Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Keys to Self-Care

Benefits for Both You and Your Congregation


Guest Columnist, Dr. Elmer Colyer


We all know that it is one of our dirty little secrets as clergy. We are trained to take care of other people and we do to the very best of our ability.  However, we often are not as adept or as conscientious at taking care of ourselves. This lack of attention to our own lives often leads pastors into ill health and/or deep discouragement. In addition, the issue of self-care and severity of the problems it creates when we don’t engage in it gets worse as we get older. 

I am not contributing to this blog to make anyone feel guilty, ashamed, or further burdened in the midst of our very challenging vocation of pastoral ministry.  I understand the struggle as it has been on ongoing issue for me for the entire 36 years I have been in ministry.  In addition to being a seminary professor, I have been a pastor since 1980, including serving churches on the side for 12 of my 25 years as a professor.  I am currently working with a troubled and conflicted congregation helping them move into a better future.  So I might be able to be helpful because I have had many years of experience, plus a fair amount of reading and research in this whole are of clergy health and wellness.

In addition, I am an elite bike racer and a USA Cycling Level 1 Certified Power-Based Training Coach, the highest cycle coaching certification in the USA.  And I am 60 years old.  Ya, a geezer-jock, as some label us.  LOL.  I have found that I am way more effective and way more efficient in ministry because I have been an avid cyclist since 1984.  I did not start racing bikes until my sons were all raised and out of the house and I had a bit more time.  Prior to that I biked and did some other forms of exercise for fun and for health and wellness.  So let me share some things I have learned that might be helpful in this whole area of clergy health and wellness.

One of the interesting studies that done within the last 25 years is the Harvard study around aging. Harvard studied people who aged well. For most of the 20th century geriatrics and the medical professions perspective on health and wellness in the second half of life was based on studies done earlier in the 20th century of people who did not age well.

The Harvard study has revolutionized our understanding of the aging process. What we know now is that life after 45 does not have to be a gradual slide into the grave.  Indeed what we are discovering is that people can live incredibly healthy lives, even athletic lives, much longer than we ever dreamed possible before the Harvard study. 

One of the spin‑offs of this change is that we are finding that aging athletes perform incredibly well against their younger competitors beyond what anyone would have dreamed possible 30 years ago.  So a couple years ago at the USA cycling Masters National bike races, the fastest 40K time trial of all of those competing from 30 on up was done by a guy who was 51 years old.   He literally beat dozens and dozens and dozens the top amateur athletes in North America between 30 and 40 years old despite being over 50.

The same physiology that enables aging athletes to perform so well is accessible to the vast majority of people over 50 years old. What this means is that by switching to a healthy diet and consistent exercise, people over 50, even those who not in very good physical shape, can not only improve, but can actually become biologically younger than their numerical age.  Because of various biological changes after 50 our bodies need not only cardiovascular work (walking, running, biking, swimming, etc.), but also strength training and stretching routines so that we can maintain our range of motion and not lose our muscle strength.  This doesn't mean that you have to go to a gym and pump iron. There are a bunch of exercises that we can do by simply using our body weight as resistance or using inexpensive stretchy thick rubber bands designed to produce the resistance that muscle needs.

The even bigger pay-off that comes from moving to a healthy life-style is its affect upon all the other areas of life.  We human beings, not bodies with an additional "soul" different from and residing within our bodies.  We are totally interconnected.  So when we eat an unhealthy diet and live a physically unhealthy lifestyle, it affects everything else, including our mental abilities, our emotions, our relationships with others, etc.  Healthy eating and exercise for the vast majority of people actually have an incredibly positive effect upon their emotional state, self-esteem, and overall sense of well‑being.  A healthy diet and exercise are huge in warding off stress and in dealing with depression, and they increase our energy level and reserves.  There is a reason why we hear some athletes talk about a runner's or athlete's "high" that comes with exercise.  There are deep biochemical reasons for this.

So one of the key steps we pastors can take to improve our quality of life is to start our self-care at the bottom level of our hierarchy of needs: our physical well-being simply because it will contribute positively to our well-being at the higher levels as well.  I promise that if you take some steps to improve your diet and engage in regular exercise it will have a tremendous positive effect all many areas of your life and it ways that may even surprise you.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with several doable small steps.

-Eat healthy for 2 meals a day or 5 days of the week or 75% of the time as your first step in the right direction.  IF you don't know the basics of eating healthy, do a google search and you can learn the basics in 10 minutes.

-Go for a 10-15 minute walk or bike ride 3-4 times a week, and build up to 30-45 minutes.

