Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Contemplatives

The idea of contemplation can be explored in depth. [1] Today I want to look at it in a more short-and-simple way. I am writing about it because I believe the way forward for the Church is for it to be led by contemplatives.

The institutional/professional dimensions of ministry require us to be managers, and we should seek to be as effective in this role as we can be. But if all we are is managers, then we become what Eugene Peterson called “shop keepers.” [2] The vocation of ministry includes management, but it also requires leadership, which is connected to management, but crucially distinctive from it. Leadership is a deeper and prior disposition of our heart–what I am calling being contemplative.

The contemplative dimension is more difficult to enact because we are “busy” all the time as ministers. But as Thomas Merton reminded us, activism can become a form of violence [3], violence against our wellbeing, and violence against others. When this is our style and pattern, we become POW’s (performance-oriented workers) in an meritocracy environment in which “doing” is emphasized and rewarded.

A leader is different. Bernard of Clairvaux called it being a reservoir. To fellow clergy he wrote, “If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir, than as a canal. A canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus without loss to itself communicates its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day [the 11th century!] we have have many canals but few reservoirs.” [4]

He took his cue from Jesus (Luke 5:15-16) who ministered as a contemplative leader. Today, we learn the same lesson from Dallas Willard, who showed that the spiritual disciplines are meant to form us into reservoirs who practice abstinence (inflow) and engagement (outflow). [5]

Jesus described this as as having eyes to see and ears to hear (Mark 8:18), and said it’s the kind of disciples he wants us to be. We clergy are not exempt from this life; infeed the challenges of ministry today heighten our need to be contemplatives. The absence of action born of attentiveness, doing flowing from discernment, will determine whether we are overseeing a religious corporation or leading the Body of Christ.

The next time you meet with your leaders, talk about contemplative leadership, and tell them you want to be this kind of pastor. Tell them you want to be a reservoir leader. Ask for their prayers and support as you journey farther into this dimension of your life and ministry. You and those you serve will be the better for it.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘The Inner Experience.’

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘Working the Angles,’ 1-12.

[3] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,’ 86.

[4] Quoted in ‘The Reservoir’ a devotional resource from the Renovaré ministry.

[5] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines.’

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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