight from creative thinkers. Lots of team meetings feature a quick devotional or thrown-together meditation, but the work of probing deeper ideas has already been done in dozens of books of essays and accessible theology. What if your team was reading and discussing one of those together? What new ideas and insights might result?
Perhaps you are reading one of the popular Christian writers of the moment and doing one of their packaged studies: maybe the latest Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, or on old standby from Max Lucado and company? Or maybe you could explore some of the seriously creative writers of our day (along with some of the previous generation of authors who inspired them): Frederick Buechner, Bruce McLaren, Will Willimon, Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Henri Nouwen, Jan Richardson, Marcia McFee, Dallas Willard, Rachel Held Evans, Walter Bruggeman, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Christine Valtners Paintner, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey.
So many to choose from. So much to learn and be inspired by. We should seek such inspiration and pass it on. It’s one of the ways we move from good to great. We should be encouraging team members to read, to share what they are personally inspired by, and to constantly encourage one another to sample ideas and authors.
Who are some of your favorite inspiring authors, artists, musicians, and theologians? What written or broadcast works, shared with your ministry team, have been most inspiring or led most directly to new energy and insights? These are not hypothetical questions! Share the things you feel passionate about in the comments section.