It’s that time of year again. The kids are heading back to school and churches everywhere are looking to mark this time of transition in the life of children, families, and the church as a whole. One way to mark this time is to observe an annual Blessing of the Backpacks which has become a common tradition in many churches. Below is a prayer I developed during my time as an associate at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, GA and I plan to use it in my new appointment as senior pastor here at Aldersgate UMC in Savannah, GA. As with all liturgy I share: feel free to adapt it, change it, and don’t worry about citing or giving me credit.
The Lord be with you .
And also with you.
Let us pray.
you have called us to love wisdom and understanding.
Use us, we pray, as you will,
always to your glory and in service to one another.
Bless these bags and the ones who use them
as we learn and grow this year.
Show us all how to serve you.
May we grow in holiness of heart and life together,
young and old,
as we continually teach and learn from each other.
Bless these children and all of us entrusted with their care,
that we may grow in knowledge and grace,
to worship and serve you from generation to generation.
Let us live to make the world safe
for the dreams of all God’s children;
may we all participate in the transformation of the world
as we witness to God’s compassion and justice. Amen.
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’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?