It’s the end of summer. Vacation is over. It’s time to get back to the business of being the church. Odds are you’re holding leadership meetings and addressing various issues in your local church. Odds are worship attendance has felt the summer slump. Odds are you’re behind on your budget and seeing a lot of red in the financial reports. It’s time to rally the troops and make that end-of-the-year push that we all know must happen every September if we’re to continue surviving.
Have you ever wondered if things could be different?
One of the biggest lessons I’m continuing to learn as I grow into my first senior pastor position is that we must do more than just show up on Sundays. The status quo can’t keep churches going. Folks are tired of doing all the work it takes to go through the motions of simply existing as the church. The church, in our decline, is being faced with the reality that people need a compelling reason to join a faith community. It’s no longer the cultural norm. And that might just be the very best news we could hear.
I recently read an article that said reporting average attendance numbers really doesn’t tell the story of congregational health that it once did. The reason for this is that the definition of “active member” has shifted over the last generation or so. It used to be that you were considered active if you attended worship services three or four Sundays a month and rarely missed an opportunity to get inside the doors of the church. Now, if you’re present once a month you’re considered active.
We can mourn this shifting reality. We can pine for the “good old days.” Or we can see this as an opportunity to ask ourselves big questions. We, as local churches, can dare to risk being self-critical and even entertain the notion of changing in light of the changing landscape of church involvement. The problems aren’t always the fault of others or “those people” or the culture – sometimes the problem can be us.
Instead of working so hard to keep up buildings and expecting people to come to us (and then mourning when they don’t), maybe we should think about more ways we can get out of our buildings and go out into our neighborhoods, meeting and engaging others. Instead of watching people age and move out of our neighborhoods and then complaining that the church has lost its relevancy, maybe we should consider ways to change in order to better adapt to a changing neighborhood or community around us. Instead of focusing on ourselves, our needs, our frustrations, our children, our budget woes, and our needs, maybe we should turn our vision outward to discover what God is up to outside of the walls of our buildings. It’s ironic that we sing, “The church is not building…the church is a people,” and yet local congregations disband and close every year when they reach a place where they can no longer financially support a building.
As painful as it is to admit, the future of the church will be less about buildings and more about relationships; less about meeting budgets and more about giving of ourselves in ministry to the world. And on our most faithful days, it will be less about us and more about how we can better fall in love with God and our neighbors.
[This column was originally published in the 9/1/14 edition of The South Georgia Advocate]
I’m now a little more than 3 weeks into my new appointment and my first solo pastor gig. It’s been a whirlwind of paperwork, sermon preparation, meeting people, and trying to remember what day it is. It’s funny when people ask how things are going, all I can say is that it’s the most fun and exhausting thing I’ve ever done on a daily basis.
It’s also funny how priorities or things I give attention to have shifted dramatically.
It seems the more I am immersed into solo pastor work, the less I care about the politics, debate, and strife at the general church level.
I have to confess that in a former life, I was a political science major and a political junkie. It seemed that following General Conference and the political back and forth of the general church fit right into my political passions. And these last 4-6 weeks or so have been especially interesting as there seems to be a new blog post or wrinkle in the United Methodist Church’s debate over human sexuality. Blog posts are exchanged. Clergy are being defrocked and then reinstated after appeal. Caucus groups are getting louder and louder (and taking in more and more money in support).
But for some reason I’ve found myself reading fewer and fewer of the blogs, writing even less about it, and feeling exhausted about even the idea of engaging in another back and forth when no one will ever have their mind changed. Now before you think I’m being a little self-righteous, let me confess that I have read a few posts and I have engaged in a few discussions — but my concern is more for the unity of the church and less for waging war on someone who doesn’t agree with me. Frankly I’m even finding the whole unity/schism discussion to be another dead-end because most of us have our minds made up as to what we think.
I consider one of the biggest signs of grace in my new pastoral appointment to be this: Every day I find that I care more and more about what’s happening in my local church and in our neighborhood and how lives can be changed. And I care less and less about the politics of General Conference or even squabbles in my annual conference.
You see I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that people’s lives are not changed at general conference. And annual conference or district meetings can’t make disciples. The local church is where the average person comes to hear God’s word proclaimed and to discover how that word can breath new life into their everyday life. You can’t legislate that. You can’t structure it across a district or annual conference. It happens as an act of grace; a gift of the Holy Spirit. And it happens at the most local and simple level of gathering for worship, sharing in study, and giving of ourselves in service through the life of the local church.
