Wrong Picture Retake

I have become really appreciative of United Methodeviations.  Dan Dick’s blog usually features some of the best writing in United Methodism.  I also appreciate his UM-specific focus.

Recently, he told an all-too-familiar story of a young clergyperson leaving ‘the ministry’.  She was the kind of pastor the church desperately needs…community focused, passionate, intelligent, committed to quality and articulate.  She has since taken on directorship of a crisis intervention center.  (Now that’s ministry!)  Dick’s 6 points of reflection on this clergyperson’s experience has led me to reflect on my own experience as a new-ish young adult clergy.  My reflections are not answers to this clergyperson’s pain, simply what I have thought of since reading her letter.

The first thing that I thought of that I do somewhat well is that I do not assume that the people in the pews are Christians.  How often in preaching does the parishioner think that they are the ones in the parable who Jesus is reaching out to?  For instance, read the story of blind Bartimaeus.  Many parishioners, if they can see themselves in the story at all, will see themselves as Bartimaeus–blind, needy, crying out to God.  How often as a pastor, have I wanted them to be and become like Jesus (i.e. Christian) and reach out to others who are crying out?  In such a circumstance, both the pastor’s wish and the parishioner’s cries are true.  They are needy, blind to the ways of the Lord.  In fact, the well-worn butt-print in their favorite pew is indeed part of their problem.  Getting them out of the seat requires divine intervention.  But this presents a problem for the pastor: as one motivated to be like Jesus, as one aware of the Bartimaeuses outside the walls of the church, as one aware that neither Jesus himself nor ministers are to be lone rangers, we are constantly looking for partners in ministry.  Early in my ministry, I looked to my parishioners, on whole, as partners in ministry.  With a little experience, I have learned that all stages of grace exist in the church-those unaware that God is working on them, those still not sure if they accept it, those justified but ignorant of the next steps, a few walking toward sanctification and even a few pretty darn close to perfection.  Taking this nuanced perspective has proven fruitful for me.

Like the woman, I too prefer being out in the community.  I have really enjoyed working with Habitat and our local homeless outreach.  In fact, as I write, I am giving serious thought to skipping tonight’s Admin meeting for tonight’s homeless coalition meeting.  Three years ago, I would have really resented the Admin board.  But I can now see that both meetings have their value.  While it is clear to me that they are not equal, it is also clear that one can go on without me (the homeless coalition) while the other needs pastoral guidance.  Also, over time, I have come to love the folks at the Admin meeting and with guidance they often get to a more faithful place.  It may be that my participation at the Admin meeting will produce a net-gain for the kingdom of God.  I am not worried that my absence at the homeless coalition will be a detriment to them.  Of course, I may think different by the time 7PM gets around.

Furthermore, while I have had a sometimes-luke-warm attitude to visitation, I have learned that attention to pastoral concerns can build trust.  Of all elements crucial to pastoral leadership, I think trust is unmatched.  Even if the church does not much like me, trust provides momentum for other areas of ministry.  When one spends the time to visit, hear the stories (even in their Xth telling), give time to their concerns, even the petty ones, one is letting that person know that the love you preach about is real, and often comes in a human face.  This has proven valuable to me.  I tend deep to be a big-picture guy, even as I can articulate a theology that reaches deep into the soul.  I also have a tendency to view people in a big picture way.  How easy it is to talk about the oppressed or the needy and still maintain a distance.  The visitation, that invaluable one-on-one time has become a necessary counter-balance, so that compassion is not some sort of theory, but a real and saving presence in the world.  I wish I had known this early on.

I guess it’s true that, as Dick says, I was given churches that were decaying.  As I read his Vital Signs, I see many attributes in the decaying church chapter in my churches.  As far as authority to change it goes, I think that one of the most important tools is one I learned in seminary…self-differentiation.  This is a family-systems term in which one remains essentially connected to a system (i.e. a church) and yet one is not totally defined by that connection.  I think I do relatively well at letting others own their issues, even letting the congregations I lead own their own issues.  This doesn’t mean that I am dispassionate.  Nor does it mean a totally live-and-let-live attitude.  There have been times in which I just used my authority to correct and set the church on a more godly path.  There have been times in which I had such little trust, that my authority was impotent to effect change.  Even then, I found the freedom to use it–if only to make my own position clear.  I desperately want the vital church…but I understand that the kinds of people attracted to Jesus tend to be troubled, harassed, ill-suited to the rest of society, etc.  Why should we expect a church with such people to be a well-oiled machine?  One of my spiritual role models is a UM clergy who is well-established in his career.  At the same time, he serves on few Conference committees, is never a candidate to be a DS.  Before I had met him, I had always felt within me a sense of the ‘freedom of Christ’.  When I met him, I better understood some things about this.  #1–this person must be deeply connected to the Lord: prayer becomes necessary and the word prayer is written on every day in his calendar.  #2–this person must have an appreciation for the ironies of life.  Rev. M. often laughs at the crazy things that the church does yet fully accepts that he is part of the church.  For many of my colleagues they carry the scars of church life with a crushing cynicism and a biting sarcasm.  For Rev. M. his church-deprecating humor is both a self-deprecating and a hopeful humor.  #3–The ‘Christian freemen’ must accept the power to choose.  When the UMC dealt with the aftermath of Judicial Council decision #1032, I was attending seminary at the time.  Many of our classmates were seriously debating leaving the church.  Rev. M. gave a serious laugh and declared “nobody can tell me who I can and cannot receive in the church”.  I sensed at the time that Rev. M. was at once declaring his position, feeling the Lord’s presence and preparing to fight, if need be.  I saw within all of this the great power of choice.  For my decaying churches, I can choose to help them die peacefully, or I can fight tooth and nail for a renewal of their vitality.  This means everyday choosing to believe or depart.  Thus far I am believing.

