I’ve been a little quiet lately due to the fact that we had our annual conference and my family has been hard at work packing our house, saying our goodbyes, enjoying a final Sunday in one place, actually moving to a new city, unpacking, and enjoying a first Sunday in a new place. The last 3 weeks or so have been a whirlwind to say the least.
Now that I’m a full week into my new position, I thought it was time to share some of my initial reactions to the monumental culture shift that is moving from an associate pastor position to a senior pastor position.
In other words, this goes out to all of you fellow former associates who, like me, now find yourselves buried under a mountain of work ranging from renewing church insurance policies, to preaching plans that come every week now, to requests for handouts, to pastoral care calls that you can no longer share with other clergy on staff.
1. It’s pretty scary to realize you’re now the senior pastor and the final word on many decisions.
My first official day in the office began with a 20-minute meeting with the secretary who ran down a list of forms to sign, decisions that have waited to be made, and plans that need to be finalized. About halfway through the meeting, I looked behind me hoping a senior pastor would walk in to do the heavy lifting of this hodgepodge of “things we need to go over.” Alas, they didn’t come. As one friend reminded me, there should have been a mirror on that door. It was a scary and humbling thing to realize in real-time that you now have the duty to exercise leadership skills your previous position didn’t offer.
2. All of the problems now come solely to you.
One of the things I sort of enjoyed about being an associate was that I was largely sheltered from the muck and mire of church problems. I could do ministry, share with others joyfully, be celebrated for my contribution, and not have to worry about the downside of ministry — real people with real problems and squabbles. Things have now changed. Yet I’m also hopeful there is a big upside to this change. Can you truly celebrate with others if you can’t also mourn or gripe or listen or help to resolve conflicts? Sharing life with others in ministry means experiencing everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. So I’m hopeful there will be a big upside (and I’m grateful no major squabbles have arose…yet).
3. Preaching comes every 7 days…seriously!
I love to preach. I love the creative act of preparing for a sermon. I’m a big reader and surveyor of pretty much anything and everything around me. I’m always fascinated with the plethora of ways God’s presence and grace is among us — in both big loud ways and small seemingly quiet ways. But I’m also transitioning from the sort of associate pastor role where I preached 4-5 times a year. Now (I’ve been told) I will preach every week. And as much as I enjoy the preaching task, I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated by this responsibility. For me, this means I will need to be even more focused on my own spiritual growth and daily life. I will need to be more and more aware of the needs of others and the ways God is moving among us. I don’t agree with the old adage that preachers need to separate “preaching material” from “personal material” (as though that were even possible). It’s not that we look for a sermon everywhere. However I do think preachers need to be aware of the ways God is speaking and moving in the things we read, the places we go, the people we meet, and the life that happens all around us. Sermon material will come as a gift of grace. But I truly believe this comes only because it was first a gift to the life of the preacher.
4. The laity can teach us a lot!
I’m reminded that Bishop Ken Carter told us this during his sermon at our ordination service in South Georgia. And now that I’m living into this new role, I can testify that it is very true. It is daunting to think we’re all alone in ministry or that everything depends on what we do or say. Leadership is key, but that leadership comes from the very life shared among those you are leading (thanks be the God!). When I’m extra worried about how I’m going to do something or change something or carry something out, I’m delighted to know there are so many lay people in my new church who have strong and vital faith lives. They live what they believe daily. They’re already teaching me how to love and nurture others. And they’re already teaching me ways to serve and give myself for the sake of someone else. Ministry doesn’t solely depend on the pastor!
5. Prayer and study matter..a lot.
This sort of goes with #3 but I wanted to offer it in a different light. I’m a fairly capable person with a lot of energy. I can be easily fooled into thinking everything I can accomplish anything and everything on my own. This transition has taught be there is no possible way I can do everything that needs to be done by my own merits or strengths. I must find time for study and prayer because I need the constant reminder that I’m solely dependent on God’s grace. Pastors need the reminder that we must depend on God for everything. I keep books on my desk to inspire me — the bible, Thomas Merton, a devotional book. I’ve already found that I need to ground myself both in scripture and in the pursuit of the inner life (through prayer). You can’t do one without the other and be an effective leader in the church. Scripture reminds me of the values and patterns of how we are to live as the church. But the life of prayer and solitude guide us to listen and find where the Holy Spirit is at work around us. Prayer and solitude alone can become a self-serving task. And reading the bible only can lead us to agree with points and principles yet we’re void of how to explore, question, and discover where God is and what God is doing among us. We need both and we need to make exploring both a daily task.
I’ll stop for now but there will be more later. I’ve got my door open and there are things to tend to on the other side. But maybe I’ll begin by closing my computer and diving into one of the trusty books on the other side of my desk. The journey of a thousand miles begins with baby steps (wisdom I now know to be very true!).
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.
Dear Michael –
You don’t know me, but I’ve watched you play football for the last two seasons after Missouri joined the SEC. I haven’t pulled for you because you’ve been playing against my beloved Georgia Bulldogs (okay, I kind of pulled for you guys when you landed 3 sacks against the Florida Gators last season…). And odds are I will have a hard time now pulling for the St. Louis Rams since you will compete in the NFC against my also beloved Atlanta Falcons.
But make no mistake while I might not be able to pull for your team, I will certainly be pulling for you.
Many wondered whether or not you would be drafted this year. Some said your pro day wasn’t the best and some teams had doubts about your abilities. The more honest among us, however, noted that your pro day plus coming out as a homosexual man after the season didn’t exactly help your draft stock. Whatever the reason, you seemingly defied the odds this evening by being drafted as the 252nd player in the 2014 NFL Draft. And you’ll be joining a talented and young Rams team that looks like it’s pretty stout on both offense and defense — one more team to worry about for my Falcons.
