Sarah Bereza’s new book, Professional Christian, examines the question of what it means to be fully yourself in the spotlight of public ministry. She sets aside the popular concepts of authenticity and sincerity and focuses instead on preparation and mindfulness as ways we can be fully present and fully ourselves within the demands of real-time ministry.
Think back to a time when you had to show up in person to minister but for some reason you weren’t emotionally or physically there for it. Maybe you were waiting for a medical diagnosis, but it was Sunday morning and time to sing. Maybe you were officiating at a wedding ceremony during your own caustic divorce proceedings. Maybe it was the emotional whiplash of visiting a dying congregant, then taking the hospital’s elevator to a different floor and greeting a healthy newborn and his parents. Maybe you were just tired. You didn’t feel like teaching. You didn’t want to deal with the volunteers and their needs. All you really wanted was a cup of coffee and a good book.
In this kind of scenario, where our personal emotions differ from those of the people we are ministering to or where we may not be able to be fully ourselves or what we consider our best selves, are we being disingenuous? If we show up to preach but are feeling apathetic or doubtful, are we being fake? If we are in the depths but in the same moment must lead a congregation in praising God, are we lying?
This scenario can happen anytime we engage in real-time ministry — anytime we minister in live settings like conversations, classroom teaching, corporate worship, and counseling. Real-time ministry has no do-overs, and it gives no significant space for collecting our thoughts or emotionally processing what is happening. To be blunt about it, the show must go on. We’ll teach the class or lead the song when we must, regardless of how we’re feeling about it at the moment.
To be fully present is to be fully ourselves.
So, where does this reality of ministry meet us? It meets us in the present. And if we are fully present, we are fully ourselves. By being present with others, we act consistently with the values that brought us to that moment. Showing up to real-time ministry means being present in those times (or at least as present as we can be), while being confident that being ourselves includes out of-the-moment feelings and circumstances, as well as everything else that makes us who we are — like our values, preparation, and vocational calling. We are fully ourselves in the sense that everything in our past, all that brings us to a given moment, is with us in the moment. Our preparation for a sermon is also with us in the preaching of the sermon. The decisions that led us to work in a nonprofit are with us in the moments when we struggle to keep our eyes from glazing over in a committee meeting. The value we place on teaching is with us in the classroom.
The real-time is real, and so is everything else about us. There is no dichotomy here, no need to ignore parts of ourselves. Instead, we can choose to prioritize some elements of ourselves, particularly our curious, mindful attention to the present, knowing that real-time ministry often calls for constraints we can embrace as part of our ministry, and that we can save our introspection for a different time. Our desire to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) does not erase our personal emotions and circumstances but orients us toward others’ emotions and circumstances so that we can be in relationship with them where they are.
Preparation and mindfulness
The practices of preparation and mindfulness form the bedrock of being more fully ourselves in real-time ministry. All of our past is with us in the present — education, experiences, and so on; and the more granular aspects of preparation (last Thursday’s rehearsal for this Sunday’s song set; the time spent months ago selecting a Sunday school curriculum or developing our nonprofit’s strategic plan) prepare us to be fully present in real-time moments of ministry as a both/and experience. “We prepare as well as we can,” pastor and diocesan leader Jonathan Arnold explains, “but then we make sure that, once we have the preparation in place, we are then present as ourselves before God and in acknowledgment of the greater purpose of why we are gathered.”
Coupled with our preparation is our mindfulness: our purposeful attention to the present. In a therapeutic sense, mindfulness is often about paying attention to our inner experiences of thoughts and physical sensations. But here I’m thinking particularly about mindfulness of our outer experience of our environment and, more specifically, a mindfulness rooted in caring for the people we encounter in that external environment. Mindfulness in this outward-focused sense necessitates a deep comfort within us about ourselves — a stability that is founded on self-knowledge, a lack of worry about our own selves, and a lack of needing something for ourselves in the moment. We look outside ourselves and orient our attention toward our neighbors and their needs. We are ourselves when we are present, when we are mindful, and when we are with our neighbors, seeing them as they are — hungry or thirsty, sick or in prison.
If you are a person who strives to care for your neighbors (presumably a deeply held value for all of us in ministry), then when you give them your full attention, you are acting out of that value. While your own physical experiences and emotions do affect that care, they are secondary to it in the moment.
By being present with others as the Holy Spirit leads us, we are acting with the values, role, vocational calling, and other preparation that brings us to the present moment. In real-time ministry, out-of-the-moment feelings and gut responses may not match the needs of the circumstances, but we can still minister with a caring mindfulness to our outer environment.
This article is excerpted from Professional Christian: Being Fully Yourself in the Spotlight of Public Ministry (Westminster John Knox Press, 2022) by Sarah Bereza. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- The Myth of Balance by Karoline M. Lewis
- To the Point: Suggestions for Churches with a Single Pastor, a free Lewis Center resource
- To the Point: Suggestions for Churches with a Young Pastor, a free Lewis Center resource