(This book is available at http://www.judsonpress.com, where this image was obtained.)
A Book Review of
MIDLIFE, MANHOOD, and MINISTRY
by Donald Hilliard Jr.
As I find myself currently in at least two of these three conditions, this book seemed a natural read. Throughout this review I will frequently cite page numbers within parentheses so as not to inundate the reader with quotations. I hope to give this gentle volume the respect it deserves for addressing a trio of subjects that I do not believe otherwise find much attention in mainstream media.
The thesis of MIDLIFE, MANHOOD, and MINISTRY (or M-3 as I will call it) can be stated as follows; “Midlife is a tough time for most people, made worse by the unique challenges of male ministerial life. It can be weathered by deep conversation, transparency, reinvesting in relationships, and accommodation to changes you can’t avoid anyway.”
The best use of this book is to hear from a kindred spirit. (The portions of the book that dealt with the trigger of his crisis, adult children leaving the “nest,” were especially poignant to me.) Hilliard has done time in midlife. Through his experience and through his quotations from several colleagues, the reader can develop a feeling of community. Which is no small thing. As Hilliard observes, men are usually private and less verbal. Male ministers are usually less public about their personal lives. A third layer of complication applies to Hilliard’s target audience – African-american males – and their usual predisposition against seeking help. Those factors complicate our passage through midlife minefields.
If you’re after something more practical, something resembling a twelve-step program, that sort of thing is absent from M-3. As Hilliard himself observes, “I have just a few answers and a couple of insightful questions,” (63). Listed in order of emphasis (in Hilliard’s case, emphasis is found in the number of repetitions) I offer the “few answers” Hilliard has in his book.
– Get professional help; a therapist is best (5,18, 53, 60, 62, 72, 84-85). “Whether sought from a from a fellow member of the clergy or from a professional therapist, counseling may not be the easiest choice, but it is one of the wisest,” (17).
– Talk it out; be transparent with others (7, 24, 38, 53, 74, 84-85, 90). “Every brother in and of faith needs another to share his pain and hear his story while in the midst of a crisis or in an effort to prevent one,” (14).
– On the one hand, he advised midlifers to take it easy; slow down in accommodation to diminished physical capabilities (18, 19, 50), but he also advises working hard to assure authenticity during midlife (39, 41, 83, 98).
– Mentoring less experienced clergy people can have a positive effect on one’s own process. In this regard, one aspect of African-american church life that is unfamiliar to other ethnic groups is working to decide one’s successor as pastor to the church you serve. Hilliard is especially concerned with “succession plans,” mentioning them often (40, 43, 49, 70, 74, 77, 100).
– Acknowledging that midlife is a crisis of the sudden awareness of the presence of unavoidable change, Hilliard offers the counter-intuitive advice to do something new (56, 75).
Midlife can be made more tolerable if one turns brooding into reflection and regrets into sympathy. Yes, we can learn instead of burn. This is the process King David underwent in his sin with Bathsheba, with his personal reflections preserved in Psalm 51. Hilliard rightly notes David’s adultery as being the archetypical biblical example of midlife mistakes and later, wiser, attempts to redeem the latter portion of life.
Of course, Hilliard references prayer, community, accountability, and Scripture as tools in the midlife survival kit, but his emphasis is not on these things. His plea is to get men to open up and carefully share the journey through midlife, convinced that “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed,” (Proverbs 15:22, NIV).
In terms of complaints, I think some would disagree with his calling Jeremiah Wright “an esteemed theologian,” (29). Hilliard is more concerned with his qualifications and achievements than I think is warranted, especially in a book on this subject (32, 52, 54, 61-63, 73, 96, 100). The chapters are repetitive, as if the volume is a collection of sermons and articles he has authored on this one subject, then stacked together to amass the book’s 101 pages.
If you’re seeking information that is scholarly or practical, these are not the strong suits of Hilliard’s book. If, instead, you’d like to hear and feel how it was for one who has traversed the “no man’s land” of midlife, then you will find M-3 a rewarding experience. Hilliard’s style is easy to read, personal, and spiritual. His candor is refreshing. M-3 finds quicker associations with the heart than the head, and in midlife, that may be exactly what one needs.
Let me leave you with Hilliard’s own words, the sentence which seemed to me to best express his thesis; “For men, and pastors in particular, mastering middle age requires many adaptations and shifts in thought, but it ultimately warrants trying to find a steady state in which to live and work and have authenticity,” (69). Sounds good.