-Find someone to go with you on this journey, a friend or a spouse for support and to help you keep at it.

2. After a month, if you want to get more serious I highly recommend the book, YOUNGER NEXT YEAR, by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge.  It is a very funny but extremely helpful book about staying healthy as we age.  It will tell you most of what you need to know to live healthy.

3. If you are really out of shape and over-weight, you will want to see your doctor before you launch into a vigorous exercise program.  Doing too much when we are not ready can be dangerous.  I make every athlete I coach get a physical before I put them into rigorous exercise program.  I guy I have coached for a number of years hit 55 this year and I suggested that it was time for get another complete physical.  His physician discovered a 4 cm aneurysm on one of the arteries supplying blood to his heart.  Needless to say, we quickly modified his training program!  It is always good to see the doctor before launching into an exercise program.

I have peddled away a lot of frustration and stress over many years.  I have also had some profoundly moving times of prayer while peddling my away up and over the rolling hills around Dubuque.  Some days it is just plain fun.  And some days it is totally boring and I don’t feel like doing it.  But eating healthy and biking have been a huge blessing and benefit.  Maybe I will see you out on the road or even at a race.

I would be happy to answer questions or be helpful in other ways if you are interested in moving into a healthier life in that amazing vocation we call pastoral ministry.

El Colyer

Dr. Elmer Colyer is an experienced pastor, professor, and coach.  He is an ordained pastor and elder in the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as Professor of Systematic Theology and Stanley Professor of Wesley Studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where he is also Director of the United Methodist Studies Program. In addition to being an elite bike racer and coach, he is also deeply committed to clergy coaching. I am extremely grateful for his wisdom and friendship, as well as his willingness to contribute to Rural Pastors.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Crisis of Comfort




I love my chair. It is soft and familiar and well-worn in all the right places. It fits me just right. When I come home from work after a stressful day I know that my chair will be waiting and that I can ease myself into it and feel a sense of comfort, even when everything else is swirling around me.

But not everyone sees my chair the same way, not even everyone in my own family. Instead of well-worn, they might say that it is worn out and that it has seen better days. They might say that I should get a new chair, one that looks nicer and fits with the rest of the décor. You see, the problem is that my chair is located right in the middle of the living room, between the sofa and the more stylish upholstered furniture.  It doesn’t match any of it and my wife has had to build the rest of the room around my sacred recliner. I know my family thinks that it is old and out-of-place, but I stubbornly hang on, refusing to sacrifice my safe space for the sake of developing a living room motif that actually looks good and makes sense.

The other night as we were discussing the virtues of relocating my chair, it struck me that this situation is very similar to the way we often approach ministry. Within our churches and even within our ministries themselves, we have practices, approaches, and strategies that have become comfortable through repeated use. We repeat them because they work. We use them over and over again because we like the results they achieve.  They become familiar, both to us and to our church members, and in the process they may even become a part of our tradition. There are many practices that we have ritualized over time and that are both valued and appreciated by pastors and worshipers alike. The way we celebrate communion, the activities that express community in our congregations, our personal worship leadership style, even the way committees do the work of the church – all are a part of the particular fingerprint of a congregation. Perhaps you have practices that enable you to do particular ministry functions – the process you use for sermon preparation, the way you meet with families at the time of a death, your approach to visitation within the congregation and the larger community. Sometimes our strategies are comfortable because they work.

But what happens when our context changes around us?  Our churches are rarely static.  Sometimes membership or attendance increases – or decreases.  Often the nature of the community in which we live evolves in unexpected ways. Now and then we discover that events that used to work well seem to have outlived their usefulness or their practicality. As the world in which we do ministry takes on a new shape, vital churches frequently need to change with it, so that we can more effectively reach out and minister in God’s name.

Very often change is hard. Perhaps we have reached the point where we don’t need that second service, or maybe the choir doesn’t have enough members to sing every Sunday, or it may be that the Men’s breakfast Bible Study has just run out of gas.  But change is not always due to decline.  Sometimes it happens as we grow. There are times when we have run out of room in our Sunday school rooms, or we need to think about adding staff to help with our ministry responsibilities, or heaven forbid, maybe there are some who are tired of the old blue hymnal and think that it is time to upgrade.

Change opens up possibilities for new and different ways of doing ministry. But it is a bit like changing the furniture in the living room.  We can add a new sofa and a new lamp, but if that same old recliner is still in the middle of the room we can’t get the effect we have hoped for. When we get caught up in our comfortable way of doing ministry and refuse to see the possibilities that come with a change of scenery or a change of programming or a change in practice, our crisis of comfort is a bit like my refusal to get rid of my old chair.  We can actually impede the progress that is in the best interest of our church.

