21st Century Ministry: Like Growing Potatoes on Mars

By Barry Howard

While engaged in a conversation with some of my closest colleagues about the changes and challenges of pastoral ministry, Bill Wilson, Director of the Center for Healthy Churches, made a comment that summarized some thoughts that had been simmering in my mind.  He said, “Ministry in the 21st century is like growing potatoes on Mars.”

I immediately knew that Bill and I had read the same book: Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” the popular novel, and now movie that is coming to a big screen near you this week.

Intrigued by the fact that a school teacher from our town had made the cut on an early list of “contestants” vying to travel on the first passenger expedition to the red planet, my wife and I read the book shortly after publication.  Although I’m not sure how well the movie will be received, I found myself immersed in Weir’s tale, but for a different reason than most readers.  While I suppose that some were thrilled with the science fiction and others were enamored with the whole space adventure theme, I was captivated by an inductive pastoral correlation.

Maybe it’s because I still thumb through my copy of Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens. Or maybe it is because the novel seems to be the antithesis of the Left Behind series.  Or perhaps it was merely because I tend to perceive and interpret life through pastoral eyes. Whatever my subconscious reasoning, I found the plight of American astronaut Mark Watney to be a lot like ministry in a post-modern, post-denominational world. Despite the frequent four-letter words, I found Watney’s predicament to be spiritually suggestive.

Without giving away the entire plot of the book, suffice it to say that Watney finds himself stranded on Mars, a dilemma no one has faced before. To survive, he must learn to grow potatoes on Mars, a feat that becomes a driving metaphor of Weir’s novel.  And he tackles his cosmic dilemma with a methodical and almost sacramental strategy: “I cut each potato into four pieces, making sure each piece had at least two eyes. The eyes are where they sprout from. I let them sit for a few hours to harden a bit, then planted them, well spaced apart, in the corner. Godspeed, little taters. My life depends on you.”

How does potato-growing on Mars relate to ministry? As I read the novel I gleaned these prophetic points for our current “alien” context:

  • Adjusting to a new landscape isn’t easy but it is necessary.  Address your current atmospheric conditions, not the atmosphere you are most accustomed to.
  • Find creative ways to deal with your loneliness. Ministry can be isolating.  Be aware that you are not the first one or the only one to feel like you are “the only one.”
  • Maximize your resources.  Learn to ration and cultivate, utilizing all available assets.
  • Consult your intellect, intuition, and imagination to formulate your game plan.
  • Develop a sustainable strategy with built-in contingencies to help navigate the unexpected.
  • Anticipate obstacles and setbacks.  Learn to stay calm under pressure and to do good trouble-shooting.
  • Merge the best of expert advice and personal innovation to make contextual decisions.
  • Do not be afraid to take risks. As Watney argues, “Space is dangerous. It’s what we do here. If you want to play it safe all the time, go join an insurance company.”
  • Timing is crucial in making connections. Seize the moment when the window of opportunity opens.
  • Do your best work when you think that no one else is looking.  Be disciplined to do your job, believing that others are doing their job even when you are not in constant communication with them.
  • Remember there are forces at work that are bigger than you.
  • When you are tempted to give up, don’t!  After one near catastrophe Watney exclaims, “I guess you could call it a ‘failure,’ but I prefer the term ‘learning experience’.”

Ironically, this week there is a super moon, signaling a changing of the seasons.  In case you haven’t noticed, church and ministry are entering a different season also. For some this is a slow realization. Like Watney’s awakening, “Blissfull unconsiousness became foggy awareness which transitioned into painful reality.”

The challenges for church and ministry are daunting but not insurmountable. Effective ministry has always been challenging.  Innovation and discipline can produce a bumper crop, even in less than ideal circumstances. Take up your spade and bucket, and your imagination, and start cultivating.  The words of Thornton Wilder in Our Town ring clear this week: “Look at that moon. Potato weather for sure.”

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, and as a Leadership Coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Pastor

By Barry Howard

Thirty seven years ago this past month I was called to my first church staff position at the age of 18.  Thinking about those early beginnings has led me to reminisce about the peculiarity of my calling and my pastoral journey. Now, at age 55, I am a middle-aged pastor. My how time flies!

Middle-aged is an extremely relative term. A recent article in The Huffington Post defines middle-aged as beginning at age 35 and ending around age 58. In that case, I am upper middle-aged. Regardless of the definition, I suppose I am complimented by the term “middle-aged” because I have reached that central season of life with exceptionally good health, with my sanity intact, and I still enjoy attempting to fulfill my calling. However, it does occur to me that the way I see life and faith and church through the lenses of a middle-aged pastor is rather unique.  I am neither a militant traditionalist nor a rabid post-denominationalist.  I am not a hard-core fundamentalist or a soft-hearted liberal.  I reject these kinds of labels as highly unnecessary and mostly inaccurate.  My aim is to emulate the attitudes and actions of Jesus, whose mindset and mission cannot be contained or described by any one label.

