Fall is a time of bright red, yellow, and orange, shorter days, transformation, and letting go. Winter is on the horizon and the changing colors forecast cold days and bare trees. Although both of us have experienced the cycle from summer to fall and the yearly ritual of bright colors and falling leaves for more than fifty years, we seek to approach the season with an open spirit and a beginner's mind because each fall brings something new to the environment and our lives. As the two of us move toward our own personal autumns in ministry and academic life, the spirit of autumn calls us to rejoice in the harvest of a good life, the fruitfulness of faithful ministry, the impact we have made on others, and the need to embrace creativity and change as the prelude to the next adventure.
Bidden or unbidden, fall bursts forth, whether in the cornfields or the life of a committed pastor, reaching the prime of her or his professional life. This bursting forth reflects not only the natural flow of life but also the willingness of pastors to embrace the wisdom of aging and the realities of change and novelty. Ministry, like the seasons, is a cyclical profession. Pastors live their professional lives from Sunday to Sunday, from stewardship campaign to stewardship campaign, from rally day to rally day, from board meeting to board meeting, and from Advent to Advent. The repetitive acts of ministry can be a source of creativity or boredom. Like thorns that infest a garden, they can, year after year, choke the spiritual life that bursts forth with our initial call to ministry and first congregation, or they can be like the fertile soil from which new and colorful ministerial practices emerge.
With each new Sunday's passing, most pastors catch their breath and begin to turn their attention toward next Sunday's sermon. In the course of a thirty-year ministry, a pastor cycles through the three-year lectionary ten times, not to mention thirty Advents, Lents, Holy Weeks, and Easters.
A pastor, now midway into her second decade of ministry, confessed, "Each year I struggle to say something new at Christmas and Easter. I no longer understand these stories literally as I once did. But, still I want to enter Christmas with the eyes of a child and Easter as if I'd just lived through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I want to be surprised again. But I realize that I need to be transformed if the stories are to take on new life for myself and the congregation."
Ministry and liturgy are grounded in repetitive ritual. While ritual can lead to lifeless routine, life-supporting rituals such as meditation and communion deepen our faith and integrate conscious and unconscious experience. Our bodies as well as our spirits are transformed by the practices and rituals of our lives, and it is our job to renew our practices, especially in midcareer in ministry.
In the repetition of ministerial acts year after year, many pastors begin to experience "brown out," but they can avoid burnout if they seek renewal through a lively balance of order and novelty, stability and change, and endurance and transformation, which are necessary to healthy and effective ministry in midcareer. This is a matter of grace and gift, but it is also a commitment to transformational practices amid the routine events of ministry.
But pastors need to confront creatively the challenges of midlife in ministry in order to turn the dying fires into beautiful autumn landscapes. While the list is not exhaustive, we believe that experiencing transformation and developing staying power in the autumn of ministry involve the following:
Confronting grief and loss in ministry: The cost of not facing professional grief can be disastrous, leading to substance abuse, compassion fatigue, and burnout. When grief is not addressed, it saps our vitality and robs us of zest for life. It also may surface in unexpected anger and alienation or withdrawal from persons who love us.
Cultivating novelty in responding to the everyday tasks of ministry: Creative and novel ministerial responses to regular as well as unexpected aspects of ministry are not accidental but arise from an ongoing commitment to grow in one's pastoral imagination as well as one's theological and spiritual stature.
Letting go of perfectionism and indispensability: Although they preach the grace of God to their congregations, many pastors are anything but graceful when it comes to their own personal lives. The wisdom of graceful imperfection is grounded in the pastor's humble recognition that grace abounds for her- or himself as well as for the congregation.
Taking responsibility for your own health and well-being: Mindful healthy living enables us not only to prevent serious illness but also to experience greater energy and effectiveness in our own lives. Intentionality and regularity complement a commitment to transformation and novelty in ministry.
Finding harvest in midlife: For most of us, our spiritual lives, like the seasons of the year, involve seedtime and harvest, but they also include monsoons and droughts, gentle breezes and hurricane winds. Doubt, uncertainty, and spiritual depletion are important seasons in the life of ministry. Accepting one's current spiritual experience as a window into the fullness of God's nature can be an opportunity to experience God in new and adventurous ways.
Rediscovering your first love in ministry: When pastors rediscover their spiritual passions and are able to integrate them into their day-to-day ministries, miracles happen for pastors and congregations. New energies are released and new possibilities emerge.
Our word of grace to you is that you can be transformed. You don't have to leave congregational ministry to experience wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. You can experience vital and transforming ministry in every season of life. The good news of the gospel is that grace abounds and that pastors can change their habits, lifestyle, and approach to ministry! Pastors can become healed healers, rather than burnt-out functionaries.