Now don’t fall for the old myth that any change is good change. That is simply not true.  But change that comes with a purpose and a dream and an opportunity to bring glory to God is worth examining.  Very often we as pastors are concerned that we cannot get our church members to buy into new ideas that we want to try.  But every now and then, we may be the ones who stand in the way. Sitting in our comfortable easy chair, doing things the way we have always done them, and failing to see that we ourselves may be the barrier to growth.

Think about your ministry. Are there ways you are experiencing a crisis of comfort that is actually a barrier to the change your church actually needs? Sometimes that chair is perfect right where it is and sometimes it needs to go. How can you be a catalyst for the kind of change that will bring new vitality to the work and mission of your congregation? Try moving the “furniture” around a bit. The results may surprise you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry - Update"



The Presbyterian Outlook has posted a link to my recent article, "The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry." 

You can find the complete text at Presbyterian Outlook . 

I would also encourage you to examine the other resources available through the Outlook, including several other articles on Rural Ministry in the July 4, 2016 issue. Jill Duffield and the staff at the Outlook have been very supportive of our efforts to bring resources to rural and small town pastors and leaders and continue to provide an important service to the Church.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry"




Check out my article, "The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry" in the July 4, 2016 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. The focus of this issue is on finding vital ministry in the midst of change, especially in our rural contexts.

Friday, April 8, 2016

                    Finding Hidden Gems


Who are the hidden gems in your community?

One of the most rewarding aspects of leading future pastors on immersion experiences into rural America is the opportunity to discover the hidden gems who give rural life a special kind of vitality.  They are out there in nearly every small town and rural community.  Sometimes their contributions are known and acknowledged by the people around them and other times they work rather quietly behind the scenes, sharing of themselves and their faith in ways that bring little recognition or special compensation. Each has their own motivation, but all are driven by a call to make life a bit better for the world and people around them.

This January we met a number of extraordinary people who showed us the importance of recognizing that we are an interconnected community, especially in a rural context.
 
I am reminded of Darwin, an 86 year old farmer near Bronson, Iowa.  Darwin is one of the few farmers in our area who still work the land with horses, rather than modern technology. His value for the land in his care, and the animals who assist him, is evident in everything that he does. Obviously, the acreage that he can cover is more limited than the typical farmer today, but he claims a respectable yield without incurring extraordinary expenses.  In the process he exemplifies an ethic of
stewardship that speaks volumes.  What really stands out however, is his love of God and concern for the students that I bring his way every year.  He doesn’t just want to meet them and give a tour.  He wants to know why they are becoming a pastor and how they expect to serve.  He inquires about their hopes and dreams for ministry and the expectations they have for life in the parish. He hesitates to give advice, yet offers a perspective born of many years of faith and hard work.

Another amazing example is Maggie, the chief administrator of Ida Services, Inc., who has made a career out of caring for the “least of these” – men and women who are challenged in one way or another, but who dream of living independently and finding meaningful employment. Working in a small town in one of Iowa’s smallest counties, the challenges are innumerable and funding is a constant concern.  But her care is obvious from the moment you meet her.  While weaving through a myriad of government limitations and regulations, she is a champion for those in her care, looking for ways to help them aspire to a new way of life. Her task is more than providing funding or activities. She and her staff provide personal and vocational training, encourage self-confidence, look for new opportunities, and lend both physical and emotional support and encouragement. It would be easy to walk by the ISI building without paying much attention, and unfortunately, many of the clients who call ISI home have experienced what it is like to be ignored by individuals and society.  But in this rural community, hope abounds in the most unlikely of places.

You will find one in nearly every small town and rural area – a volunteer fire department.  Their work is essential to the community and we usually take them for granted until an emergency arises. These men and women give of their time and train regularly, without compensation, to respond to crises and disasters that they hope never happen, but surely will. We often see them out in public during parades, and steak fries, and endless training exercises.  But there is an aspect to their work that goes entirely unnoticed.  As the fire chief in Battle Creek, Iowa, Deron exemplifies the commitment and even calling that these men and women share.  As he spoke to our group, he talked as much about the importance of self-care and pastoral care for the firefighters after responding to a disaster, as he did about the need for appropriate training and equipment.  While the mission of this organization does not hinge on a spiritual orientation of any kind, this leader is very aware of the role that faith plays in the well-being of those who serve alongside him - and in his own life. And he was not afraid to speak
from a perspective of faith as he described their life and work together.  As such, he uses every resource available in the community to ensure that the difficult aspects of life that they experience do not emotionally injure these emergency responders, and he is not afraid to include the local pastors as the need arises. In his eyes, faith and service are not segmented and kept apart from one another, but are a part of the whole-life experience that many of these community servants share.

