I’ve just finished reading Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry by Sue Clemmer Steiner. What a treat to sit across the table from Sue last month, to swap stories of our recently published books, and to get my very own autographed copy of her memoir! I’ve been savouring it since then, and from my reading I’ve gleaned 5 affirmations for women and men in ministry.
5. Share your story! Although Sue and I have lived and served in different parts of the country, our denomination is small enough that our paths have crossed several times over the years. That made me even more curious to read her memoir and to see how the bits and pieces that I knew of her life fit together. As one of the “pioneer” women in ministry, Sue has encouraged and inspired many others, and I’m so glad she shares her story in this book.
Sharing our stories is something all of us can do–women and men, pioneer or newbie, however we might be seeking or engaged in ministry. It might be in a blog or book, or more personally sitting across the table from someone else. These stories nurture us as we celebrate the blessings and as we lament and learn from our struggles and failures.
4. Community is key. Most of Sue’s chapters are dedicated to someone–for Martha Smith Good (another pioneer in ministry who has also written a memoir, Breaking Ground: One Woman’s Journey into Pastoral Ministry), in memory of Marlin Miller (former seminary president), in memory of Mom, and of Dad and Cousin Richard, the Chestnut Street neighbours, and many others. The poet E.E. Cummings even gets a mention with his poem i thank you God most for this amazing.
In ministry, none of us are “self-made” people–we are part of a wonderful (and yes, sometimes frustrating!) web of relationships. Sue’s book makes me think about my own experience. Who are the people who have helped form me as a ministering person? What writers would I quote as part of my story?
3. Ministry means change–the river flows–and yet ministry also needs to be grounded in listening to the Spirit. I was drawn into the flow of this book which is organized by different themes rather than in chronological order. The river gives shape to the narrative from being “Claimed by the Conestogo” to “Feasting by the River” to “Navigating Churning Waters” to “Paddling Furiously” to “Rowing Against the Current,” and many other themes.
I can identify with each of these movements of ministry. The church and the world are in a time of great change. Sometimes I too find myself navigating churning waters or paddling furiously. Yet in the midst of it all is the sure presence of God’s Spirit, for me and my congregation, for the church and the world.
2. Nuance matters. In the chapter on “Preaching: An Intimate Act,” Sue says that with each sermon, she “endeavoured to go into the pulpit with a more or less complete text, since the nuance of word and phrase matter to me” (136).
As a preacher, I try not to be too tied to my text, but as a writer, I know what Sue means. Nuance in writing matters to me too, and I find that applies as well to preaching, as in pastoral care, working with other people, and the whole range of life and ministry.
1. Ministry is less about running the church and more about tending the soul of a congregation. I appreciate many of Sue’s insights on pastoral ministry as spiritual director and tending the soul of the congregation. I was particularly struck by her account of reading Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor. Sue writes,
I recognized with horror how easily I could be lured into the mind trap of ‘running the church’ as a guiding metaphor for my practice of ministry. . . .
From Peterson I received the first inkling that my ministry could be guided by questions such as: what has God already been doing here? What traces of God’s grace can I see in this person’s life? What has God set in motion that I can get in on or name or encourage? I wondered; if I were to orient my practice of ministry around such questions, how might that change my priorities? How might it modify my need to be busy?
I’m still thinking about these questions for myself. Thank you, Sue, for your example, encouragement, and questions.