As far as being supported is concerned, I guess that I have been on both ends.  While a US-2, while serving at the GBGM, my conference was a non-presence to me.  While in seminary, as I was seeking to advance in the ordination process, my home district chose not to supply me with the mentoring assistance I needed (which the Discipline mandates).  For the longest time, I felt as though my conference didn’t want me.  I watched my wife transfer in (after having been mentored from afar while in seminary), be fawned over by Cabinet members (rightfully so) and advance quickly while receiving much support and appreciation from the District and the Conference.  I finally demanded to be given a mentor.  My mentor found plenty in me to support and approve.  He helped the best in me come out.  He got me past the district level after convincing them that their issues with me were their issues.  When I got to my BOOM interviews, I was received with warmth.  My interview team asked questions expecting good answers, an expectation I most often thrive under.  They asked me about being in a clergy couple.  Professionally, it was one of the most satisfying feelings.  I knew that I knew the gospel and I got to demonstrate my best.  Now I am a provisional elder having waded into the 1st of 3 years of group processing.  Ever since my time at the GBGM, I have allowed the church to be human, have recognized that its humanness and its divine-ness are never far apart.  The connectional system works when we choose the connection (sometimes in spite of the system).  As a young clergy, being supported has made all the difference for me.

When I first arrived at my appointment, I heard a lot of excuses about why I was leading the church in the wrong way.  Like the woman who is leaving the clergy, I heard a lot of resistance to smart Christianity.  I got ‘compliments’ on my preaching like how I made them think.  There was regularly a hint of sarcasm in such a remark.  I asked my church to read a book that I thought was simple enough for them to understand, yet challenging to them (How Good Do We Have to Be by Harold Kushner).  During a discussion, one fellow brought this formula on how to tell how ‘smart’ a book is.  The formula included adding up the number of multi-syllabic words.  Ironically, it was a very clever way of saying give us something easier.  I knew intellectually that I was more educated than most of my parishioners (largely elderly housewives and blue-collar guys).  I was right to resist their resistance.  At the same time, I did need to diversify the manner of the message.  Though they are blue-collar, they are smart.  They know systems, people, history, etc.  On top of this anti-intellectual attitude was something even more sorrowful…very little imagination.  There was more to the want for something easier.  For a population that was seeing itself die, seeing its church die, there was a spiritual poverty that had forgotten what it means to hope.  They needed more young people, yes…but not for institutional reasons.  In two of my congregations, the dumb luck of having families with kids show up has provided a real shot in the arm and the responses are what you might imagine…joyful, hopeful, thankful and gracious.  AND, to top it all, a certain imagination has emerged from them that belies their age and their institutional condition.  I am treating this like a gateway drug–that if they are ready to imagine, they might be ready to ReThink church.

It saddens me that the church is losing a clergyperson it really needs.  At the same time, I don’t worry.  Firstly, I know that God is not going to let the gifts of that woman go to waste.  God has invested so much in her; God will continue the good work in her.  So losing hope is needless.  I also know that God will preserve a church right for God’s image.  It may not contain a cross and flame.  But it will be grace-oriented, smartly Biblical, passionate for missions that heal and restore, committed to the dignity inherent in us all, willing to love God with heart, soul & mind, and fearless in its love of neighbor.  I pray that we have ears to hear and eyes to see all that God is still doing.

Photo: “Broken Church” by chad davis

One thought on “Wrong Picture Retake

  1. Thanks for this post! As I consider the Annual Conference, your post gives me a smidgen of hope alongside the Dan Dick’s “all-too-familiar” (great descriptor!) stories. So thanks for sharing the hope — and keep being faithful!


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