You can easily visit these communities without ever meeting these individuals. But the community knows they are there, and in many cases, is very aware of the contributions they make. They are indeed special, but they are not unique.

So where are the hidden gems in your community – or in your congregation? Understanding the role that others play in the life of a small town can help us to be better pastors and better citizens, and in some cases, may help us to utilize those gifts to bring our churches a new kind of life and vitality. It is important to remember that many of these special servants, never experience a call, are never ordained to special office, and may never receive any kind of commendation or recognition.  But their gifts are invaluable to the well-being of the people of our area.  It is our job as church leaders to learn how to recognize those gifts, perhaps cultivate new relationships, and in some cases, learn to work in partnership in ways that enhance the way of life for others. And in the process we can hope that they are recognized and that God is glorified.


The hidden gems are there.  How will you use them in your work for Jesus?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God With Us


“Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God with us’)." - Matthew 1:22-23

That wonderful season is upon us again, that time when we gather together with our family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus.  And although our traditions may differ, during this special holiday we seem to make an extra effort to be near those who are important to us.  Airports are crowded, mail is slowed, and highways are packed as we try our best to share the beauty of this time.

We often see those things as trials we have to endure in order for Christmas to come.  And from time to time we may even get angry that they are distracting us from the real reason for the season.  I’m not so sure.  You see, just as we long to be close to our loved ones now, so God longed to be close to the ones he loved.  That’s us.  And because he loved us so much, he sent his only son to be near us.  The first chapter of John tells us that in the person of Jesus, God became human and lived among us.  That’s the kind of love we celebrate this month.

Of all the names we use to refer to Jesus, the one we use at Christmas is perhaps the most appropriate.  For as Matthew told us above, Immanuel means, “God with us.”  Now that’s not just a catchy phrase or a line from your favorite Christmas carol, for when Jesus was born, God was truly with us.  He was with us way back then and he is still here with us today.  And that’s important to each of us as we try our best to live our lives of faith.  But this time of year it is easy to remember that.  As we sing our songs and exchange our gifts and enjoy our families, reminders of God’s presence are all around us.  But what about later, after the tree is down, the decorations are put away, and the family has all gone home?  Do we remember God’s presence then?

We should.  For the promise of Immanuel is not just a promise for December.  It’s not meant to be celebrated once a year and then put away in a box in the attic.  For when God came to be with us, he came to be with us forever.  And even when our parties have ended and our packages are all unwrapped, God is still here.  Waiting and wanting to be a part of our life throughout the year.  It’s only up to us to make him feel welcome.

This is an incredibly busy time for rural pastors. The services are numerous, attendance is usually up, and activities abound.  We are often challenged and perhaps even a bit stressed by the many obligations that crowd our calendars and our perceptions that each activity is essential to providing a meaningful experience to each of our members.  In the process of doing Advent and Christmas it is actually possible to miss out on our own celebration of the season.  I have to admit that there have been times when I have come up for air after the Christmas Eve service and realized that everyone else has been celebrating but me.  And while it is understandable how we might fall into that trap, it is completely unnecessary.  Because the most basic lesson that we learned in seminary applies to this time as well – it is not about us.

Pastors and church leaders are more than just paid employees in the Christmas service machine. Like everyone else in the church, this time is for us as well.  When God came to be with us, he came to be with us, too.  Not just those in the pew, but everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Therefore, it is up to each one of us, pastors especially, to make an effort to remember that this season is not about what we do, but what we receive. And the greatest gift of all was given in the name of the child we celebrate this week. I hope you will take the time to experience the Christ, not just tell others about him, as you celebrate the nativity with your family, your church community, and your own faith.

In the spirit of his love, Merry Christmas!




Friday, December 4, 2015

  Small Churches, Powerful Worship

I have always admired people who could play the guitar, especially pastors.  The ability to lead the congregation into an encounter with God by moving seamlessly between Word and music is a very special gift.  Certainly we can do that to a degree with organ or piano accompaniment, but I have always felt that a pastor who can both lead music and preach has a sense of intimacy with their congregation that encourages a feeling of vitality in worship.  I watch my friends or my students stand up there and lead worship with confidence, playing the familiar strains of “This is the Day” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and setting a mood that is undeniably appealing, and I think, “If only I could play the guitar…”

But I can’t…and that is a ship that has long since sailed!