Look, the truth is I’ll follow the work of General Conference next year. And I’ll support our annual conference and probably serve where I can make a difference. But I thank God for the ongoing revelation that those places are not where lives are changed and the gospel is lived out in its purest and most faithful beauty. I needn’t go any further than my front yard (which connects to our church yard) to find that beauty. It’s happening in my neighborhood and community. And my best energy, I’m finding, is to find how our little church can join in and share in such beauty.
I have a good friend who challenged me to dig deeper when I approached the project of documenting and analyzing the process of moving. Beyond the details, notebooks, moving logistics, studying of church budgets and leadership lists, etc. there is a deeper place pastors must travel to if they are truly to be effective and faithful in a new appointment.
So I took my friend’s advice and have tried to be mindful of this deeper place throughout the process of moving. Below are a few thoughts, lessons if you will, I am learning in this deeper place.
1. Redefining friendships is both a beautiful and a painful process.
I’ve likened the last couple of months before a move to an encore at a concert or a last lap around the track after a big race. There’s very little you can do to change the results of your time of ministry. It’s a short season of letting people love you and trying to be mindful about telling others you love them and enjoying some final moments together. I’ve come to realize how much as pastors we’re programmed to love others but deflect their love in return. It’s as though we’re uncomfortable being praised or told how much we might mean to another person. The truth is, we actually love it but we hate the fact that we love it so much. I think pastors are prime candidates to suffer from this sort of false humility. This time of transition requires a grace from pastors to accept and embrace the beauty of another person’s love. We take it for what it is — a gift. And we humbly say the only holy words in response proper for such a gift — Thank you.
2. Moving to a new place is downright scary.
I think pastors are pretty good at putting on a brave face about the idea of moving to a new place. And maybe those who have done it three or four times are actually pretty good at it. But this is the first time we’re moving with a child. And it’s scary. Will your child make friends? Will they excel in a new environment? Heck, will you make friends and excel in a new environment? These are all questions that nag you during the busyness of moving.
You worry for your family. As pastors we can busy ourselves with church work. But your family tends to find themselves in the background to fend for themselves. One wise friend reminded me that moving is tough because it takes time to make true friends. Plenty of people will talk to you. But that’s a far cry from finding a friend to go walking with and bear your soul in conversation. And I worry about my wife and daughter in this uprooting process as they make new friends.
3. The transition from the role of associate to lead pastor is both daunting and exhilarating.
It’s been hard to talk about why I wanted to make this transition in the first place. I’m serving a wonderful church in a great location. I’ve really clicked with the community and our ministry together has been very effective. My family loves the community and the church and my wife loves her job. It’s easy to question why I would want to make this move in the first place — I questioned it for the better part of a year. The best way I know how to describe my desire to move is to say that in my gut I just know I’m ready for the responsibility of being the lead pastor of a church. And as the move gets closer, I’m growing more and more excited about what lies ahead.
But it’s also daunting to think about.
Preaching every single Sunday sounds fun, but I know it’s a monster of a task if I want to be good at it. Being the final decision in some instances sounds exciting, but I know that comes with a burden to bear. It’s strange to be both exciting and scared all at once about what lies ahead.
I’ve found some pastors seem to relish the role of jokingly reminding “young bucks” that they’ll take some licks along the way and not to be too cute as they make this big transition. It’s sort of like people joking with newlyweds about how awful being married is — it often reveals more about the person giving the advice than the one receiving it. These jokes are a bit of a rite of passage for associates — just grin and laugh.
On the other hand, I’m deeply grateful for my conversations with wise and seasoned pastors who don’t see the need to puff themselves up as superior to a younger pastor. These are the sort of wise people I want to be like one day. And it’s no shock that these are also the pastors I know who have had the most fruitful ministries wherever they serve. I’ve learned from their example that wisdom is best expressed in love and support, not in condescension and sarcasm.
As I write this, I’m about 12 days away from my anticipation becoming a reality. I’m grateful to God for showing me people filled with wisdom. I’m grateful for the time I’ve been graced to have to reflect during this transition. And I’m especially grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and will continue to learn as I grow into this new season of life in service to the Church and in love with my family.
What about you? What are the deep lessons you’ve learned or are learning in transition to a new ministry appointment?
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
I don’t really know who first said those words. It’s been used by many speakers and writers and thinkers over the years to instill a sense of urgency and passion in others. However no one can seem to pinpoint the true origin of the quote. Yet it doesn’t deter people from using this quip whenever it’s necessary to emphasize the importance of a point or, better yet, when you want to plant your flag on a proverbial hill and fight anyone who would challenge your stance. After all, it seems being a jerk is okay so long as you’re “standing for something” in the process.