In the rural context of my home church, I “felt the call” to ministry at age sixteen and preached my first sermon two weeks later.  Since that time there have been hurdles and a few monumental challenges along the way, but overall I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve alongside some good folks in some great places. If nothing else, thirty seven years of service on the staff of Baptist churches means that I have a little durability.

Supposedly everyone entering middle age goes through a stage of re-thinking life.  For some, it is a painful agonizing struggle, often second guessing important decisions made along the way.  For others, it is a time of re-direction, often resulting in a change in vocations, hairstyles, automobiles, and occasionally, even spouses.  For me, however, middle age, at least to this point, has been a time of reflecting, thinking about how I’ve changed and how much more room I have to grow.

If confession is good for the soul, maybe I will be even healthier if I confess where I am and what I believe about church and ministry at this point in my life as a middle-aged pastor:

  1. I believe the local church is where the action is. The church is where faith is nurtured, where community is cultivated, and where missional initiatives are launched and nurtured to fruition.
  2. Church is not a place but a people. Church is composed of flesh and blood, not constructed with brick and mortar. Being the church is more important than going to church, but I cannot fathom how we can do one without the other.
  3. Church should be a clearinghouse where talents and gifts are developed, dedicated, and deployed, never a warehouse where talents and gifts are counted and stored.
  4. Other churches and other ministers are my colleagues, not my competitors.
  5. Credibility emerges more in the authenticity of a pastor than the authority of the pastor.
  6. Doing ministry still energizes me.  However, there are a few things that drain my energy quickly, especially attending monotonous meetings and dealing with high maintenance people.
  7. What we do inside the doors of the church should make a drastic difference in who we are outside the doors of the church.
  8. I continue to discover the family of God to be much more diverse and inclusive than I previously imagined.
  9. An open Bible and an open mind tend to cultivate a more engaging and enriching faith than a closed Bible and closed mind.
  10. As a pastor and a Christian, I am called to be priest and prophet, not judge and jury. (I am free to love, share, and exercise grace toward all kinds of people without having to first judge their worthiness.  I am relieved to know that whatever final judgment looks like, I will not be the one holding the gavel.)

My full pastoral confession of faith is a lot lengthier than these ten.  At this point in my life, I have more questions than answers.  I get frustrated far too easily with petty complaint and criticism. Yet I realize that I have far more to learn than I already know, and far more to do than I’ve already done.

Even during my middle age years, I love serving as a pastor.  I have the privilege of walking alongside folks from the moment of birth to the moment of death and all seasons in between.

Paul summed it up this way: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14 NIV

Although I have not arrived, I am intent on enjoying the journey of growing forward.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Abiding Faith, Enduring Hope: A Prayer for the Anniversary of 9/11

God of durable hope and eternal justice,
On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
We remember that horrific day as a day that we wish we could forget.

O God we confess our ongoing need of your transformative grace
   For we are all too mindful that this date still haunts us
With memories that provoke our anger
With emotions that are tinged with grief
With thoughts that trend toward vengeance.

As we attempt to apply your words to life,
And to live by faith as we hold to your promise of a better future
We confess that our anger and grief from that fretful day are not yet fully resolved
And that residual impulses of vengeance and retaliation incubate deep within.
And yet we acknowledge that our lingering hurt does not compare to the pain
of those who were touched more directly
through the unexpected and unfair loss
of family members, friends, and co-workers.

We tremble at the memory of atrocious images of death and destruction,
We fret over the ongoing terrorist acts that seem unthinkable and inhumane,
We grieve over the deaths of the sons and daughters of our nation,
As well as the subsequent casualties among our allies and our adversaries.
And we long for a civilized and lasting resolution
So that our sons and daughters may live in peace
And that those who have longed for liberation from tyranny
Might govern and be governed with dignity and integrity.

Rather than being consumed by our grief,
    And controlled by our fears and constrained by our anxieties,
Let us set our minds to addressing the injustices that precipitate hostility,
Let us direct our souls to living out our moral conviction,
Let us turn our hearts to loving the poor,
and the disadvantaged,
and the disenfranchised.
And let us determine to fight terror,
Not with our own terroristic threats,
Nor with the weapons of our enemies,
But with a responsible and courageous exercise of freedom,
And with a proactive and authentic faith.

And though it swims against the tide of our unconverted instincts,
     You continue to teach us to love our enemies,
so that we do not become like them.

Today we are grateful for first responders:
    For emergency medical professionals, for law enforcement officers, for fire fighters, volunteers, and all who serve to save, protect, and preserve life.

Today, especially today, we pray for the leaders of our nation and our world,
    And for the leaders of our state and our community
To act and react with wisdom and discernment,
And to maintain a disposition that will defuse conflict
And advance the cause of peace.
    And we pray for the leaders of our churches and synagogues
And for people of diverse faiths
To act and react with transformative grace and enduring hope,
And to maintain a disposition that will disprove propaganda
And advance the cause of truth and compassion.

