Have you ever felt like prayer was unsatisfying? Do you relate to Peter and the disciples falling asleep when Jesus asked them to “Watch and pray” (Matthew 26:36-46). I think all of us, including pastors and other ministry leaders, have felt this. A pastor of a large church confessed that his own prayers had been listless and shared how Dallas Willard helped him to re-engage deeply with God.
On Mother’s Day Kristi and I joined her mother at her church, Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. Mom’s pastor, Rich Kannwischer, told a story about an interaction he had with Dallas Willard that was a real blessing to us since we’ve been grieving Dallas’ death last week. (See my tribute, “Dallas Willard is in Heaven.”)
Dallas Willard’s Doctor of Ministry Class
Rich said that years ago he took Dallas’ two-week Doctor of Ministry class in “Spiritual Formation and Ministry.” I know all about this class because I took it, but at a different time. This Fuller Theological seminary class was not an ordinary class. It was held at the Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, CA because it was designed to be somewhat of a monastic experience for pastors.
For two weeks we practiced a rule of life, together and apart. We gathered each day for six hours to study under Dallas Willard’s teaching, eat meals, and share and pray in spiritual community. In solitude and silence each day we read and memorized Scripture passages, sang Psalms, prayed, and journaled.
To make space for all this learning and experience we fasted from our work, normal responsibilities, Internet, and media. For two weeks we were completely unplugged! Also, at the mid point of the class/retreat we all kept silence for 24-hours, even during meal times. This was to be a time of prayer in which Dallas told us, “Do nothing. Don’t try to make anything happen… Do nothing. Don’t try to make anything happen.”
One of the most important disciplines Dallas assigned to us was to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” (This is one of Dallas’ many famous teachings. See “Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry.”) To help us be unhurried he asked us to sleep for at least ten hours the first two nights and he encouraged us to take a nap each day! “Jesus took naps,” Dallas insisted, suspecting that many of the pastors in the room were workaholics (or ministryaholics).
(Dallas Willard’s class on “Spirituality and Ministry” is the inspiration behind Soul Shepherding’s retreat/class TLC for Pastors and Leaders/Caregivers. TLC is “To Love Christ” and features four retreats, each five days long, over a two year period.)
Dallas Willard’s Spiritual Direction for a Tired, Bored Pastor
In June of 2002 when Rich took this class he was a young pastor in the New York City area and his community was reeling from 9-11. He was tired. In fact, just before he flew out to Southern California to take the class he conducted another funeral for a 9-11 victim whose remains had just been identified.
In Rich’s private spiritual direction session with Dallas he confessed to him that his prayer times felt “dull.”
Dallas replied, “Well, you must not be doing very much with God then.”
“What?” Rich objected. “I’m a pastor!”
“I know what you do,” Dallas offered gently. “But people who work together have a lot to talk about.”
Then Dallas paused. In my own spiritual direction conversations with Dallas over the years I’ve experienced many of these pregnant pauses. In the early years I’d interrupt the silence to say something. Then I learned to linger with Dallas in silent prayer.
Prayer and Intimacy with Jesus
Like many pastors, Rich had assumed that since he was a pastor doing God’s work that God would be automatically involved in the process. With Dallas’ wise spiritual direction he realized that it’s easy for pastors (or any Christ-follower) to put the work of ministry over personal Intimacy with Jesus and thus in their ministry to find themselves relying more on themselves than on the Spirit of Christ. Rich learned the importance of inviting God into whatever he was doing and following the Spirit’s lead.
Prayer, as Dallas Willard has defined it, is relating with God. Simply and profoundly put, Dallas teaches, “Prayer is talking with God about we’re doing together.” (This is what it looks like to, “Pray without ceasing” which Paul instructs us to do in 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
If we’re doing what we’re doing with God and for his glory and if we’re sharing in his concerns for the people around us then we won’t feel like our prayers are dull. Instead, prayer will be rich and stimulating, intimate and adventurous, and we’ll see the hand of God at work all around us and within us. And if our prayer life is lively like that then we’ll spend more than the seven to thirty minutes per day that the average pastor prays! (This is what national surveys have indicated.)
Dallas Willard connected Rich’s devotion to his vocation, his intimacy with Jesus to his ministry leadership. Rich said he learned that the real impact of his ministry and the true measure of his success were not not about his ministry techniques or skills, but the depth of his love for God.
(You can listen to Rich Kannwischer’s 5-12-2013 sermon, “Breakfast Club,” on the media page for Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church.)