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Practical tips for young women (and others) exploring a call to ministry

I’m not asked outright for advice every day. And generally even when I am, I try to blink a few times before giving any. But this week I received an email asking for my advice to young women considering the vocation of ministry. I’ve blinked a few times in the last couple of days, and decided to take up the offer.

Here is a bit of practical advice, which assumes that a seminary education and ministry internships will teach you plenty of important things. And that you will learn the kind of history, theology, pastoral care, homiletical preparation, exegesis and study habits to stay you well. This advice is not separate from that but puts the things you will learn into an every day context of lived pastoral leadership. If you’re thinking of becoming a minister – chaplain, pastor, campus minister, musician or any other specialty – here is a baker’s dozen.*

1. Be on time. No check that – be early! You undermine your own leadership ability and the trust you want to engender every time you are late. This is at the top of the list for a reason.

2. Find an older woman (just a little older – not your grandmother’s age, unless she is brutally honest) who will give you honest feedback about your public image. Someone who believes that failure is an important path to learning. Yes, I said failure. Someone who will speak truth with the genuine hope of helping you to become a better pastoral leader. Someone who you can ask questions like:

  • * How did I sound? More winsome or more whining?
  • * Was my skirt too short? My heels too high? My tattoo a tad too visible?
  • * Did I come across as appropriately humorous in that story, or was I screeching?
  • * What is my greatest strength when I’m in the pulpit?
  • * What did I miss in the service today?
  • * How could I draw people in more?
  • * Did I sound defensive when I gave that report?

3. Tithe. Now. Not later. Start your practice of giving away your hard-earned money today. You cannot ask church members to support what you yourself do not have a track record of supporting. Jesus said give more and society says spend it on yourself, but if you will start now by giving away a portion of your stuff and your money, then generosity will come more easily and more genuinely to you sooner.

4. Pray. Every. Day.  Figure out what form of prayer you are called to, and do it. Twenty-one days to start. Don’t miss a day in that first three weeks if you want it to last. Don’t just dabble. Find a practice that engages you and let it begin changing your body and mind and heart by helping you attend to the presence of God every day, every breath.

5. Circle up some friends and don’t just have a bitch session. Find a way to talk honestly about your vocation, your desires, your temptations, and your struggles. You may also want (and I highly recommend) a coach, a therapist, a spiritual director, or a masseuse. But start with friends. They don’t charge for their services and support can be generous and lasting.

6. Admit when you are wrong. Immediately. Say “I screwed up. And I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” It is one of the most liberating things you can ever do as a pastor or human being. Be ready to admit when you are wrong (even if the other person was just as wrong and inside you are screaming ‘Idiot! No fair! Ahhhrg!’). Honestly saying you are sorry and seeking to recover the distance that the wrong created will free your own heart and give you a peace of mind and capacity for relationships that all the hanging on to being right will never give you. Never.

7. Think theologically. About everything. From placement of the communion table to potluck dinners, from where you park your car at the church to what you say at the graveside, think theologically about all of it. Then say it out loud. Write it down. Weave it into your prayers and sermons and everyday conversations. This is practical advice. As a pastor you are to be about thinking theologically and helping others to the same. You are the resident everyday practical theologian (hospital, barracks or church house). You will not be good at this at first and you will have to keep trying. Read those who are good at it like Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, Walter Bruggemann, Wendell Berry, Parker Palmer, Alice Walker.

8. Watch good pastoral leaders. Get to know them. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be shy about this. They need to articulate how and why they do what they do, and you need to hear them try to say it. Then try on what you see for yourself. See how it fits. Do it your own way, but don’t ignore the wisdom of those around you.

9. Take Sabbath. Get off your computer, your cell phone, your twitter account, your tv and even your car radio. Don’t shop, spend, clean, fix, solve problems or start any new projects. Just stop all that. For 24 full hours if you possibly can. Allow yourself worship, eating, sleeping, luxuriating in your partner, playing with your family and laughing with your friends. Play games and take a walk. Putter. Dawdle. Lie in a hammock. Read a novel. Rest. Do this once a week and live.

10. Write notes. By hand if possible, or at least by email. Connect with people. Ask how they are. Tell them how much you love them. What they contribute to the community and your life. Be grateful in everything or say the hard thing that won’t come out when you try in person. Use words like the most precious of gifts and take care for they are powerful beyond your imagination.

11. Absorb good music, books, poetry and art. Reach far. Don’t waste time on crap. Unless everyone in your congregation or ministry setting is reading it, or listening to it, then consider it. But be prepared to say what is to appreciate and what can be let go in it. You could do this for all good books, poems, music and art. Remember whatever else you are, you are also a pastor and the most practical of theologians.

12. Take care of your body. Listen to it. Feed it well, mostly vegetables if possible. Move it and challenge yourself. Figure out what you are called to (and it’s not sitting on your backside all day, eating fast food or drinking every night . . . just in case you were considering these). Run. Stretch. Walk. Swim. Like prayer, discern your calling, then do it every day. If you are starting something new, go for three solid weeks. The habit is more likely to last. Self care without simplistic self-indulgence is essential for the stamina that ministry takes.

13. Say yes or no. And mean it.
* Every piece of advice here has a biblical and theological grounding, and if you want chapter and verse, send me an email. I chose the proverb or commandment format for the sake of brevity and to fulfill the request for advice.