Lisa Nichols Hickman: Beside still waters?

Why pastors should welcome turbulent waters in ministry.

Sometimes ministry feels like it should come with a personal flotation device. I thought this recently after a prayer in which I gave thanks for God’s provision of “still waters” in Psalm 23. Afterward an elder said to me, “But still waters are stagnant. God leads us ‘beside’ still waters that are stagnant to keep us safe until God reaches water bubbling with life.”

My prayer revealed a plea for a peaceful, placid, still time in the life of our church. Lately there are days of turbulent waters in my ministry. It’s work to remember that these waters aren’t dangerous but full of spirit and life. On days when I long for “stillness,” I remember the words of the elder about stagnation and pollution. God leads us away from that place toward water that will nourish, not negate, life.

In a wonderful version of Psalm 23, the Native American community prays that God will lead his people away from that dangerously stagnant, still water:

      The Great Father above is a Shepherd Chief.
I am his and with him I want not.
He throws out to me a rope
And the name of the rope is Love
And he draws me to where the grass is green
And the water not dangerous.

In the life of the church, are places of placidity more dangerous than points of turbulence?

This past week I emailed Dan Pietrzyk thanking him for the life preserver he shared with pastoral leaders in his article, “Shooting the rapids: The cycles of pastoral ministry.” He describes the formational stages of pastoral ministry like turbulent, fast-moving currents that can shift quickly on pastors doing the paddling. Turbulent waters scare, unsettle and disorient. Their toss and tumult can numb the senses and fray the nerves. Those roaring waters can make the most faithful people question the presence and providence of God.

And yet, perhaps this is the very place leaders are most alive, most open, most willing to grow, change and lead. Erik Erikson frames a central human developmental stage as the conversation between stagnancy and generativity. Development requires movement beyond stagnancy to generativity, from still waters to life-giving ones.

A wise couple in my congregation has a remarkable painting at the center of their living room, an image of ocean waves so alive with motion it seems like the sea spray could leap from the frame and splash the viewer. Several birds hover above the waves. “That’s a picture of our marriage,” they say. Definitely not still waters.

Sometimes it serves as a window for their marriage, sometimes a mirror. On the “mirror” days, the turbulent waves reflect the ups and downs of married life, yet like the birds overhead, the spirit of God hovers over the tumultuous waters, settling marital anxieties. On the “window” days, the water calls the couple into the ups and downs of a fast-moving world to be servants of Christ for those caught in the waves of life. The water serves as both hope and call. It isn’t dangerous, but life-giving.

The Bible too is awash with a liquid faith that flows from Genesis 1:2 to Revelation 22:17. From the spirit of God hovering over the waters to the apocalyptic vision of the waters of life central to the city of heaven, Scripture streams with living water. This flow of over 700 images of water is never still but a vital irrigation system providing spirited and life-giving water.

As leaders we find comfort in this fluid faith that rises and swells, tumbles and roars with breakers and waves. A faith that flows with questions that generate new insight into leadership. A faith where, in the words of the Psalmist, “deep calls to deep.” A faith not dangerous, but wonderful.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is a Presbyterian Pastor and writer. She serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Penn., and is the author of “The Worshiping Life,” a meditation on the rhythms of worship. She currently writes curriculum for The Thoughtful Christian, a Web-based resource center.