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Susan Gilbert’s Rule of Life for Preachers

Rev. Susan Zencka

McCormick alum Rev. Susan Zencka (M.Div., 1997) is a current D.Min. student who is focusing on the effects of  intentional spiritual practice on preaching and clerical leadership.  She undertook an experiment in which she began a new prayer discipline and examined how it affected how her sermons were constructed and received.  Her full article was published in Call to Worship, andyou can read an abbreviated version below.

Prelude

Almost twenty years ago, when I was in seminary preparing for ministry, during the summer in 1995 I took one class in the Association of Chicago Theological Schools Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) in Preaching program. It was a class in spirituality for preachers. I had been in seminary for two years, and was having trouble establishing spiritual disciplines. I was quite surprised and disappointed to hear from the other students in class (all ordained ministers with three to eighteen years of ministry experience) that they all struggled to pray regularly, and most of them rarely read the Bible except to prepare for preaching or teaching. I had assumed that ministers did not find it challenging to pray regularly. I was wrong.

Project          

For the next twenty years I would continue to share the experience that my more seasoned colleagues had revealed. Establishing a regular routine of prayer remained difficult. Even though this was a problem that many ministers find challenging, I was intuitively certain that if I could establish more regular prayer routines, it could be transformative. Now in my own D.Min. program, I decided to take on the challenge in a way that created some accountability: by making it the centerpiece of my second year preaching ministry project.

And not just prayer—a rule of life.

I knew I was ready to undertake this journey: both to discern a rule, and to commit to following one. The small city in which I serve is where the headquarters of the National Wellness Institute are located; there is awareness in this community of a multimodal model of wellness where it is understood that each dimension of health depends on other dimensions for the fullest holistic health. I knew that my spiritual life could not be healthy apart from my whole life becoming healthy, thus the desire for a rule of life and not simply a commitment to certain spiritual disciplines.

I was realizing that not only would this lack of holistic wellness detract from my long-term health and satisfaction, it was also undermining my ability to develop into the preacher I wanted to become.

I was realizing that not only would this lack of holistic wellness detract from my long-term health and satisfaction, it was also undermining my ability to develop into the preacher I wanted to become. And I could see that if I did not develop better routines and achieve more balance, I would be facing burnout issues. I already was dealing with increased stress because of my stage in life: aging parents and spouse, young adult children. The church was dealing with budget issues and had cut back on some staff, which was increasing my workload. These are not unique challenges, but are typical of some of the challenges clergy deal with, along with the challenges of caring for people in crisis, while attending to a busy work life, being expected to administer the church, and being very much in the public eye while living and preaching from an inner well of spiritual work and nurture. We deal with a lot of stress, and holistic wellness can help us to be more resilient around those stresses.

It was clear to me that achieving more holistic wellness was not just abstractly a good idea, but was an imperative nearing urgency.

Prayer

Relating to prayer in particular, I tried two basic approaches. First I tried a simple liturgy of the hours, pausing seven times daily for brief prayer, wherever I was. Most often these became prayers of gratitude, but they began to orient me to (a) attending to God, and (b) expressing gratitude all day long. I paused in the wee hours (around 3:00 am, when I customarily awake briefly), upon awaking, before work, at noon, at the end of work, at sundown, and immediately before bedtime: seven times each day.  In the middle of my morning’s work I break for blessings: a deep breath, a glance out the window, a graceful stretch, a remembrance of God, a brief reflection on the nobility of work, an encouraging word, a grateful thought, a smile, a short prayer, a remembrance of who I am, a sip of freshly brewed coffee. The day, still young, is fresh with the dew of possibilities. My work, too, is bright with potential. When I have the wisdom to step away from work momentarily, I am able to see it as a gift for the entire world. A short, refreshing pause can enhance my awareness that all work has the potential of becoming love made visible—a blessing. This is the Spirit’s hour. I sense the overshadowing presence of all that is holy, and I remember that I am God’s temple here on earth, a channel for loving service. I hold out my hands to receive the blessings of the moment.

