Jane serves on the nominating committee of First Presbyterian Church and has invited Kamira to serve another term as elder on the session. Kamira responded by sharing how discouraged, frustrated, and spiritually depleted she felt when she completed her last term of service. She declined to serve again. When Jane calls her next candidate, Ben, he eagerly agrees to serve. “My time as an elder helped me grow in my faith more than anything else I have ever done in the church.”
Being a church officer can be helpful or harmful to your spiritual health. Dealing with conflict in the church, too much work and too little help, lack of money or other necessary resources, meeting fatigue, difficult personalities, and the clash of church commitments with work or family demands can all tend to lead to spiritual dryness. Practicing self/soul care enables church officers to deal with these difficulties and grow closer to God. The most important part of this care is finding ways to connect with God regularly in life-giving ways.
In the book of Exodus, we read about the children of Israel who lived in the wilderness on the manna God provided. The manna had to be gathered daily. It spoiled if the people tried to hoard it. In later times, rabbis commenting on Israel’s wilderness wanderings said of the manna, “The people ate out of God’s hand every day.” This is God’s plan for us, too.
Spiritual leaders are always dependent on God who has called us and promises to equip us. We cannot bear good fruit independently. Our own efforts, no matter how tireless or selfless, cannot produce the results God wants to see. Jesus has some harsh words for those who try to go it alone: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers …” (Jn. 15:6). This is a powerful image of dryness and burnout! The fruit we are called to bear will come, not as we work harder and harder, but rather as we intentionally invest in our relationship with the God who called us into ministry in the first place.
One way to connect with God is to reflect on our past experiences. Some traditions practice a form of daily reflection called examen. This is an ancient, prayerful meditation on the experiences of the day (or longer period), allowing God to show us what God wants us to understand about ourselves, God, and others. The following spiritual exercise, based loosely on the examen, is an invitation for you to reflect on God’s presence within your experience of being an officer.
A Spiritual Exercise
Find a time and place to be quiet with, and attentive to, God. Have pen and paper ready. Think about the experiences of Kamira and Ben. How do you feel similar to one or both of them? Meditate on your time as an officer and think about the following questions. Write down your reflections as things come to you.
- What experiences have led you to feel dry and discouraged as an officer?
- What experiences have led you to feel spiritually fed and growing in the Spirit as an officer?
- How have you experienced the consolations of God presence in your work? Were there times you felt the desolation of God’s absence?
- How did being an officer change your experience of worship and/or fellowship in the church?
- Given your past experiences, is there anything you would like to do differently in the time you have remaining on session?
After reflecting on the answers to these questions, take time to pray through what you have written. Make a list of those experiences that have made things hard for you. Hold them up to God. Ask God to set you free of all grudges and forgive those who have hurt you. Make a list of the people who have been a blessing to you and of all the positive experiences you have had as a church officer. Thank God for all these people and opportunities. Praise God for the ways you have seen God at work in your life during your time as an elder.
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.