SECOND OPINION: Pastors need pastors, too

When I left seminary, I was just dying to get into a pastorate so I could try out all the good ideas that had been germinating through all those hours and hours of sitting in a seminary classroom. I believe I suspected that, if I could just get a chance, I could take everything I’d learned and completely transform the church.

I mean, I don’t recall holding the conviction that I was particularly extra-talented -- but, armed with education and the hubris of youth, I think I thought that with some innovative approaches ... the church could be saved!

Of course I know now that I was terribly naive, which is a very charitable way of describing my position. I was, to be more frank, completely ignorant about the great challenge of pastoring, not to mention the task of reforming and revitalizing the whole institution of the church.

It did turn out to be true that the energy of a new venture lasted for some time. The first few years of bright ideas worked well (and I am deeply grateful for the patience of the congregations where I served). After a while, though, I noticed that themes began repeating. Planning Christmas Eve got a little, well, tedious. Easter sermons? I started wondering how one might tell the same story in a different way again this year.

As the years passed, I confess it just got harder and harder to come up with new and fresh ideas for sermons and worship and church programming. Maybe my ideas would have completely revitalized the church -- if only I could have kept them coming. As grace would have it, about the time I noticed I was scraping the bottom of the barrel of good ideas, I had a conversation with a colleague who suggested we get together with a group of pastors to compare ideas and plan preaching for the year ahead.

At first I was skeptical.

Generally speaking, I think that Baptist preachers are some of the strangest people I have ever known. And, Baptist pastors’ meetings? Well, don’t get me started.

But when I expressed my doubts my colleague quickly reassured me that we would start this group from scratch, pulling together only pastors we knew, liked and respected (and, preferably, pastors who were much smarter and more creative than we were).

And so it happened that for the past six years, once a year, I have met with five other pastors from all over the country to plan sermons for the year ahead. Each one pastors in a context much different from my own -- and, thanks be to God, each one is also way smarter and more creative than I am. It has been like striking oil -- a surprising windfall of riches for my work as a pastor.

The initial goal of this group, of course, was practical: to pool ideas and plan preaching for a whole year. We divide the year and all show up with lots of ideas for our portion.

But, for me, the group has become so much more than just a sermon think-tank. In addition to oodles of ideas and wisdom, I’ve somehow stumbled upon five soul-friends -- and the gift of their companionship on this journey of vocation and faith is a more wonderful gift than I ever could have dreamed.

I confess I still am rather ignorant about what the calling of pastoral ministry fully entails; in fact, the longer I do it the only thing I’m sure I’ve learned is how much I don’t know. But along the way I’ve also found that I am not on this journey of faith and vocation all by myself. There are others who share my dreams and know my struggles and walk the same path I do.

Ideas for preaching? Yes, and I think I can safely say they are much better ideas than I could ever come up with on my own. But, my colleagues -- my pastors -- also give me courage, inspiration, prayers, hugs, tears, friendship, support … and the list goes on and on.

I don’t think very often anymore about changing the world or even changing the church; I find I am usually thinking about things like making sure the bulletin gets to the church administrator on time. There are rare moments, though, when I remember all those hopes and dreams that used to fill my mind and inspire my heart. These days, I find I usually remember my dreams for the church and passion for the gospel best when I’m sitting in a room with my amazing colleagues.

And I can start to believe all over again. Thanks be to God.

Amy Butler is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. Her column is distributed by Associated Baptist Press.