The Contemplative Minister - a call to revolution!

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This is what I now see as contemplative ministry. This ministry begins with the care and right ordering of our own hearts, and it leads to the transformation of our society, and of the world. - Ian Cowley

The Contemplative Minister

Burnout in ministry is not a new concept; nor is the nominal nature of vast swathes of church attendance and the rejection of traditional church formats by many who seek a deeper spiritual life. Is there a connection between these trends?

Vocations and Spirituality Coordinator for the Diocese of Salisbury, Ian Cowley, has witnessed what a church living the countercultural values of original Christianity can achieve in terms of personal and community change—the kind of changes that contributed to the ending of apartheid in South Africa. He now brings that personal experience to print, to help those training for ministry and those in ministry to connect with what he terms contemplative values and to discover a life-giving way of performing ministry and developing church in the UK today.

UK church ministry has become characterised in recent years by a relentless busyness with parish tasks and administration, leading many leaders to cry out for a better way of serving Christ. Echoing some of the help offered over 30 years ago by Eugene Peterson in his vastly popular book The Contemplative Pastor, Ian updates the message for a UK audience. He calls for ordained ministry to recover, through a contemplative model, its first love of prayer, study and daily living in the presence of God. Ministers will then have a first-hand experience to pass on to others, and can lead congregations to live out an authentic and active Christian faith.

This is no mere academic theory: what Ian offers is a practical revolution in church practice, starting with an impassioned call for leaders to adopt a contemplative approach. An approach that begins with an honest appraisal, understanding and stilling of the relentless, self-seeking mental forces of busyness that drive each day and drive out quality time with God.

The uncomfortable truth for many of us is that, although we do love God and long to know him more and to serve him more, most of the time we are far more concerned about ourselves and our own interests and feelings and comfort. Our first instinct, again and again, is to self-interest, self-promotion and self-preservation. This takes us back to the false self which is always with us. The ways of the false self have to be unlearnt, slowly and often painfully.

Stilling the white noise of self-interest and self-protection, which steals time from what is most important for spiritual development, is the key step to meeting God in the contemplative model, it is the true state of naked existence—a state of heart and mind that can accept God’s reordering of life's priorities. It enables daily matters to be addressed from this still centre in God rather than from a self-centred motivation, thus bringing the rest that Jesus promised. This doesn't mean ignoring the vast amounts of work that need to be attended to in parish life; rather, the work is re-evaluated, identifying what is vocationally life-giving for the minister, and sharing out to the congregation what might in turn be life-giving work for them. The rest of the activity is simply recognised for what it is and set aside.

‘It is very difficult to develop a model of contemplative ministry unless there is an understanding of shared ministry among the leaders and the congregation. We all have different gifts and strengths, and a healthy church is one in which every member is enabled to play their part. For myself as leader, this requires a willingness to make space for others to offer their gifts, and sometimes to do things differently from the way I would have done them.’

Living ministry from a contemplative centre also requires some basic spiritual disciplines to root it firmly and provide a basis for daily life. It means living life more from the heart than the head—an approach that can also be shared with the congregation, leading them away from nominality towards being a truly contemplative, community-changing church.

We look at the choices we face in life, and we first examine ourselves to see if we are seeking our own interest and advantage rather than the good of others. When we have done this, we may find ourselves faced with different possible courses of positive action. We then may ask, “Which of these alternatives will lead to more of the peace, love and justice which are at the heart of the kingdom of God? Which will bring about more compassion, more joy, more faithfulness, more fruit of the Holy Spirit?”

Once self-interest and self-protection are cast aside as prevailing motivations in this way, the standard, culturally accepted ways of living also fall away naturally under the guidance of a contemplative lifestyle. Incessant consumerism, running after money, the constant need to be in control and the search for success and respect are no longer dominant. In their place come the simple, biblically sound daily doses of silence and solitude to connect with God; simplicity of living; detachment from the need to be in control; and attentiveness to others, our own hearts and God. We see support for colleagues, neighbours and friends in our community; servanthood to the poor, hungry and broken-hearted; and a self-discipline that actively rejects the consumerism and individualism of our age.

When church communities reach this point of embracing such a countercultural lifestyle, they reflect a true Christianity, which will be attractive to many outside traditional church today who also see the weaknesses of the individualism that drives contemporary personal and political agendas and want to find a better way of living. This alternative lifestyle is illustrated in the book by the inclusion of a case study on the community work of a new contemplative community in Poole, Dorset.

This book is concerned with the central vocation of those who are called to the ordained ministry. As priests, we are called to be people in whom others may see God. There is a great hunger for God among many people today. This is a hunger which is not just for things about God, for sermons, books, talks and videos, but for God himself. A contemplative minister is someone who is called first of all to God and to his heart of love, so that the world may also know God and his love for all that he has made.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Read a sample chapter from The Contemplative Minister: Learning to lead from the still centre

2nd September

September 2nd, 2015 - Posted & Written by The Editor

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