Just these small turnings toward God, brief remembrances, momentary offerings of thanksgiving, requests for guidance, or noticing and greeting God—these little gestures awakened my sense of God’s faithfulness much as an occasional caress or endearment both mark and deepen the love between partners or parents and children.

The other style of prayer I have used during this year is prolonged contemplative prayer—spending anywhere from ten minutes up to an hour at a time in silent communion with God, usually thirty to sixty minutes. Using both styles (frequent brief pauses during each day; occasional longer contemplative sessions) qualitatively deepened my sense of God, my dependence on God, my gratitude to God during this year. But this is discipline at which I have to work to maintain any kind of consistency.

Practice

The other dimensions of my rule of life are also important. I have been working to develop more consistency in my eating habits, exercise, and especially sleeping. I have been reaching out to develop friendships (slowly). I have been reading more fiction, particularly short fiction. I have revived my interest in photography. I have kept track of my hours at work, although I have not yet been successful in bringing them down to forty hours a week.

Despite my commitment to practicing wholeness and health, I still ended up close to burnout at one point. I wasn’t practicing my prayer disciplines. I was not exercising. I had not connected with anyone socially for a while. I had grown very tired of the long, harsh winter we have had in the upper Midwest. And what a difference letting just a few of these disciplines slip was making! Why did I let those disciplines slip? It was a very demanding few weeks and I thought I didn’t have time for self-care. But I could tell I was quickly losing the resilience and richness that characterize my life when I am following my rule of life faithfully.

When this happened, I met for an extra session with my spiritual director, I had an extra massage, I started using light therapy in the mornings, and I met with my liaison to the personnel committee at church. I wanted to make sure that the personnel committee was comfortable with my spending time in exercise and prayer disciplines. I wanted to ease my sense that I was “too busy” to do these things. I wanted to be assured that the personnel committee understood these time commitments as integral to my effective work. And I did receive this assurance.

Just these small turnings toward God, brief remembrances, momentary offerings of thanksgiving, requests for guidance, or noticing and greeting God—these little gestures awakened my sense of God’s faithfulness much as an occasional caress or endearment both mark and deepen the love between partners or parents and children.

 

While the workload continued to be intense, my sense of equilibrium began to return as I undertook these extra disciplines, and my efficiency and effectiveness improved. I’ve learned before but somehow always need to be reminded that the time I spend in prayer and exercise is time that will leverage into working more effectively. I get less work done if I work longer hours and don’t spend time in exercise and prayer than I do if I work fewer hours but spend some dedicated time on my physical and spiritual health. And the quality of my work—my presence with others, my ability to write and preach sermons, my sense of what needs to be done, my awareness of God’s constant, present love, my attention to the present moment—all are improved when I practice my rule of life.

Preaching

I’ve discussed my general sense of how my health, happiness and effectiveness are impacted by my committing to a rule of life. But how is my preaching affected by undertaking these disciplines?

It was an interesting year, preaching-wise. In order to get feedback for my project, I identified three sermons to be developed with and reviewed by a team of people from my congregation. These three preaching occasions, as it turned out, were ideally suited to observing my resilience and my ability to deal with stress as I preached.

The first sermon came before I had even finished developing my rule of life. Also, it was at a local park, not at our usual setting. I realized as soon as I started preaching that I had not taken enough time to organize the setting: the microphone was off to one side, and the music stand on which the manuscript rested was not at a good height. It was a great example of how taking a little more time in advance would have resulted in a more effective worship service.

My work on holistic preaching was bearing fruit, but I did not yet have the resilience in the pulpit that undergirding my work with holistic health practices could help provide.

photo courtesy of gettyimages
photo courtesy of gettyimages

By the second sermon I had been working more intentionally on developing the rule of life and had been practicing fixed-hour prayer for several months. I was taking care to get consistent sleep. I was able to stay present to the preaching task, to remain lively and engaged in the sermon, despite my worry about my mother’s surgery. The stress was shown, however, in that I was speaking extremely rapidly. My professor’s closing comment in her evaluation of the preaching was “Just slow down—not just in preaching, but in life.”

