Bill Ireland is the pastor of the Norris Religious Fellowship in Norris, Tennessee. He has served churches in Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina. A native of Mississippi, he did his undergraduate work at Mississippi College and completed his MDiv and PhD at Southern Seminary. He has done additional study at Oxford and Georgetown University. He enjoys good books, good movies, and good conversation. His wife, Ginny Bridges Ireland, serves as a hospice chaplain for Covenant Health. They are the proud parents of a daughter, Mary Virginia.
What is your hope for how your new book, Driven, might impact both lay and non-lay readers?
The “dark night of the soul” or the “season of absence” is universal. Everyone goes through some kind of experience where we can’t find our way, or we feel God is nowhere to be found. I started writing in order to help myself sort things out and feel my way toward some sense of perspective. As the project developed, I certainly hoped it would be helpful to ministers who have experienced some of the things I have. Since I was writing about something everyone encounters, I certainly hoped it would be helpful to the lay reader.
What is “the wilderness” and why do we need a “field guide” to get through it?
The wilderness is anything that cuts us off from a sense of meaning or direction. It’s anyplace where we are grappling to find our way out of something hard and difficult. It’s anyplace where our efforts to chart a way forward are thwarted at every turn. It’s anyplace where the usual answers turn out to be flimsy.
A field guide allows to mark where we are and where we hope to go. By highlighting certain themes, I hoped to “mark the trail” and help fellow travelers.
As you mention in the prologue, you don’t structure your journey as chronological. Can you talk a little about the structure of your book? What motivated you to format it the way you did?
As I started the process of writing, I realized that a “this happened and then this happened” wouldn’t be very helpful or engaging. As I reviewed my journal entries, prayers, and notes on Job, I thought a thematic approach would allow me to catalog my wilderness journey from a number of different vantage points. As I mentioned in the book, where we stand affects what we see. So I tried to look at the breadth of my journey from a number of different vantage points. The experience looks different when one is thirsty; it also looks different when we think about how we were sustained and kept alive.
For me, there was such power in reading the numerous journal and prayer entries without having an immediate explanation or lesson. What was the most meaningful or surprising experience of reflecting on your own recorded difficulties and joys? What was it like to express your vulnerability outside of the pulpit?
The thought of writing a book had been in my mind. At the time, however, I didn’t have a clue as to how I might translate the experience to others in a meaningful. At the time I was working through the temptation narratives, and It was only when I gave attention to Mark’s sparse account and his mention of Jesus being “driven” into the wilderness that something clicked. The combination of the words “driven” and “wilderness” grabbed my attention. Call it inspiration or whatever but the moment produced a hastily scribbled (and nearly illegible) outline for what a book might look like (I think I still have that outline somewhere!). So I was surprised by the idea itself and its usefulness as an organizing framework.
Writing has always been therapeutic for me, and I was surprised by helpful it was for me to put this journey down on paper.. As well, I thought that by including representative prayers and entries and being honest about them might help others know that faith is not all one note. There are highs and lows.
As I reflected on my experience and culled my journal for entries and prayers, I frequently thought, “Man, I’m really putting myself out there!” How will this be heard? The last thing I wanted to do was come across as self-pitying or wallowing in it all.
Like most writers I was excited to turn in the final manuscript. Nevertheless, as the date of publication neared, I was scared to death that some might think I had gone too far. I was certainly fearful the book might just fall flat. I dreaded the thought of readers saying, “Here’s where he messed up” or “That was a bad decision.” I’ve second guessed myself enough; I didn’t need anybody telling me what I should have done about this or that.
Do you have any advice to those who struggle to recognize an oasis as they’re in the wilderness? Is this something that can only be seen afterwards? Alternatively, how can we see God’s given respites in the overwhelming darkness of the dense wilderness?
I think the trick for anyone wandering through the wilderness is being alert. Paying attention to what’s going inside us and outside us helps us recognize a particular moment for what it is. I think the primary way to recognize an oasis is take note of the people who care enough to listen, offer encouragement, and stick with us no matter what. I love to laugh, and even in the worst of the journey, I found things to laugh about. That’s a gift that takes us out of ourselves at least for a moment or two.
In terms of recognizing God’s sustaining grace, I think we have the capability to see it as it happens. Some gifts are so timely and helpful, they can only come from God’s hand. Other gifts can only be realized in hindsight. Looking back over our path, we discover how God has been at work. So, it’s a little of both. Some days we wake up and discover we’re in a good place. Other days, we look back and discover God has been at work in ways we never imagined.
How does your writing impact your faith? What does the writing process mean to you?
I started keeping a journal way back in the 1980’s, and the practice has always been therapeutic for me. It forces me to work for clarity, and in many instances helps me put some distance between myself and troubling events or anxious moments. Many entries in my journals are rather mundane—what happened yesterday, what did we do, etc. On the other hand, the journals offer me a catalog of my faith experience. I can reread entries from long ago and discover that what I learned then is helpful now.
Writing, whether for sermons, articles, or books, frequently helps me discover what I’m actually trying to say. As I mentioned above, the exercise is one of working toward clarity. Although it’s hard work, I find it extremely gratifying to communicate clearly and well.
What is the central lesson that you can offer to ministers trying to survive the pain ministry brings?
Ministry is hard and demanding work. Always has been and always will be. And It can also be very, very painful. Thus, the primary lesson is simply finding a way to keep at it when we’re hurt. I wish I could tell everyone how to do that, but I can’t. Still, we have to learn how to be stewards of our suffering and allow it to shape us.
A second lesson. Many churches are extremely anxious these days. As a result, when the church isn’t growing numerically or the budget’s not in good shape, the typical response is to blame the minister. Sometimes things can get so bad that the church wants “to go in another direction.” The most helpful advice I was given as I prepared to walk away was, “This isn’t all your fault.” Own what you can and turn the rest loose.
As an issue you highlight early in Driven, I ask, how do we, as a people of faith, transition ourselves and our churches from searching for solutions to the searching of the soul?
This transition can only happen if a church makes the shift from membership to discipleship. Membership implies privileges; discipleship involves aligning ourselves to the teachings of Jesus.
Having said that, this is probably the toughest part of being a pastor these days. I think this moment requires pastors to refocus on growing people rather than managing the business. Easier said than done! Still, this is where the pastor has to set the example. People pay attention to what we think is important.