Graham Cray on prayer and spiritual health

Monday, 14 May, 2012

Graham Cray discusses prayer and spiritual health - the particular pressures on pioneers, a rhythm of life, taking time out, pioneering priorities and spiritual partners.

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Graham Cray: Pioneers face particular pressures. They're not unique to pioneer ministry but they are generic to it I believe. One is isolation - you're out on your own in a context that you don't know particularly well, are only getting to know, and may well not be your comfort zone, without colleagues around you initially at least at the beginning. And tied in with that is the temptation anybody in Christian ministry seems to suffer from in the West and that is overwork, perhaps sometimes because a sense of identity is actually rooted in how well you're doing, people keep asking you how well you're doing, what have you set up, how many people are coming - and that pushes people to work too long, too hard and often not necessarily very effectively. Pioneers can either lack a proper framework of accountability, which should always be low control, high accountability - there's no point being accountable to a group that doesn't trust you - and sometimes they suffer from a group that has been appointed perhaps in a politically correct way - the 'right' people are there to keep an eye on this new ministry that we don't understand but there is no empathy for the ministry actually in those providing the accountability. So the wellbeing of pioneers is partly a matter of pioneers taking responsibility for the balance and spiritual depth of their own lives, but it's also a responsibility of those who appoint them and have pastoral oversight to see that they're kept safe and well and that their ministry is flourishing.

Clearly pioneers need to be people of prayer. If the heart of the ministry is seeing what God is doing and joining in, then nurturing your relationship with God through prayer, soaking your decisions in prayer, bringing before God the people that you meet in prayer, has to be fundamental. Prayer needs to be a discipline, even for the most free-form and undisciplined pioneers need to have a rhythm in their life of prayer. It's got to be realistic: the best advice on prayer I've ever been given is pray as you can, rather than you can't. Don't impose on yourself some discipline from someone who is not built like you, is not called to work the sort of hours that you are called to work, or from an era when the pattern was different. I used to feel so guilty when I learnt that the Wesleys and Whitfields and people of that time were up at 4.00 at prayer, until I realised they went to bed at 8.00 when the light fades. Be realistic about your pattern. If you are working in the night-time economy, nightclub chaplaincy and things like that, then don't force yourself to have an early in the morning discipline. Find a time that's appropriate, a pattern of prayer which you can absorb and can be part of you, but then stick to it - make it a discipline - let it be one of the things that doesn't change. Read the Scripture for your relationship with God. Please don't read the Bible just as a tool for ministry - I've got to prepare this talk and mercifully God teaches me when I prepare something to teach others - he does do that but it's not good enough. Don't read the Bible as comfort food - I'm feeling rotten, I will find one of my favourite verses. One of the things I love about the way Anglicans at least in their pattern of prayer read the psalms is, if you read the psalms consistently you regularly come across a psalm that does not express how you feel - you are low and you get a psalm about the high praise of God, you are on a high because things are going really well and you get one of the 'how long O God, why have you gone so far from me' psalms - they are meant to bring us back to objectivity and not just to feed our feelings. Above all, develop some sort of rhythm of life, some regular pattern of prayer and the reading of the Bible that feeds you. And perhaps the test question to ask is does your ministry feed your spiritual life, or does your spiritual life feed your ministry? If all the things you are learning from your own walk with God come just from the things that you have to do for your ministry to others, something has gone wrong. It's easy to do, I've found myself doing it myself, but when that starts to happen, take a corrective: invest in your relationship with God and your ministry will thrive. Invest just in your ministry and gradually your relationship with God and your ministry will shrivel if you're not careful.