By the time of the third sermon, in January, I had been working on my rule of life with greater consistency: exercising regularly, eating healthfully, sleeping consistently, praying regularly, reading fiction, pursuing photography, even including a little socializing. The church had been closed for two days so I had worked only forty-two hours that week, far fewer than usual. I approached the preaching task from a place of rest and peace—I had slowed down in life that week. I felt very relaxed heading into the preaching moment. The feedback team and I had agreed that the sermon (about the baptism of Jesus) would flow directly into communion, and that people would be invited to reaffirm their baptism on the way to communion.

My advisor also noticed the more relaxed and spacious delivery.  “It’s just fabulous to compare when you started with now, all the things you’re doing in your morning routine for self-care and spiritual nourishment and how that is very obviously paying off not only in your preaching, but in the preacher—in the person.”

Progress

The feedback team had commented upon the improvement in each sermon, and they also noted overall improvement in the summary report for the year:

We have noted continued improvement in Susan’s preaching this year. She’s attempting to follow a new rule of life—involving a routine of prayer, solitude, exercise, and meditation, among other things. She finds that this has made a positive impact on her, enabling her to deal with others in a more holistic manner. When she must deviate from that routine, she finds she’s more in her head. We find that her preaching is more spontaneous and authentic, and that she seems more centered.

In addition to commenting on the rule of life work, they also noted improvements in the preaching performance:

By speaking more slowly, she’s made it easier for members of our congregation to understand what she says. She looks at her sermon notes less now, so she’s establishing better eye contact with individuals in our congregation. We’ve noted that she uses volume and inflection well to control our attention and emphasize specific points she makes. Her nonverbal communication is also excellent, including not only facial expression and hand gestures but also movement and whole body communication. She reads the Bible passages in an emotive and engaging manner. Finally, she seems more comfortable expressing her personal theological perspectives than she was before, while not forcing them on the rest of our congregation. I believe this builds her rapport with the congregation, since in being more forthcoming she shows her trust in them and her confidence that they will reciprocate that trust.

These reflections about my increased comfort in preaching and in sharing my own understanding are accurate—I have not only become willing to share my own theological reflections, but I have come to understand it as part of the call in preaching: to read and study the Word, to prayerfully reflect upon it myself, to carry the congregation in prayer to the Word, and to bring back a particular Word for them. I believe that understanding and claiming this preaching call has come in part from my increased centeredness and health, resulting from defining and practicing my rule of life. I am becoming more comfortable with who I am, who I am called to be, and how I am called to this congregation, including but not exclusively related to preaching.

“It’s just fabulous to compare when you started with now, all the things you’re doing in your morning routine for self-care and spiritual nourishment and how that is very obviously paying off not only in your preaching, but in the preacher—in the person.”

Postlude

This has been an important year for me: as a preacher, a minister, a person. This project was not merely an academic exercise for a year. It was the long-sought, perpetually elusive model of faithful living that I had yearned for since before attending seminary twenty years ago. And in this year, I have learned a couple of things that will help me to continue to live faithfully into the future.

The first of these is the importance of persistence. None of the disciplines I engage in for my rule of life make much of a difference in a single day—but, days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and eventually habits into a life, and it is not long before the marks of persistence begin to show. This is especially true for the absence of persistence. As the great Polish pianist Paderewski famously said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” I notice the dryness in my soul before others do, and I need to be honest with myself. It will eventually show in my relationships and in my preaching. Persistence matters.

The second of these is: progress not perfection.  While persistence matters, perfectionism is its own problem (also known as scrupulosity). Perfectionism can actually get in the way of persistence—on a busy day, twenty minutes of prayer may not be as nourishing as sixty, but it is better than none.

The final thought is pilgrimage. Usually we think of a pilgrimage as a special journey with a spiritual purpose. And indeed life is a special journey with a spiritual purpose. And it is easy to miss the possibilities of each unique day because of the ordinariness of it all. But if we understand life itself as a pilgrimage, the journey matters. The imperfections, the challenges, and our responses to them matter as much as the beauties and the successes.

Rev. Susan Zencka is pastor at Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She has just completed her second year in the Association of Chicago Theological Schools Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program.