Some congregations are blessed with musical talent. Others are not.  In small and rural churches this is a fact of life that we frequently cannot change.  We live and minister in a relatively small pool and our options for recruiting specialized talent is limited by the nature of our context and community.  I have been blessed over the years with some fantastic organists and pianists, but have never been in a place that had even one reliable, competent guitar player or a group of people who could make up even a basic praise band. But that did not mean that we could not have vibrant worship. Vital rural churches understand that the key to success is in making the most of our available assets, not being held back by our inherent limitations.

I am sure that we would all agree that worship is an essential element of the life of any congregation and is probably the most visible act of ministry that we perform.  In many ways the quality of our worship defines who we are as a church, particularly to those who are visitors in our midst. So why is worship vibrant in some congregations and lacking in others?  Believe it or not, in spite of my confessions of Fender envy, it has less to do with the type of music or the continuing debate about contemporary vs. traditional styles of worship, than it has to do with other factors that we can control and encourage.

There are certain things about good worship that we should simply assume.  For example, worship should honor and praise our Triune God and encourage us to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Jesus as our savior. In worship, scripture is essential, preaching should be faithful to the Word, and music of some kind is an important part of every service. Nearly every church tries to form their worship around these basics.  But there are other factors that we find in vital churches that seem to set their worship apart from the rest.

Here are a few common themes that we find in the vibrant worship of vital congregations:

1.      Worship is welcoming. This may seem obvious and much has been written about the need to be welcoming, but what I am referring to is far more than whether or not you have greeters at the door or nametags for your members. It is not enough to just say hello to someone who visits your church or to make them comfortable or even to invite them to your fellowship time. Those are all important things.  But the key is in the service itself. Our worship service should be developed in such a way that it is welcoming to visitors. That means making the order of worship easy to follow, avoiding too many hidden responses or expectations, and giving even the least experienced among us something to think about when they go home.

2.      Preaching is relevant. As we all know, a sermon is more than just an interesting speech or an exegesis paper. A good sermon is based on careful interpretation of scripture, but then that preaching has to apply to real life.  It is in the application that our members begin to put the word into action and see meaning for their own lives.  One should not have to be a theologian in order to make that connection, so it is our responsibility to make sure that the language we use is clear and understandable. Save those words you learned in seminary, like exegesis and expiation, for your conversations with your pastor friends and use the vernacular of your congregation and community. Remember, the sign of a good sermon is not in others seeing how smart you are, but in how faithful you can help them to be. Everyone should take something home every week.

3.      Worship should be memorable. In vital churches, worship is remembered long after the service is over.  If you find that your members are talking about the service or your message in the local coffee shop or café several days later you know that you had an impact.  I’m not talking about being quirky or goofy in worship, but in drawing interest to our God in ways that others can relate to.  People who experience memorable, vibrant worship are often excited to share about it with their friends and neighbors, sometimes even inviting them to come see for themselves. It might be the music, the sermon, or the fellowship afterward, but there is something about vital worship that stays with the participants after they leave the sanctuary.

4.      Worship is an attitude.  In vital churches, people see worship as much more than a Sunday morning service. It is the attitude that they take with them into everything that they do. Worship impacts the decisions we make, the relationships we share, and even the problems we encounter. In turn, that makes worship our motivation for service in the community. That means that the outreach of our church, no matter what form it takes, is an extension and reflection of our worship, even encouraging our members to feel comfortable sharing about their faith with others who have little understanding of what it means to know Jesus.

5.      The Spirit is welcome in worship. We have all been in congregations where we have sat down to worship and then felt less than inspired.  When the service becomes an exercise in moving from one item on the agenda to the next, there is little sense of expectation or inspiration and too often the most exciting thing on your mind has to do with your plans for lunch. In vital worship, when the Spirit is welcome there is a sense that God is indeed present and that an encounter with the Almighty is not only possible, but likely. Leaving room for God means leaving room for the unexpected. It means allowing for awe and wonder and not just order. While good planning is an essential part of our preparation for any worship service, allowing for silence and mystery is equally important. Being a good leader is not just knowing what to say, but also knowing when to get out of the way.
      
      Incomplete as it might be, my intent in sharing this list is to get the conversation started. What I want to avoid are excuses, reasons why we can’t make our worship have life and excitement no matter what size our church might be. There are certain things out of our control or that are hard to change, like the resources we have available or the number of members in our church. But these are a few characteristics that we find in the worship of vital churches and whether we have 30 or 300 in attendance they give us a starting point for considering how we might encourage and enhance the worship of our own small and rural churches.