I count myself among the throng of people thrilled to see The Tonight Show be turned over to Jimmy Fallon. I’m not a Jay Leno hater. I just never connected with him. But Jimmy Fallon has brilliantly endeared himself to me as a child of the 90s with his clever references to pop culture, music, etc. of the last 20 years. He speaks my language. More than that, Jimmy Fallon’s style of hosting The Tonight Show as a sketch comedy, candid moments with stars, fan-centered, hilarious hour of television has done something more profound than just entertain me. It has inspired me.
You see, I’ve always been a diehard fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I DVR it and will often binge a week of episodes on a Saturday morning. Stewart is brilliant. And I love the way he uses sarcasm to speak truth to power. But here’s the thing: the longer I watched his show and other news-oriented shows on cable, etc. I found myself growing more and more cynical. After about two weeks of getting into Jimmy Fallon’s tenure on The Tonight Show, I realized that I was hooked not because his show was just entertaining, but because that entertainment comes from a place of pure joy and spontaneity. Whether he’s trying to keep a string of one-liners going with Higgins no matter how zany and funny it becomes; whether he’s putting an A-list star in the most awkward and silly position playing a game; or whether it’s getting a musical star to do a duet with him using real or even kid instruments Jimmy Fallon knows how to create something special and joyful. And quite often it’s beautiful.
So what does this have to do with The United Methodist Church and how we take our stands?
Well for starters, what if instead of picking teams, dividing camps, and throwing salvos across the bow at one another, we took a stronger stand for joy? What if instead of constantly instilling a sense of bitterness and cynicism in one another and feeding off of it, we tried to find space to laugh or be silly or even love?
I think a couple of things could happen.
First, to share joy means we have to put our opinions and judgments on hold long enough to actually get to know someone beyond just what we know about their opinions. This is not easy, but it’s certainly rewarding. One of my favorite people to visit with at annual conference and clergy events every year is an older clergy colleague who, if you lined up 10 issues, probably would disagree with me on 9 out of 10. But a couple of years ago he sought me out at a meeting, shared his heart, acknowledged our points of disagreement and we’ve been friends ever since. He showed me that it’s possible to love another person even if you don’t agree with them. And I’m grateful to him.
Secondly, sharing joy means we might shift the language of our denomination. Instead of sky is falling, schism-shaped language, we could begin to use language based on love, joy, and peace. Instead of hunting heresy we might discover Holy Spirit moments where we find ourselves surprised by the joy we can find when we let down our guard a little and truly share with another person. We might begin speaking a language of hope to a cynical world that longs for something to hope in — and maybe that even means turning Twitter off that forum tempts us to break the first two General Rules: Do No Harm and Do Good.
I know late-night TV is probably a silly metaphor for how we should live together. But it’s the best I can come up with right now. You see, I find myself longing for hope and joy because ministry is hard and loving others (and especially those I disagree with) can be even harder.
I’m weary on days like today when all of the press in the church seems to be about splitting the denomination, being angry with each other, and drawing lines in the sand. I’m weary when caucus groups seem to have a bigger and louder voice for the church even when they have no place whatsoever speaking on behalf of the church. I’m just weary as we get closer to annual conference and kick off yet another season of politicing and sound-byting one another to death. I’m just weary.
Jesus didn’t make his kind of sacrificial love optional — even when it means my stances and opinions are the burnt sacrifice on the altar. So my daily prayer is for us to lay down our swords, jump the fence surrounding our camps, and meet on common ground. And maybe for once we could not talk with our checklist of heresies of things that offend us in our front pocket ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. Maybe we can laugh a little, cry a little, share, serve, and even learn from one another. Maybe we can discover joy together and with God. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to discover through our common life and service what it truly means to be Church.
In June I will be moving for the first time and assuming an array of new duties as I transition from being an associate pastor to a lead pastor. So in lieu of this transition, I’ve decided to focus a project I have for a young clergy leadership group on the topic of moving well. I’m calling the next few blog posts In Transition and I will focus on a few things I’m working through as I transition between churches in a few weeks. My hope is to not only grow personally and vocationally as I move, but I hope this series will help generate discussion for others who might also be moving.
What Do I Do About My Facebook Friends When I Leave for a New Appointment?
