Wanted: Monkish Pastors!
By Rev. Dr. Robert (Bob) Hunter
Having served as an adjunct professor of spiritual formation for twelve years at two different theological institutions, I have come to believe the church would be well served to have more monk-like pastors. Let me explain.
The unique challenges of 21st Century pastoral assignments call for the rediscovery of contemplative forms of spirituality, expressed in new ways. Let’s face it, conventional solutions to the difficulties of pastoral life are not yielding desirable results. For example, Pastor Alex (male or female) works tirelessly to satisfy the demands of pastoral ministry according to all the strategies s/he learned in seminary. Alex is available to the flock and engages in outreach ministry. Is faithful in attending all the church meetings and answers all messages. But Alex’s personal journey with Jesus suffers. The emotional and spiritual toll of leading a church eventually produces signs of ministerial burnout. Burned out pastors have nothing left to give to congregations. What’s Pastor Alex to do?
There are many proven strategies of self-care. Agreement is universal that Pastor Alex should seek help and not carry this burden alone. Coaching, mentoring and professional therapy may be beneficial. But all too often, those solutions are not enough to counter the pressures and expectations that accompany pastoral life. Alex may gain abundant knowledge, but experientially feel lost despite taking all the right steps. Some advice given to Alex amount to a devotional prescription for doing more of the same. So, Pastor Alex commits to ramped-up bible reading and prayer regimens. Several months later, s/he feels even more frustrated and empty. What else can be done, is there more?
My advice: Get monkish Alex! In the years I have instructed students on matters of spiritual formation, I’ve encountered a number of enlightened responses to “old” but “new-to-us” practices in Protestant Christian spirituality. For example, in NBC’s course on Wesleyan Spirituality, students are required to conduct a spiritual retreat in silence and solitude while journaling reflections. For the overwhelming majority of students, this is a new discipline. Like the monks of century’s past, detachment from the world and its affections create ideal spiritual renewal conditions and students are changed as a result. Rest for the weary soul and Sabbath keeping are observed, spiritual elements sorely neglected in the contemporary church (and certainly by the pastor whose Sabbath is full of “work responsibilities”). In my observation, no amount of therapy or increased bible reading can match the benefits of contemplative spirituality. It’s a monkish thing and should be more commonplace.
Alex may also benefit from off-road disciplines. I borrowed this concept from author Earl Creps because I thought it was worthy of consideration as a sacred path of renewal. Many of us have grown familiar with conventional paths to spiritual growth, but are there unconventional ones? I contend pastors should find a couple of off-road disciplines and practice them regularly. I give students permission to step back from bible reading plans in favor of finding spiritual disciplines that do not necessarily fit into the mold of what is deemed “spiritual” by some. For example, I exercise regularly. When I am swimming in the pool or running on a path, those moments become sacred and worshipful. Recently, I painted a canvas. I spent hours with a brush attending to every detail. Creating beauty is soul-refreshing and deeply spiritual—it reflects God’s own work of creation. That particular project coincided with a very difficult issue that had arisen in my professional life. Painting distracted me from a situation that was beyond my control and became a beautiful path to prayer. Like Brother Lawrence who discovered God in the kitchen of a 17th century monastery, off-road disciplines afford us limitless possibilities of finding God in the ordinary and even the mundane. Soul-refreshing life is available when you blaze an off-road trail that explores new vistas of God’s grace. The spirituality of exercise, the beauty of art, the love of cooking, the grit of manual labor, the thrill of an outdoor adventure—all have formative value and become sacred when we invite God into the midst of them. Find your own off-road disciplines and practice them. It’s monkish, but really good.
Finally, I would like to suggest the monkish practice of hospitality. Pastoral ministry can be a lonely place. It’s difficult to get outside of the sub-culture of Christianity and explore the full scope of God at work in the world. Renewed interest in hospitality can ignite new appreciation of the spirit’s work in peoples’ lives. When was the last time you invited a stranger to your home? When have you befriended someone that is totally unlike yourself? While hospitality may be perceived as a gift that some have and others don’t, the ancient monastic communities didn’t see it that way. They were influenced by St. Benedict’s Rule to receive all guests as Christ. Think of it…when we show hospitality to strangers, we are welcoming Christ into our midst. How refreshing!
Our home is a place of hospitality. We’ve entertained extensively. We’ve hosted three foreign exchange students, college students who needed a place to land, Airbnb guests, and the occasional homeless person. I do not recommend every pastor pursue residential hospitality. There are ways to exercise the discipline outside of the privacy of your home. And make no mistake, the reception of guests is fraught with its share of challenges. According to St. Benedict’s Rule, hospitality is how we get outside of ourselves. When I find myself experiencing self-pity and loneliness, the arrival of a total stranger is often the cure. It brings me out of what I sometimes don’t want to come out of. It is much easier to crawl inside of a shell and live out an insular form of Christianity uninterrupted by strangers and guests, but Jesus is seen in the faces of those we welcome and a fresh glimpse of Jesus through a guest restores my own soul.
There are a number of books written on the subject of new monasticism and the rediscovery of old disciplines for a new day. The goal of this article is to suggest just a few new forms of spirituality deeply rooted in the historical Christian faith that promote holistic spiritual living. Too often, the disciplined life has been limited to Bible reading and routine prayer. While important, these practices take on new meaning when fleshed out and expanded with ancient practices of devotion woven into our lives. Too much is at stake in pastoral ministry to fail to consider how we might benefit from contemplative forms of Christianity. Although much of what I have suggested may rub our revivalistic sensibilities the wrong way, I am convinced monkish-ness and familiar devotional practices need not be in conflict. The monkish practices of hospitality, off-road disciplines and spiritual retreat can fill us to overflow the stream of pastoral ministry, benefiting both pastor and congregation alike.
 To borrow from the late Robert Webber, an ancient-future approach to spirituality is needed.