News and Views

Living Well offers renewal for clergy

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By Melissa Lauber

There’s a fable about a woodcutter, but it’s also about pastors:

One day, there was a man cutting down a tree in the forest. A boy happened past, and asked, “What you are doing?” The woodcutter responded with the obvious answer, “I’m cutting down this tree.”

“But what are you doing? You look worn out, and your saw is so dull,” the boy said. “Take a break, sharpen your saw.” However, the woodcutter only increased his efforts, explaining he had been working for hours and had no time for a break.

“But if you sharpen your saw,” the boy said, “you could cut down the tree much easier and faster.” The woodcutter, however, persisted, insisting that he could not take the time to sharpen his saw. He was simply too busy 

This fable is often cited in management courses and productivity seminars, like those of Stephen Covey, but its moral is at the heart of a new program for clergy in the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences – the Living Well Initiative.

Living Well is a program designed for clergy, by clergy, to empower them to reflect on and assess their life and ministry through the lens of health and wellness,” explained the Rev. Jack Shitama, director of the Center for Vital Leadership. “The program guides clergy on a journey of self-reflection and exploration, individually and with colleagues, as they consider what it means in their life and ministry to love God with all their heart, all their mind, all their strength, and all their soul.”

It began last year with a pilot program of 17 clergy and 10 facilitators, created in response to an addition in the denomination’s 2016 Book of Discipline (Para.349.3), which requires that every eight years, all clergy participate in a process of assessment and renewal.

Leaders from the BWC and Pen-Del put together a Living Well team that transcended the letter of church law to create a program for pastors that made it “not a hoop to jump through, but something that people could experience as life-giving,” Shitama said.

The initial responses to the pilot program were very positive. “I can’t believe how deep we went, how vulnerable we were willing to be with one another. Rich blessings!” wrote one participant. “Living Well isn’t just another training,” wrote another. “The process leads to hands and heart interactions with the resources and the building of relationships.”

A third participant even claimed, “This saved my ministry.”

When some pastors were invited to Living Well, their response was, "I can't take on another program," said the Rev. Twanda Prileau, pastor of Union UMC in Upper Marlboro and a member of the retreat’s Leadership Team. “My response is, ‘because you can't take on another program, this process is for you. This is not another program.’ We need to take our self-care seriously. Too often, the church comes before our care, and we need to change the narrative. As my therapist once said, ‘Twanda, you are in the business of self-sacrifice. Right now, you don't have a self to sacrifice.’ Some of us don't have a self to sacrifice.’”

“As clergy, finding a space where we can authentically be ourselves is hard,” Prileau said. “Living Well is unique; it provides space where clergy can take their hats off and ‘BE.’ It's designed for individuals to own their work of living well.”

Discovering this space “to be” proved to be important to the Rev. Ali DeLeo, a pastor at National UMC in Washington, D.C. “I needed something to get re-centered and re-connected to God’s voice,” she said. “The two retreat sessions offered me nourishment, information, embodied prayer practices, and blessed rest. But it was the monthly meetings with my small group that provided the real sustenance and understanding that I needed to be a more healthy and whole clergyperson.” 

 DeLeo also noted that for many of those in the pilot program, “Living Well is an investment not just in yourself, but in those you serve.” Based on her experiences, she has stepped up and joined the Living Well leadership team.

The Rev. John Nupp, one of the primary architects of the Living Well Initiative who now serves Chevy Chase UMC, is not surprised by the positive reactions and stresses that Living Well “is really more about what happens when you are following through on decisions and insights outside of our time together,” he said. “It was not intended to deliver on promises to introduce radical change, but rather a recovering of your core sense of direction to answering God’s call to flesh out the invitation to love more wholly.”

Pastoral ministry can be one of the most challenging vocations there is, Shitama said. Pastors often live in fishbowls, watched over and judged by the expectations of others.

One of the surprises of Living Well, Nupp said, “was how seldom pastors feel like they have freedom to chart their own course. Many of us are practiced at responding to the needs of others. What happens when someone gives us space to make a choice to pursue a dream or make needed changes, or simply just to be and to listen? Our souls have become so accustomed to external forces pursuing us that we may have forgotten the power that comes from being centered and moving out in grace of freedom, without fear of punishment or reward.”

Nupp has seen much of the growth from Living Well coming as “people have experienced subtle, hidden shifts in their perspectives on self, and health, and well-being.”

“No matter if you have been in ministry one year or 40 years, God is always at work doing a new thing both in your life and your ministry,” DeLeo said. “Living Well is a way to explore the connect with God in ways that we don’t always have space to do in our regular day-to-day. So it is good to pause, breath, and experience our transformational God in ourselves and others.” 

“I encourage all of our clergy to sign up for the Living Well retreat. The Living Well retreat is a way of committing to being on your calendar, and you will not regret it,” said Prileau.

“ In 2020, I wrote the book Breathe – A Pastor Journey to Wholeness,” she continued. “I talked about my journey of not living well. There was a time in my ministry when I put everything before my own care, leading to burnout. I had nothing left to give to the church, and I needed to “tap out.” I was ready to quit and throw in the towel. Thankfully, I could find rest by taking three months away from ministry. I want to encourage my colleagues to take the time for themselves; and to let that time be one of rest and renewal, not a time of recovering from burnout. We don’t have to get to the point of exhaustion to take time off. The Living Well retreat is a start.”

Three different Living Well cycles are being held this year. The first, was in August at Camp Pecometh. There is still time to register for the session at Camp Manidokan on September 27-29 and West River Retreat Center on October 25-27.

 Living Well is open to Deacons, Elders and licensed local pastors. Half the cost of the program is underwritten by the annual conference and completion earns 3.3 CEU’s.