By Rev. John J. Shaffer
As I reflect on my 51 years in ministry, I am aware that ministry, for the most part, remained fun and meaningful to the end. There was a strong emphasis on continuing education both in Alaska and here in the Pacific Northwest, in a desire to help clergy with the issue of clergy burnout. I attempted to take advantage of what was offered, as well as finding other opportunities for continuing education.
I had heard that a general rule of thumb was to seek some kind of “boost” after the first ten years of ministry. I felt that I was doing fine for twenty years, but without being aware of it, I was beginning to experience burnout. I was in need of a boost, and circumstances provided it.
One of the experiences that helped me during that time came through a clergy friend who introduced me to the summer school program at Vancouver School of Theology. I jumped at this opportunity, and it was during those years that I was exposed to the teaching and preaching of Dr. Harrell Beck of the Boston School of Theology. He made learning and preaching exciting. He lectured like he preached, and after one hour, most of us were sorry to have him stop.
Various forms of small group ministry were also helpful, as they nurtured my own spirit as well as the other participants. In particular, I found Discipleship classes and covenant groups to be vital for both me and the church. After retirement, I had the opportunity to be involved in a group that the Stanwood United Methodist Church called CONNEXION GROUPS. This proved to be one of the best spiritual experiences of my life.
Probably the highlight of all these continuing education experiences was a program I saw advertised in The Christian Century magazine in the late 1980’s. It was called the Merrill Fellowship. It offered full scholarship to four active pastors for three months at Harvard Divinity School. I was nearing the seventh year of ministry at a church in Anchorage, so I thought I could talk the congregation into helping me make that happen. I would use my salary to hire a replacement, as the fellowship provided all expenses. Lo and behold, I was accepted. Everything was working well until I was asked to move to another congregation. Visualize this: moving to a new parish and taking a sabbatical during my first year there. It was rocky, but it worked out. Three months at Harvard and in Boston. Talk about recharging one’s batteries! It was truly a great gift!
Through these experiences and more, I became so excited about ministry that I eventually decided to continue working until The Discipline of The United Methodist Church forced me to retire. The biggest compliment I ever got was from a lay person at my retirement celebration: he thanked me for working hard right up to the end. And indeed I did. And I would wish the same for all of my colleagues.
Clergy burnout was avoided, thanks to a superintendent who encouraged continuing education experiences and a big dose of luck. Take advantage of whatever is offered, and insist on utilizing what is allowed. And may God bless your ministry.