It was the title that piqued my interest. For me and for many people I talk with this is a primary question; at times consciously so and at other times less so. The book is an easy read, simple and direct and clearly written from the point of view of someone who as a member of the faculty of Harvard has done well, had plenty of opportunity, and someone I would label as privileged. He writes on the theme of unhappiness—that each year as colleagues gather for reunions—his classmates, former students, many if not most despite professional accomplishments “were clearly unhappy.” Perhaps as pastors, as you read this you think—well, duh—that is what pastors know all too well—people are unhappy. And then perhaps you are thinking: it is not about happiness, it is about something deeper, richer. I have wondered if this is a narrative mirrored through the ages and certainly found in the biblical record numerous times. Certainly, it is and it comes at different moments: young, mid-life and beyond.
I know unhappy pastors; I know happy pastors. I know pastors who have made very poor decisions, who lack self-awareness and emotional and spiritual maturity. And I know those who have made decisions which lead to a deep and ongoing self-awareness, a disciplined life centered in the courage to remain listeners, practitioners of habits leading to emotional and physical wellbeing and gives shape to the spiritual life. Who have come to realize that the question: how will you measure your life is a constant. This is really the heart of the issue for me.
What intrigued me in this book is the simplicity of the questions, which the author Clay Christensen says most of his colleagues “never asked, or had asked but lost track of what they learned.” The questions begin with this phrase “how can I be sure that” and continue: how can I be sure that I will be successful and happy in my career; my relationship with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness, and I live a life of integrity—and stay out of jail? The introductory phrase and the last point really grabbed me. How to be sure—is a primary driver of our beliefs. How to be sure—is what humans long to know and feel. It is what the gospel of Jesus Christ comes up against again and again in my view. Some guarantee of certainty, but if this becomes our primary way of defining faith then we are in trouble. Faith is a guarantee of what? And this question is the heart and soul of pastoral ministry, the defining center. We may each of us answer the question using different words, or place emphasis on particular themes. Nonetheless, at the core is the fundamental and most interesting and for me exhilarating question: faith is the guarantee of what?
The Pew study on the state of religion in the US has evoked much comment. Having read the entire report, my conclusion is it is not that people are not interested in faith and belief and a center for their lives—it is that what is organized as providing that—is not doing so in the way that connects to the reality of the everyday life of a growing number of folk. What informs faith becomes the question for me? This is why I believe doing a practical degree on the order of a DMin is a good decision. One is able to step back and examine assumptions—to return to the simple questions. And that takes courage. And it leads to transformation and renewal (which I might add is the starting point of faith for each of us again and again and again).