Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy
Paperback: Davies Group, 2016
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Reviewed by Jon Moore.
Reading Chad Abbott’s Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy reminded me of the deep and wondrous gatherings I was privileged to participate in during the time I was involved in campus ministry or attending seminary. Abbott invited a host of friends to each contribute one thematic chapter to Sacred Habits, and reading one voice after another, shifting from one topic to another, took me right back to those old Spirit-infused encounters with groups of old and new friends always ready to take even a casual conversation to deep and important places.
I am somewhat sad “writing a book review” wasn’t included in the list of Sacred Habits, but thankfully I can still be “a clergy rising from the ashes” (the title of Rev. Abbot’s concluding chapter).
According to Chad Abbott’s introduction, Sacred Habits “focuses upon dreaming of an emerging future for the church, one that embraces creativity and experimentation in the pastorate… this book sets hope upon clergy who form habits in their work… to open doors to new ministries, in a time when the Church so desperately needs transformed leadership.”
Sacred Habits responds to two major contributions in the way people are thinking and writing about the contemporary American Church. The first is the omnipresent awareness of the crisis in American Christianity. The second, which figures prominently in the sub-title of Sacred Habit, is Richard Florida’s landmark 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Both the American Church Crisis and Florida’s work have plenty of responses from Christian authors, but Abbott’s anthology-based Sacred Habits offers new voices, new emphases, and “creative habits” ranging from the familiar to the novel.
The chapters of Sacred Habits are arranged in an arc of 4 movements: habits of the parish, habits of community, habits of spiritual discipline, and habits of self care. I found that, even though I am a pastor, I did not connect well to the first section, “habits of the parish,” and it took me until the second part – with its focus on community – to feel connected to the book. This could be unique to me, or it could be caused by the anthological nature of the work, but I would encourage readers who likewise feel disconnected at first to continue reading. Sacred Habits gains power as the chapters accumulate.
The diversity of voices in a book like Sacred Habits is both a strength and a weakness. The reader benefits from the varying perspectives, voices, and spiritual experiences, but some hoped-for themes don’t materialize with the depth of engagement possible for an individual writer. In addition, the contributors are all mainline/progressive, which is Abbott’s choice, but with a stated focus on embracing creativity and experimentation in the church’s emerging future, the book may have been strengthened by a guest list that included greater diversity in theological perspective.
Don’t read too much into that criticism; Sacred Habits stands strong as it is. Let’s turn to the chapters I consider to be the highlights.
Rev. Michael Mather’s contribution, “The Church WITH Christ: The Practice of Building Community, Economy, and Mutual Delight (Chapter 7),” begins the second part, Habits of Community. This is the chapter that finally engaged me fully in reading Sacred Habits. In it, Mather tells the story of his pastorates (yes, pastorates) at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, and their journey together towards eliminating a flagship ministry because, despite big numbers, it wasn’t actually achieving the transformation of community the Gospel makes possible. Mather encourages – or better, demands through his storytelling and scripture engagement – us to become “willing to let go of programs, especially programs aimed to deal with poverty, and to form habits that will begin a new way of acting as the Church.”
Mather was followed by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood, and her invitation to be “Doing Nothing Together.” I was personally challenged by her naming of a couple temptations that I deal with, as do many clergy. First is the temptation to always be “doing more,” which is far from a sacred habit, and the second temptation is to bless our objectification of others under the banner of today’s necessity for “networking.” By the time I finished Wood’s chapter, Sacred Habits had earned my prayerful attention.
In the interest of space and time, I will briefly collect several other stand-out contributors around two pillars that emerged for me through the reading of their work: those whose “Habits” are worth thinking deeply about, and those whose “Habits” are worth putting into practice.
A number of contributors raise Sacred Habits that clergy today should think seriously about: Dr. Andrew Hart’s chapter on “Trauma” beckons us to bring about a better encounter between the Church and those in the wider community who are dealing with the effects of trauma, such as PTSD or childhood trauma. Rev. Elizabeth Dilley’s chapter on “Social Media” challenges us to consider the possibility of real presence, in real community, in what we typically call virtual reality. Rev. Callie J. Smith and Dr. Robert Saler invite the reader to consider the importance and practicalities of the “Sabbatical.” Finally, Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi brings great insights from meditation in an ADHD world in a chapter on “Mind Fullness.”
Several chapters pose Sacred Habits I would encourage others to read about and consider putting into practice: Rev. Zayna Hart Thompson models the practice and impact of clergy “Public Office Hours.” Separate contributions by Dr. Rick McPeak and Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher invite us to form new prayer practices around Sacred Habits like painting and running. Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear’s input I have already put into practice when it comes to “Pastoring and Parenting.”
Two final Sacred Habits should be absolutely essential for all clergy to practice: “Spiritual Direction as Clergy Self Care” by Rev. Teresa Blythe and “The Heart of Silence” by Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund.
In Chad Abbott’s closing words, he invites all of us who are passionate about the Church to creative experimentation with a focus on possibility and potentiality. Sacred Habits is a worthy resource for those desiring to engage in such hopeful creativity.
Rev. Jon Moore, is Senior Pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in El Paso, Texas. You can find him online at contemplativedirection.weebly.com