Ash Wednesday is on the horizon. In just a few days, we will gather on Zoom or, in some places, in person and place ashes literally or symbolically on congregants’ foreheads and embark on the Lenten journey. Lent, Holy Week, Advent, and Christmas are the most challenging seasons of the Christian year for spiritual leaders. During Lent, pastors usually have at least one more service or program each week and often spend extra time visiting shut-ins and giving home communions. Even in pandemic, we have extra activities to nurture our congregation’s spirituality. Zoom often adds, rather than subtracts, from our responsibilities.
Then, before we know it, there’s Holy Week with at least two and often as many as six or more extra services to be planned and led. Most pastors hardly have time to catch their breath, must less live in the complacent spirit of Lent and Holy Week. Recently, I met with a group of pastors who lamented that although they counseled their congregants to spend extra time in prayer, their own prayer lives deteriorated, even in time of Zoom, during these seasons of penitence and retreat. I believe that pastors can heed the Ash Wednesday affirmation, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” We can turn around, choose an alternative ministerial path, reclaim our understanding of prayer, and discover the good news of God’s abundant life in our daily duties.
How do pastors live a holy Lent in a time of pandemic? The answer is obvious, we live a holy Lent by intentionally cultivating your spiritual life through a focus on spiritual disciplines. Spirituality involves a dynamic call and response, joining divine grace and human intentionality. Grace abounds and God is near, but our calling during Lent is to open our hearts to the grace in which we stand. Our challenge is to be agents in shaping our ministries, rather than passively being shaped by the expectations of others.
Like everything important in ministry, the key element of pastoral spiritual formation is intentionality and agency, of opening to God in our daily lives and ministries. Our intentionality shapes our understanding of time. Ministry is a 24/7 profession, but much of a pastor’s time is discretionary, that is, a matter of priorities and prayerful decision-making. Living a holy Lent is not optional for good ministry any more than study is not optional for good preaching. Time is of the essence, but not the time of fast-food spirituality. Knowing that we -can never fully manage time – we sure have learned that over the past year! – we nevertheless need a slow-cooked spacious spirituality for the Lenten season. Pastors need to make time for retreat during Lent. Though we may be homebound and seldom go to work at church, we can find quiet time at home, or in our deserted church building, or rent a cabin in the woods or a beach house.
Ministry doesn’t need to be done in the hurried pace of focusing on one week at a time, especially in terms of our preaching and worship preparation. The coming of Lent can inspire us to purposeful moments of prayer and meditation and time apart for retreat. As a matter of fact, depending on family obligations, I would suggest that a pastor take minimally three retreat days during Lent to gain spiritual perspective and insight on the scriptures as well as God’s presence in her or his life.
These days, or half days, need not be sequential. We simply need to find a quiet place for prayer as did Jesus during times of important decision-making.
While the hour is late in terms of the liturgical calendar, one pathway to a spiritual formation in Lent can begin during the first week of Lent. While ideally, you’ve read the Lenten readings during Epiphany and charted out your sermons for Lent, on Monday or Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, find a quiet place, where you can spend a full morning or afternoon, or better yet, a whole day in prayerful solitude and study. (If you can’t do this prior to Ash Wednesday, Thursday or Friday following Ash Wednesday will also work.) With nothing but your bible and laptop or journal, take one morning or afternoon simply to read imaginatively once more the Lenten lectionary passages. Let ideas and images emerge through practices such as lectio divina or imaginative prayer. Gather these ideas up and begin to reflect on common themes that emerge throughout the season. Let them shape your perspective throughout the Lenten season.
Then, you can choose to take a brief retreat on Ash Wednesday. Rather than scurrying around completing your homily, liturgy, or finding last year’s palm branches to burn for the Ash Wednesday service, begin the morning in prayerful reflection – perhaps in a time of reflection on the meaning of Ash Wednesday as a day of transformation and change, a day to recognize your mortality and seize the moment to live abundantly and faithfully. You may choose to meet for a few hours of prayer and meditation with colleagues in ministry, concluding your time with communion and the imposition of ashes. (If you have an Ash Wednesday Service in the morning, I suggest that you wake up an hour early for retreat time or immediately adjourn to your retreat following the service.)
While the first retreat is more ambient and intuitive, the second scripture-based retreat is more goal-oriented. In this retreat, taking place during the second Thursday or Friday (or a day of your convenience) of Lent, bring your bible and worship resources. Grounding your time in prayerful meditation, take time to harvest key points for your preaching and worship preparation for the remaining weeks of Lent. Take time to reflect on appropriate worship materials, including global and innovative as well as traditional styles of worship. Rough out yourLenten services in advance. Once again, let your retreat time join prayer and preparation for your own spiritual formation as a pastor.
These retreats join prayer, worship, and preaching, and refresh the spirit of ministry. Advance preparation enables the pastor to experience Lent in a more spacious way. Well-prepared pastors can practice what they preach. Amid the busyness of Lent, they have the time to take a weekly morning or afternoon retreat for prayer, meditation, and study each week. I would suggest a regular time each week. Even in the midst of Holy Week and Easter, the spiritually-prepared pastor has time for prayer, exercise, study, and family time. This truly is a matter of priority as well as necessity.
Time can be our friend in ministry, and not an enemy constantly thwarting our purposes. We can experience time and energy in terms of abundance rather than scarcity. We can, like Jesus, find our own places of solitude despite a busy schedule. In the process, our ministries will become more spacious and we will become more hospitable and creative in living out our ministerial duties. We will be less hurried and more present to persons. We may even experience Lent as one long retreat, in which we deepen our spirits through living through a holy Lent in an intentional, leisurely, and effective way. (For more on ministerial spirituality and wellbeing, see A CENTER IN THE CYCLONE: 21ST CENTURY CLERGY SELF-CARE and TENDING TO THE HOLY: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN MINISTRY.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and THE JUBILEE YEARS: EMBRACING CLERGY RETIREMENT.