The idea that the reformed church is a priesthood of all believers is noble, and even somewhat true. Each believer is called to take the gospel into the nations, to have a reason handy for the hope that we have in Christ, and be equipped to be as Christ to the least of these. Those with the right gifts are called to preach the Word and even administer the sacraments, if authorized. Our courts are founded on the principle of the equality of teaching and ruling elders.
And yet, we still need our ministers. I mean, no matter how well a congregation is gifted and prepared, no matter how anointed its lay leaders, it still needs a minister of Word and Sacrament.
I don’t declare this out of self preservation. I know that I may speak with a slight conflict of interest, given my calling. But I think that it’s fair to say that when you look at the lay of the land, the healthiest congregations — spiritually and financially — are marked by the leadership of ministers who are genuinely called to that particular flock and bring their healthy selves to the task.
Assuming that the minister and congregation are a good fit — a matter which may be addressed in a future blog — the minister must bring a measure of spiritual, emotional, and physical health in order to thrive. Too often, our ministers are lacking.
Which is why the PCC Pastors’ Conference, held April 22-26, was such a breath of fresh air. A total of 118 Presbyterian ministers from coast to coast were treated to four nights and three full days of inspiration and rest at an all-inclusive resort at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Our hosts were the ministers of Vaughan Community Church, whose congregation covered the cost and arranged the teaching and workshops led by the principals of our three theological colleges. (It could have been 150, but that’s all they could attract. It’s hard to believe that anyone would turn down such a generous and wise gift.)
It was a rich experience in every sense of the word.
Setting: Barcelo Bavaro Beach, a first-class resort on one of the finest beaches in the world. Gourmet cooking at every meal. Tranquility under palm trees. Daytime highs of 29 C and lows of 23 C, no rain, and little humidity. We were mercifully nestled in the adult-only corner of the resort — not that there is anything wrong about children and teens but sometimes, you know, it’s good to be around adults.
People: people just like me. Not just ministers in general, but Presbyterian Church in Canada ministers. There’s a difference. I can identify with anyone who is called into congregational ministry, but only someone who is accountable to the courts of the PCC understands exactly what I am experiencing. It was a golden opportunity to make new connections. It was particularly encouraging to interact with colleagues across our theological spectrum, make new friendships and renew old ones.
Inspiration: Great teaching and messages from faculty and ministers. So much good stuff, I have pages of notes.
Rest: for those who needed it, a generous amount of time each day to rest and be alone, or to hit the golf course. “I rediscovered the siesta!” quipped one minister.
Motivation: Perhaps this is the most-important element. We were reminded of the need to avoid burnout. We heard a moving first-person story of a minister who suddenly found himself unable to function: “35 years (of non-stop work) caught up to me. I felt like hell. I was spiritually confused. I thought I was going to die.” Stop the presses. How many of us sitting in the audience, mesmerized by this powerful confession, wondered, “Lord, could I be next?”
I admit, the question ran through my mind.
And then the hope: “I experienced the grace, power, love, and healing power of God I’ve never experienced before.” We must know God and understand ourselves as beloved children of God: “if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters.”
Despite all the training and awareness seminaries are doing these days to prepare people for professional ministry, it’s up to the minister to use it. Sadly, there is burnout across this land. In some presbyteries, every minister who is not moderator or clerk is interim moderator in a long-term setting and sometimes in two congregations in addition to their own. We serve on presbytery and synod committees. Some are called to General Assembly committees. There is the beautiful work in our local ecumenical circles, as local ministerials work together. And this is on top of the weekly routine of preaching, caring, listening, and guiding our congregations. Study leave? That, too, is work.
While taking time to hug your local pastor is always welcome, the remedy is deeper. An ounce of prevention, for sure. But in many quarters, it’s beyond that.
There’s no easy answer.
Awareness is a huge step, and many of us received that eye-opener. Knowing that there are many, many brothers and sisters in called ministry out there who are experiencing similar situations was all that’s needed.
In the words of one long-time minister: “This was the best Presbyterian conference I’ve ever attended.”
In addition to the personal needs of ministers, there is the theological divide in the PCC. The conference was the vision of Rev. Peter Han, the senior minister of VCC. In the words of the organizers, the goal was “fellowship, encouragement, learning, and unity among ministers. With all the demands and complexities of serving the church today, we want to take up the simple invitation to rest and abide in God. We’re hoping ministers will be renewed and refreshed.”
And that is exactly what happened. It was a bold, faithful step towards healing the soul of a fractured body.
You cannot get this kind of experience at General Assembly, which is rife with contention and bureaucratic order. The PCC Pastor’s Conference was a milestone.
Somewhere, sometime, somehow — we need to do this again.