Cynthia Lindner: Multiple-mindedness and ministerial resilience

A researcher at the University of Chicago finds that having multiple interests, passions and activities can help pastors thrive in ministry.

Every autumn when our new M.Div. students introduce themselves around the classroom table, they spread a banquet of experiences, passions and commitments.

Each is interested and able in multiple ways: one is a community organizer and biblical scholar; another is a contemplative and environmental activist; others are farmers and chefs, storytellers and comedians, soldiers and social workers.

But these students’ multiplicity is also a worry -- or so they are led to believe, as they negotiate the academic and denominational processes that would shape them vocationally.

Recently, a representative of a mainline ordination committee reported the committee’s misgivings about a student. She was, in their judgment, “interested in too many things, and thus likely to be bored with pastoral work.”

I am sympathetic toward the church’s preoccupation with forming focused, committed and carefully trained leaders. Yet I wonder whether our present anxiety about institutional survival and our attendant efforts to train narrowly focused pastor-technicians is leading us to overlook a treasure in our midst: our multiply gifted seminarians, pastors and congregants.

With the support of a grant from the Louisville Institute, I conducted a modest narrative research project to investigate whether there might be a connection between pastoral multi-mindedness and innovative, sustainable ministry.

As an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with 20 years’ experience in parish ministry and pastoral counseling and another 10 in mentoring and teaching ministry students, I have deep respect for the work of ministry, and great affection and concern for those who are called to engage in it.

Drawing on that experience, I wanted to investigate what makes pastors effective. How do effective pastors experience and think about themselves, their work and their lives as ministers?

What habits of mind and heart make it possible for some pastors to thrive amidst the myriad demands of contemporary parish life while others -- equally gifted and educated -- become disoriented and dispirited in similar circumstances? In the project’s initial stage, I interviewed a dozen clergy deemed effective by their congregations and colleagues, using open-ended questions that invited them to describe their vocational lives. The hour-long interviews were taped, transcribed and studied for common themes and practices.

The pastors I studied offered nuanced narratives of devotion and challenge -- inspired successes and abject failures. The stories were as varied as the tellers.

But what I found they held in common was the pastors’ awareness of their own complexities -- their multiple and sometimes competing interests, perspectives and engagements -- and the energy and creativity these engendered.

There were preachers who also edited magazines, pastors who were journalists and bloggers, ministers who also served in city and state government, Sunday worship leaders who performed in comedy clubs on Saturday nights, jazz-musicians-turned-preachers who still moved their congregations with alto sax hymnody.

The testimony of Scripture, history and tradition, as well as the narratives of pastors who thrive amidst the complex demands of religious leadership in our own complicated contemporary context, hint at a possible correlation between what I call ministerial multiple-mindedness, or ministerial multiplicity, and the effective, well-lived pastoral life.

Borrowing a social-scientific lens, these pastors’ testimonies are evidence that our experience of ourselves as persons -- what we have called our “identity,” or our “self” -- is not singular or unitary but is instead a constant integration of shifting voices and influences, reflecting our plural relationships to significant others and communities.

According to relational psychologists, each of us embodies multiple “selves”; this is what makes us able to attend to many interests and to occupy many roles simultaneously.

What this means for the life of ministry is that we have an endless capacity for imagining, adapting and inventing new possibilities to address the challenges of religious leadership in changing times and new places.

When clergy cultivate multiple selves rather than constraining themselves for the sake of conventional expectations of ministry, they report sustained resilience and generativity in their work.

I found that pastors whose sense of worth and agency is not reliant on a single, circumscribed role experience less compassion fatigue and are significantly less likely to avoid confrontation, capitulate or explode.

In fact, inevitable congregational conflicts were presented in the stories of our multiple-minded pastors as interesting opportunities for learning and growth rather than occasions of personal loss or disillusionment.

Their multiplicity may well be essential for funding pastoral and ecclesial resilience, creativity and courage in our complicated times. Perhaps seminaries and ordination committees should recruit students whose “multiplicity is showing,” and encourage pastors-in-training to hone their plural interests as strengths and gifts for new forms of ministry.

Practicing pastors might be encouraged to spend some of their work time developing a deferred talent for creative writing, counseling or community organizing rather than filling their calendars with congregational committee meetings. Or perhaps ministerial multiplicity might be awakened if pastors were to cultivate collegial groups across the professions, collaborating with doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Of course, multiple-mindedness is not the province only of pastors. Members of congregations, too, should be invited to explore and engage their own multiplicity -- passions for preaching, teaching or spiritual caregiving, for example, that have long been neglected.

As I listen to our M.Div. students, they bring to mind that great cloud of witnesses whose complexity and diversity have spoken and acted God’s love and justice -- the fisherfolk and tentmakers of the ancient world, the minister-scholars and physician-priests of our own country’s foundations, and the myriad creative and courageous local pastors whose ministries nourish, challenge and empower the lives and communities they serve.

If pastors and their congregations can affirm their common complexity and honor each other’s multiplicity, we might recognize and welcome one another as gifted partners in ministry, and engage our work in the world together with rekindled insight and innovation.