I don’t know why, but it struck me this evening how big this thing is — you being drafted and all. I was watching the draft coverage at a local bar and grill to see your selection by the Rams. I watched as the cameras showed a look-in to the home where you gathered with family and friends. And I was watching as they showed your reaction to receiving the phone call from the Rams — your grateful tears told the entire story we needed to know. I was even watching as you fell into your partner’s arms (who was also crying tears of gratitude) as you shared together what will surely be one of those “watershed” moments of life. I guess it really hit me when the camera also showed the two of you sharing a kiss and an embrace as you were swept up in the emotion and joy of the moment. Maybe it hit me when an entire table in the restaurant I was eating in gave an audible reaction to that kiss that it hit me how big this moment was not only for you, but for so many others.
Just to tell you a little about myself. I’m a pastor in The United Methodist Church. And we spend a great deal of time struggling with what to say and think about the issue of homosexuality. And the truth is, we often spend more time talking about the issue than we do getting to know the people who are behind that issue. We have a hard time asking those who are different from us about their hopes and dreams. We struggle with the complexities of life and faith and how the two intermingle. Sometimes we do get it right. But too often we do not and end up hurting people in the process of our debating and deliberating.
But this evening I didn’t see an “issue” on TV at all. I saw a really talented football player fulfill his life-long dream of playing football professionally. I saw a team amp up an already young and talented defense. And I saw the raw emotion and beauty of a man surrounded by those who love him most in life get the news of a lifetime.
I could say that I’m supporting you because you’ll need it. Articles like this one where lobbyist groups want to boycott games and hurt whatever team drafts you tells me you’ll need some support as you face the days ahead. But the truth is, I’m supporting you because you’re already displaying the kind of courage, poise, and humility I long to display in my own life — and I’ve never faced the kind of adversity you’re facing.
So as a football fan, thank you. Your talents will only deepen an already solid Rams team and I look forward to pulling against you when you play my Falcons. And as a person and especially as one who claims to be a Christian, thank you. Your courage and strength under fire is nothing short than amazing. May we all grow and learn from your example both today and in the days ahead. God speed and Go Falcons!
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.
However this is also the time of year when Conference Boards of Ministry all over our connection are meeting to evaluate candidates in the ordination process. And all of this talk about spring and new life and hope doesn’t carry much weight if you’ve just received the hard news that you have been deferred in the ordination process.
For some, these first days of spring are tough because you’re now learning to live with the sting of rejection. You feel like one who has failed in your calling to ministry. Your emotions range on a scale from anywhere between frustrated and devastated. You’re trying to pick up the pieces of your shattered ego in order to find some way to faithfully serve and pastor during the rest of this Lenten season and into the glory of Easter . . . and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
I know exactly how you feel. Last year I was deferred in the ordination process. I know how much the news stings. I remember how I felt when all at once my heart started pounding and my stomach started sinking. If you were told the news in person or on the phone, it was hard to even put words together in response. If you found out by way of a written notice, you probably stared at the page and read it over and over just to make sure it was real and not some sort of trick your eyes were playing on you. As one who was where you are just a year ago, I can tell you that I know just how much this hurts.
But I’m writing not just to affirm your feelings and remind you that you’re not the only one who’s ever felt the brunt of this devastating news. I’m also writing to let you know that new life is, in fact, possible even when you’re deferred in the ordination process.
As I prepared for my interview a few weeks ago (where I would come back and face the same committee that deferred me the year before) I realized that even though I did not want to sign up for another year in the wilderness of deferral, I would not trade the previous year for anything in the world. As I’ve thought on it, I realized that I learned several lessons during my year of deferral.
First, I learned the value of what it meant for pastors to be pastored by others. In the immediate aftermath of our board’s decision, the members of the church I’m serving rallied around me to express their care and even their frustration over the news. Their warm words served as a balm for my wounded soul. If I knew nothing else, I knew the next year of growth would be spent with people who loved me and believed in my calling to ministry no matter what.
Secondly, I now know that seasons in the wilderness can actually be the grounds for new life to spring forth. God just has a way of speaking life into the most barren of circumstances. So I use the term “wilderness” on purpose – being deferred places you in a position to question and grow in ways you may not have imagined before. While I worked on the specific areas for my ordination work, I also experienced the grace of growing personally as I turned especially to the spiritual writings of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I look back and see this past year not only as a year of growth professionally or vocationally, but also as a year of personal growth. And for that gift of grace, I’m very grateful.
Finally, I learned that while being deferred by the board of ministry can be devastating, life beyond deferral is possible. And by life I don’t mean pretending as though this never happened or that you’re perfectly okay with being deferred in your process. I mean it’s possible to find new life in light of this setback. There is hope in a Risen Lord who carried scars with him. Life and ministry have a way of helping us learn to live with scars, and sometimes we even find those scars are beneficial to our sense of compassion and love for others. So please know that life after deferral is not only possible, it is at the heart of what it means to be called into ministry by a crucified and risen Savior.
As you spend the coming days and weeks healing and growing remember a few things: First, let people love you and pastor you. Merton reminds us, “We do not find the meaning of life alone – we find it with others.” Let others help you heal and grow. Second, as you address the shortcomings of your ordination work, be open to the work of God in your personal life. The work of transformation in your life is even more important than your ordination work that you’ll turn in next year. Let yourself be open to personal growth through grace. And third, live into the mystery of this growth knowing that you will come out on the other side a new person. Listen for those who have gone through this before you. And know that you’ll be able to help those who will come after you.
Oh and one more thing…know that you’re not alone. God is with you and is still calling you as part of your baptismal identity. And the Church is longing for your presence and willingness to serve even (and especially) when setbacks happen. For that mysterious hope all we can say is, “Thanks be to God.”