We live in an Internet-driven age. There’s no denying it. And since we can’t wish ourselves back to simpler times when Methodist pastors could pack up all of their belongings in a station wagon to move, we have to deal with the complexities of itinerant ministry that now extend not only to challenges of family and spouses who work, but also to lives we live online through social media.
Before I begin, I want to point you to a couple of excellent posts by my friend, Rev. Jeremy Smith. Jeremy is a tech nerd in the very best sense of the phrase. He offers some great technical advice on how to go about making changes to your Facebook account as you move from one church to another. This most recent post is an update from previous posts where he addressed the issue. Read Jeremy’s work for details on healthy choices you can make to smoothly transition between churches via social media.
Instead of getting into the technical details, I want to offer you my personal philosophy and the reasoning behind it. You might not agree with me and that’s fine. But this is my philosophy and maybe it will help you better solidify your own as you move now to sometime in the future.
Keep Your Friends While Keeping a Healthy Distance
There are some pastors, DSs, or bishops who would argue that when you leave a church, you need to truly leave it. And that means un-friending people in the process. I’ve known many Methodist pastors who have used this philosophy to set up boundaries from day 1 in a new appointment. When you know you’ll leave one day, why bother becoming friends with people? After all, you’re their pastor and not their friend. It’s about the office of pastor, right? Well yes and no.
One of the primary roles of pastors is to establish relationships with people. Yes, we’re there to be your pastor. But there’s nothing wrong with also being a friend. Personally I find it incredibly unhealthy for pastors to keep a distance between themselves and parishioners in the name of respecting an office. As leaders we need to develop the self-awareness to know where the office ends and where we as people begin. Too many of us see ourselves as pastors only and we forget how to take off the mask and just be ourselves. As a result, we isolate ourselves (and maybe even our families) in a lonely life where we are void of many meaningful relationships. You can, in fact, be friends with church members. You will not break the church or the office of pastor if you become friends with people — so long as you develop the maturity to know certain boundaries and can become aware of how to be sensitive in the gray areas where life and ministry get messy.
A friend recently pointed me to the book Networked where the authors note that a major misconception people have about social media is that we see it as a tool when it’s really a place. It’s a place where people go to see others and to share their lives (even though it’s most often the best projection of their life). To say that a pastor should just unfriend people from their previous appointment is just nonsense. If I’m in a restaurant and I run into a former church member, am I going to turn and run away as though I don’t know that person? Of course not. I’ll stop, say hello, and maybe ask them about their family. I will not, however, ask them about my former church and how the new pastor is doing there. That’s none of my business because I’m gone when it comes to the ministry of that church. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to care about how people are doing, how their families are growing and succeeding, or how they’re struggling at any given moment. It simply means that I need to exercise the self-control to not be their pastor once I’ve moved — and that is a gray area for many of us.
My Facebook Policy
So what exactly will change about my relationships with people on Facebook? Here are two ways I plan to change my social media relationship with Mulberry members as of June 11 when I become the pastor of Aldersagate UMC in Savannah:
In addition to this, I will offer my page for my blog as a great spot to keep up with my writing. I use this page to promote articles and columns I write and I encourage people to engage with it.
Ministry is messy business. It’s complicated because pastors do not just offer religious or goods, we share life with people. And that’s beautiful. But this also makes moving from one church to another a bit complicated. Upcoming posts will try to deal with other issues of leadership in transition.
So what do you find as good practices for social media when you move from one church to another? How do you avoid unhealthy practices while keeping the integrity of a pastoral ministry that fully invests in loving people?
18 months ago, I wrote this article with Jeremy Smith on why we believe The United Methodist Church should not split over the issue of human sexuality. In recent weeks I’ve been reminded that some things never change (or at least take a long time to change) because it seems article after article is being written on why, for some ungodly reason, it makes sense for those of us in The United Methodist Church to pack up our toys, go our separate ways, and play only in the camps where we feel comfortable and everyone agrees with us.
In reading these articles and listening to the recent commentary on this issue and where the Church should go from here, I’m still moved by one of our opening sentences from 18 months ago:
“And we both want a better UMC for our daughters than the one we inherited.”
As young clergy who will have 40 years of ordained ministry ahead of us (although the rising retirement age may be at 86 years old by the time we get there!), we do not find a valid reason for schism. We both hold that the church should resist this and redouble efforts to find unity in diversity.
Most writings on the subject of separation seem to model the church as a funnel, whereby all resources and formation go toward a common mission. Anything that distracts from that mission is dangerous, and thus the talk of schism is attractive and every conflict becomes an opportunity to dream of escape while the idea of covenant becomes an expendable virtue.