I recommend that, however full your diary is, and especially if the diary is getting really full, you put into it - a year ahead - a quiet day every month. It's like a breakwater along the beach. It's a day that allows you to get back in perspective, otherwise the work will build up and the work will build up and the pressures put on you and the pressures you put on yourself to achieve something will just keep cranking up. A day when you can pray unhurriedly, a day when people can't get you on your phone or your computer or you've got them switched off. A day when you use your normal pattern of prayer but allow yourself to be taken in any direction the Holy Spirit takes you through the various Scriptures that you pull out and pray and reflect on. And a day where above all you listen to God and try and get the work back into perspective. Are you being driven by the pressure or are you being led by the Spirit? Are you giving your time to the people whom God has particularly given you to invest in or are you meeting the demands that every person makes of you. All of us drift if we don't stop and ask God to restore focus. I find I tend to fall asleep for a bit of that time - I'm absolutely intent on prayer but I've got myself over-tired and I start to pray and I drift off for half an hour. Well the joy of a quiet day is you can drift off for an hour, wake up more refreshed, have a drink and carry on. Give God the space every month to put things back in perspective and back at the right pace.

Pioneers need a flexible pattern of life. You need to be available when the people whom you are called to are able to be available to you. You need pastorally, without giving in to every need that comes, to be flexible for those moments and opportunities, pastorally or evangelistically, that God gives. But having already stressed so much about overwork, about balance of life, about priorities, you really have to work out the priorities first. A rhythm of life isn't just a matter of how and when you pray and how and when you read the Scriptures. It's a matter of sorting out first the priorities of your family for instance. Single pioneers can sometimes overwork for lack of peers to call them to account. Married pioneers can get in trouble in their marriage or with their children because the work always comes first and the family has to fit round it. Some people will know the illustration of the bowl with water in it and you're going to put as many rocks in it as you can and you put the big rocks in first, because they're the ones that you must fit in. And then you start to fit the smaller ones around until the water overflows and you can't get any more. So be clear what the rocks are: your time with God, your time as a husband and a wife together, your time with your children - put them in first and even if there sometimes has to be some flexibility, make sure that the balance of life about that never changes. Don't invest so much in your ministry that you regret how you lived as a parent for years afterwards. God doesn't want that and God doesn't honour that, however much there is real sacrifice - and sacrifice carried by families in pioneering. Agree together how you're going to use your home: don't have ministry so organised that the moment someone drops in, your kids have to leave the only space where they can relax or your partner has to disappear into a bedroom or a kitchen or something like that. Agree together what's private space, what's public space, what are the flexibilities, what are the boundaries of being generous - how flexible can you be about that. But big rocks, big priorities in first. And please maintain some friendships outside of your sphere of ministry. Keep up with some friends who are just friends. Still invest in the ones who are going to be... who were your friends before and the ones who are going to be your friends afterwards. A balanced life in terms of relationships is much more likely to lead to a sustainable ministry.

Now I've made quite a lot of points and some of them, like the big rocks and the regular pattern of prayer, are I think essential. Some of them are simply ideas and suggestions. But the last thing I'd add is that you have some regular relationship with peers. People to whom you do not have to describe your ministry because they understand it, because they share it or they have a history in the same sort of thing. You might want to be part of a huddle or a small group of two or three others who are doing the things that you do, who understand the nature of the ministry and its temptations and therefore you can hold yourself accountable to one another far more realistically and far more safely. Perhaps you and some leaders you're gathering round you might be part of a learning community with some other fresh expressions that are coming into being - this isn't just about learning good practice, it's about relationships with people who understand, learning from what others are doing and helping and supporting one another as well as being held accountable. One of the things that God seems to be doing right across the country at the moment is bringing into being some forms of 'orders' if you're happy with the new monastic language, or 'missional communities' if you'd rather avoid monastic language, but it may be you need to be part of some bigger movement: Church Army, CMS, all sorts of other groups that have a rule of life together and it will put your ministry and your calling and your spiritual growth in the context of something bigger. Consider whether that's a call of God on your life as well. But whatever you do, look to yourself and your ministry. Please don't avoid accountability: accountability is never comfortable because people are asking you whether you've got your priorities right. But this isn't about our sense of importance, it's about the work of God. And make yourself accountable for the sake of the work of God. But if you rather aren't a pioneer, you're someone with responsibility for pioneers, invest in accountability with empathy and low control, for the very same reason: for the quality of the ministry that God has put in our hands.


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