We offer our prayer with abiding faith and emerging hope in the One who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind.     Amen

Ten Insights from 30 Years of Marriage

When it comes to marriage, I chose wisely.  I can readily identify with Churchill’s assessment: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”

Today Amanda and I are celebrating our 30th Anniversary.  We were married on September 7, 1985 at the Post Oak Springs Baptist Church, her home church and my first pastorate.  Since that time our journey together across these 30 years has been quite an adventure with lots of unexpected twists and turns, a journey that has enabled us to learn and grow, and to forge a remarkable number of treasured friendships along the way.

After a reception in the Fellowship Hall we departed for our honeymoon and the real work of marriage began.  Even for a pastor and wife, the merging of two lives is never easy and is often messy.  Amanda and I have tasted both the “for better and for worse” experiences of life, and our relationship has grown stronger and more durable as we have confronted obstacles and embraced opportunities. Marriage is perhaps the most unique of all human relationships.  The privilege of partnering with one person for life is a blessing and a challenge.  But for the pastor’s family, I think the stressors are specific and peculiar.  While every marriage has its challenges, a pastor’s marriage is lived out in a distinct context. Here are a few of the factors that test the stability of a minister’s marriage.

  • The glass house syndrome.  A minister’s family life requires a little more transparency and is often scrutinized more publicly than the average marriage.
  • The swinging pendulum of emotions.  Because a minister deals with the emotion of everything in life from birth to death, a minister’s family is subject to lots of emotional fluctuation.
  • The burden of confidentiality. A minister deals with sensitive confidential issues perpetually, and although a minister’s spouse is not privy to many of those issues, the duress of confidentiality often bleeds over into the minister’s home life.
  • The flexibility challenge. A minister’s schedule is always tentative.  Interruptions are a constant.  Vacation plans change. Kid’s ball games and concerts are missed. A minister’s life demands extraordinary flexibility.
  • The fatigue factor.  Many ministers confess that they teeter on the brink of burnout or pastoral fatigue.  A minister’s family must not only contend with a parent who is often physically or emotionally tired, but without a sense of balance and a time for refreshing, the weariness can drive the entire family toward “church burnout.”

According to Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.” Although this admonition is for the entire faith community, it is especially important for ministers.

To build a healthy marriage, a minister and spouse cannot be naïve to the aforementioned stressors, but rather should take proactive steps to navigate these challenges with faith, discernment, and intentionality. As we have grown through 30 years of marriage, we have gained a few insights into what makes marriage work for us as a pastor and wife:

  • Embrace the uniqueness of the “ministry life.”  Life for a minister’s family is not abnormal.  It is just a different kind of normal. We try to live into the uniqueness rather than avoiding it or denying it.
  • Avoid unrealistic expectations. You will likely encounter a few church members who have unrealistic or idealistic expectations for your work schedule, your preaching topics, and your family life. You will be a more effective minister and you will have a healthier family life if you live out of the wellspring of your gifts and convictions, and not the expectations of others.
  • Schedule time for dates. There is a lot of demand on a pastor’s schedule.  Calendaring can often be like doing triage. So I schedule appointments with Amanda for lunch dates, dinner dates, sporting events, and other fun activities. Otherwise, my schedule becomes full and we will miss spending quality time together.
  • Avoid taking the stress and stories of work home.  Often when I leave the office, I am still in ministry mode, making evening visits or phone calls, working on preparation for upcoming services, or processing the events of the day. And while I may occasionally need to decompress by discussing an extremely stressful situation, I try to avoid discussing the daily debris of ministry with my wife.
  • Take your off days and your vacation.  I am still working on this.  Only a couple of times during our 30 years have I taken all of my allotted vacation time. However, the older I get, I find that it is more important to take time to rest, refocus, and rejuvenate, for my physical health, my spiritual health, and for the health of our marriage.
  • Tell stories involving your marriage or family life with discretion. Our congregation loves stories and they seem receptive to illustrative stories from our personal experiences, such as our adventures in tennis, golf, or travels.  However, I try to only tell stories that highlight and illustrate how our lives intersect with the application of the biblical text, and I avoid stories that are intimate or critical.
  • Do ministry together occasionally.  Amanda has her own passion for ministry and she invests her time and energy in serving, just like any other member of our congregation.  However, we occasionally enjoy making hospital visits together, engaging in mission projects together, and even reading and discussing the same books.
  • Take care of your health.  During our wedding, we pledged to be faithful to each other in sickness and in health. Obviously, we prefer to be healthy.  We do a pretty good job of keeping up with our doctor’s visits and we are proactive in caring for our health.
  • Learn when to say yes and when to say no to invitations. We enjoy being socially active, but there is no way to say yes to every invitation.  It is a biblical imperative to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
  • Keep growing… together.  I don’t think anyone, especially a minister and wife, ever reaches a point where you can put your marriage on cruise control.  A healthy marriage requires ongoing nurture. There is a big difference in growing old together and getting old together. We want to grow old together by continuing to grow spiritually, intellectually, and intimately.

A healthy marriage may not necessarily make ministry easier, but an unhealthy marriage certainly makes ministry more difficult. If you neglect your marriage in order to preserve your ministry, you are likely to lose both.

I love being married and I love serving as a pastor. And I hope to enjoy both for a long time. Amanda and I have shared a partnership in life and ministry for 30 years now.  And I look forward to many more.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)