So where do we stand on this debate in the United Methodist Church? It seems progressives who want to split forget that the church they leave will continue to have gay children. And it seems traditionalists (not “orthodox” as some claim because orthodoxy is defined by creedal beliefs and NOT social stances) who want separation naively think separation will finally rid the church of the homosexual debate, as though gay persons will no longer inhabit our spaces of worship, formation and service.
Clearly, schism will not end the conversation before us.
If conflict ultimately destroys any hopes of a homogeneous church, what’s a more faithful model? I see the Eucharist as the sacramental and formative model for how we are to be the Church. In the Eucharist, as the worldwide church gathers around the table, unity in diversity is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is why we can say with confidence and hope that the church’s unity is grounded in a reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The Church as Eucharist is a guiding model for our inclusiveness and for a demanding call for transformation—it’s what unifies us all as sinners in the need of God’s redeeming grace. The Church as Eucharist means we are continually called out of and sent back into the world as redeemed people.
Stanley Hauerwas writes:
“The church, therefore, has rightly thought confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. How could we dare come to the feast of reconciliation not in unity with our brothers and sisters? The name given to that unity is ‘love.’ The gifts of bread and wine must be brought by those at peace with God and one another. If we are unreconciled, we best not receive; we dare not dishonor the holiness of the gifts of God.”
By having the Eucharist as the central metaphor for the church, it serves as the corrective for both sides on this debate. It means we’re both radically inclusive and that we put the Body of Christ ahead of any individual, caucus or political camp. And it means that through our worship, our service, our lives, and yes, even through our conferencing together, unity is at the heart of it all. We may worship in diverse ways across our connection, and there may come a point where our polity is diverse as well (as it currently is in our worldwide church), and such diversity is not disconcerting in a Church with the Eucharist as its guide.
Quite simply, by seeing the church as the Eucharist, we become the means of grace to a broken world. In a world of polarizing politics, widening chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots,” demonization of the “other side,” what better means of grace could the Church offer than how to hold together unity in diversity, to welcome the varieties of the United Methodist experience around the Communion Table?
Through our liturgy, every time we gather around the Table we declare that we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Are we serious about this longing for oneness, or do we simply give lip service to the idea of unity? If we’re serious, then members of both the progressive and traditionalist camps will have to come out of their respective camps and join together—maybe at the Communion Table—and decide whether our identity as the people called Methodist is more important than any issue that could divide us. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said being the church was supposed to be easy.
And this unity is grounded in holiness marked by our common love for God and one another — something sadly lacking in the way(s) we talk and write about those we disagree with.
I was encouraged by a Facebook post Rev. Adam Hamilton wrote last week talking about a meeting he had with someone he disagreed with but who shared a common interest in trying to love and listen to him:
“I flew to Memphis on Thursday to spend time with Maxie Dunnam, an elder statesmen in the UMC and its most influential conservative. I love, value and respect Maxie. He’s done a great deal in his lifetime of ministry to help people know Christ, to grow in their faith, and to prepare leaders for the church. We don’t agree on everything, though we agree on far more than we disagree on. We both love Christ, we are passionate about evangelism and church renewal, and we care deeply about the United Methodist Church.
Over Memphis barbecue, long walks, and glasses of iced tea we discussed what we share in common, our hopes for the church, our differences and if there is a way forward for the UMC that avoids dividing over the issue of homosexuality. I’m not sure that is possible, but I hope and believe it is. It won’t come from name calling and demonizing those with whom we disagree. If there is a way forward, I believe it will come out of conversations like these that begin with mutual respect and a focus not only on our differences, but on what we share in common. I also believe it will only happen with the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us.”
We want our generation to be the last that has been broken by the homosexuality debate. And we know more conversations like this need to happen. You can’t rush unity, but you sure can take the baby steps necessary to attain it — especially when those baby steps mean checking your own self-interests at the door in the process.
Jeremy and I don’t know our daughters’ sexual orientations yet, and we want a church committed to relentlessly loving them regardless. They both have, however, been baptized which means they will be named “Christian” by less than perfect churches who are a part of a less than perfect connection of churches. So our greatest hope and most fervent prayer is that it’s a connection that will seek unity—not because it’s expedient but because it’s difficult and ultimately faithful.
We want more for our daughters. We want more for your sons and daughters. And we still hold out hope that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.
We believe that the United Methodist Church, united in common mission, but not uniform in its expression of that mission, will serve a polarized world better than two Wesleyan traditions who took their toys and bitterly retreated to their respective camps.