Tending to the Holy -- Academy of Parish Clergy's Book of the Year

I wanted to announce that the book Tending to the Holy, written by Bruce and Kate Epperly, has been named Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. This book, along with nine others, will be honored at the upcoming Academy of Parish Clergy Annual Meeting in Racine, WI. I happen to be the editor of the Academy's journal, Sharing the Practice.  Below is my review published here at the blog -- a briefer version was published in the journal.

TENDING TO THE HOLY: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. By Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly. Foreword by Kent Ira Goff. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2009. xii + 196 pp.

Busy pastors often take little time to attend to their physical, emotional, or spiritual life. They also often compartmentalize parts of their ministry – assuming that some parts are spiritual (preaching and praying) and others not so spiritual (administration). Bruce and Kate Epperly pick up on Brother Lawrence’s imagery of “practicing the presence of God” and share their understanding of how all aspects of ministry are spiritual and need to be undertaken in prayer – whether that prayer is a breath prayer or time spent in contemplation and meditation. For those of us, who are not by nature contemplative, who find it difficult not just to take time but to feel comfortable in prayer, this book is a godsend.

The Epperlys co-pastor a Disciples/UCC federated church in Pennsylvania, while Bruce serves as Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary. This book is very personal, drawing on their experiences of ministry and spirituality. They write with passion about ways in which renewed and energized pastors can help energize mainline churches – not by turning to conservative theology, but by fully engaging a progressive understanding of Christianity. But, this is not rationalistic approach – they understand the need for the mystical, for letting the Spirit move in the life of the pastor and the church. This is an expression of the idea of Christian Practices that Diana Butler Bass, among others, have been lifting up these past several years, calling on us to a practice of awareness of God’s presence in every moment of our lives.

What is important to note here is that the Epperlys are strongly grounded in theology. They write:

While we recognize a good deal of truth in the postmodern critique of any attempt to frame global and all-inclusive theological worldviews, we nevertheless affirm the value of articulating a coherent, yet tentative and flexible, theological vision of God’s activity in the world as a means of orienting our lives and daily spiritual practices. (P. 11).

They acknowledge up front that they have been influenced by process theology, along with Jungian psychology and system theory, among others. These foundations are evident throughout, but they point us not to the systems and perspectives, but to practices that are deeply grounded and empower ministry. Perhaps most importantly, and this view they take from process theology, is the affirmation that God is always present. This a view that is continually reinforced. With that in mind, then we can integrate all aspects of life, and understand everything we do in ministry is rooted in God’s active presence in the world. They speak often, as well, of the principle of abundance – not in a prosperity gospel way – that allows us to see the world in a new light, one that is not rooted in scarcity and fear.

The book takes up all facets of ministry, beginning with preaching, teaching and worship – and they define these aspects of ministry in terms of spiritual formation. They encourage taking time for study and prayer, so that in our teaching and preaching and worship leadership, we have a vision of God’s presence and a recognition that we are vessels through which God is speaking. One way of moving in this direction is to reclaim the use of study for the pastor’s office. They write that the use of office reflects a change from the ministerial vocation as that of “rabbi, teacher, and spirit person,” and has moved it into more corporate senses as “administrator, program manager, professional counselor, and functional CEO.” It’s not these functions aren’t part of ministry, but rather the problem of these images defining what a pastor is doing (pp. 36-37).

Moving from what would seem to be the most visible aspects of ministry, they move onto ministries of spiritual guidance, pastoral care, leadership and administration, and finally prophetic hospitality. In each area of ministry, they urge pastors to engage themselves spiritually and prayerfully, even when engaging in work that doesn’t seem all that spiritual. For clergy who resist the administrative tasks, they Epperlys remind us that we can’t get away from them, they’re part of what we do, but we can reenvision these tasks spiritually. The question they ask of us is this:

Will your administrative leadership deepen the spirituality of your congregation and your own spirituality, or will it be a source of conflict, fatigue, and frustration both for yourself and for the congregation? We believe that the form and style of your leadership and administration as a pastor cannot be separated from your theological beliefs and spiritual practices. (p. 127).

The kind of leadership they envision is one that is “creative, appreciative, affirmative, and imaginative.” It is a form of ministry that is rooted in a spiritual practice, which they borrow from Gerald May, of “pausing, opening, noticing, stretching and yielding, followed by responding to God’s presence.” This form of prayerfulness or mindfulness is described and applied throughout the book – reminding us how we might recognize God’s presence and engage that presence in all aspects of ministry.

The penultimate chapter is called “prophetic hospitality,” and this chapter needs to be internalized by mainline progressive pastors – many of whom pastor churches that are at a different place than they are when it comes to political, theological, social, and cultural issues. Clergy tend to either hide their views or lashing out angrily. The Epperlys offer another way, one that allows both for expressing prophetic understandings while respecting and loving those with whom we differ. The key is staying in relationship with those who differ, while continuing to hold true to one’s own beliefs.

Prophetic hospitality is grounded in a visionary reconciliation in which pastors see and appreciate Christ’s presence in all their congregants as the foundation of common ground amid great diversity. (p. 170)

Indeed, one cannot preach God’s love while disrespecting one’s opponents – a word that is difficult for us, as human beings, to get a hold of and internalize, and yet it’s an important one. Once again, however, in order to accomplish this, one must engage the other prayerfully. This conversation helpfully deals with the reality that is most troubling for us as pastors – dealing with our own anger. They offer a possible way for this anger to be transformed into love. In all of this, the point is that we seek a balance where we can live out our dual callings to be prophets and shepherds, challengers and comforters.

This is not only an excellent book, I would suggest that it is essential reading for clergy, especially those who are progressive in their theology. It is thoroughly grounded in theology, because the authors insist that what we believe matters -- especially regarding the presence of God in every aspect of life. They also take into account other sources of revelation – such as tradition and psychology It is challenging and comforting. The point is, our ability to live out our calling without becoming burned out and beaten up, requires that we stay grounded in our relationship with God, and that means practicing the presence of God in all places and at all times. Such a word breathes grace into our ministries.


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