Sunday, June 19, 2016

Milestones in Ministry

It's been two years since my last post but that doesn't mean that nothing significant has transpired during that time. Indeed, God's hand has worked unceasingly in my life and the lives of the congregations I serve to bring us closer to His intended design. As I begin my sixth year serving my charge, a record tenure for any previous pastor dating all the way back to 1875, I pause to reflect on what this means and where God is leading me and the churches I serve.

In a previous post I talked about meeting with my DS to quit the ministry because the time requirements of my weekday job combined with the responsibilities of serving two churches left me little opportunity for family  time or self-care. In truth, both were pretty much nonexistent. I haven’t had a vacation or even a medical check-up in 13 years. Annual family reunions weren’t attended on the weekends when I was required to be at Course of Study. The clashes vying for my personal time seemed to be endless…

But then God answered my prayer to bring an end to the myriad of conflict of responsibilities in my life when I was laid off on May 23, 2015 from the defense plant I had worked the previous 12 years. I spent the next 6 months helping to rebuild a 70 year-old Baptist church sanctuary that was re-purposed as classroom space for the summer camp my congregations help to staff and support.

After all the stress that I had endured just trying to cover all the bases in the years preceding, this “time-out” was just the therapy I needed. I’m now gainfully employed in a much less stressful environment and no longer face a 100 mile round trip commute every day to hold down a job. Thank you, Lord! This significant change in my life has shifted my viewpoint of ministry from just another responsibility I have to fulfill, to seeing it as a precious gift from God.  I really, really needed that!

With this change in perspective has come renewed vigor in ministry to the congregations I serve. And, the churches have responded in-kind as we are much closer now and act more as a family. As we read between the lines of Paul’s epistles to the churches he served, we hear the words of endearment in his paternalistic writing style. I have long believed that this is the relationship God intended for a spiritual shepherd to have while tending his flock.

Jesus provided the most excellent example of this in the 3½ years he ministered with his disciples. Wesley invested himself greatly in the societies and classes he formed. In essence, we are called to be a family of faith. I knew that all along but didn’t have adequate time to spend with my biological family to maintain healthy relations, much less my church families.    

I never dreamed that there would ever be an end to the conflicting chaos of my life, but God had a plan. I am now living out my passion, which for so many years was just an unfulfilled dream, in service to Him. Thank you, Lord! 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can We Ever Do Too Much For God?

Can we really ever do too much? During the last three-and-a-half years that I have been pursuing pulpit ministry while still employed in my primary vocation I have struggled with time-management issues as a part-time local pastor. This situation is further aggravated by my long commutes - almost 1000 miles a week during spring and fall semesters. I managed to maintain both vocations until my primary job required me to begin working an extra day a week. This could not have happened at a worse time as I was in the middle of the fall semester, was preparing for charge conference, and was committed to work on a Men's Walk to Emmaus.

Ironically, I was enrolled in the Pastoral Care and Spiritual Formation class that semester which had a component for self-care of the pastor. The more I delved into the assigned reading the more I became convinced that I was completely upside-down in my time available for self-care and something in my life had to give. I left work and my churches behind on the weekend of the Walk with the specific intent of discerning God's will for my situation in those three days. This proved to be a flawed plan…

As with every other aspect of my life, that weekend really wasn't about me - it was about putting my best foot forward in service to others as a disciple of Christ. But during breaks I was a solitary figure on the prayer trail outside the conference room seeking the Lord's guidance for my issue. I was also trying to maintain the schedule of assigned reading for my class. The conventional wisdom I found in what I read proved to negate any effort to discern God's will for my life and only served to heighten the anxiety about my situation. I left the retreat center that weekend committed to leave pulpit ministry in order afford some time to myself since I couldn't afford to quit my secular job.

I met with my district superintendent two weeks later and asked to be discontinued as a pastor. She expressed remorse over my request and shared her call story. Then she asked to hear mine and afterward suggested that I reconsider my request and engage in prayer and fasting to truly discern God's will for my life. I took her advice and now, six weeks later, find myself still burning the candle at both ends while trying to cover all the bases with lots of miles in between. But I have a sense peace amid the chaos of what my life might look like to others (and oftentimes to myself!) and have found joy in the knowledge that God has something better in store for me if I can just wait for His timing.

Can we really ever do too much? No; we can never out-give God with our time or our gifts. However, if that which consumes us is borne of a worldly, human agenda we are most certainly destined for burnout. All the conventional wisdom expounded in my required reading this semester applies to this scenario. But if we ascribe to the Divine agenda, apart from this world, we have no need to be concerned or wrought about any aspect of our life - God's got this (Matthew 6:24-34). Indeed, is there anything He doesn't have absolute power over?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Can We Ever Do Enough

A colleague posted a thought-provoking article on our clergy Facebook page today which begs the question "Is the church doing enough to promote equal-rights?" The article posted chronicles the self-induced death of Rev. Charles Moore last month in a final effort to draw attention to the church's failure to effectively address basic social-justice issues such as equality.

Rather than speculate on the particulars found in the article I'll simply forward the link so that the reader might have the opportunity to draw their own conclusions:

Suffice to say that Rev. Moore spent the majority of his life championing the rights of others who found themselves marginalized by their own culture. Obviously, this is highly commendable as it is also the work our Savior has called each of His followers to. So, how good of a job are we doing in this regard as an institutional church? Rev. Moore felt that we are not doing enough and his final act in this life was to draw attention to it.

Like Rev. Moore, I too have experienced nagging pangs of conscience over the separation of God's people based on race. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America" have haunted me as I have led worship for my all-white congregations over the years. But there are new winds of change blowing in our community…

In a previous post last year (July 23, 2013) entitled "A Spiritual Pilgrimage" I described what happened as I led my two congregations to share funds and human resources to operate a summer day camp for at-risk children. The site of the camp is the campus of a declining African-American Baptist church with diminishing resources in our community. In contrast, my two congregations are relatively affluent and modestly growing but have no meaningful outreach ministry. I saw this opportunity as the perfect marriage for a common good but knew that we would first have to bridge long-standing racial barriers that continue to exist in 21st-century East Texas. I shouldn't have been concerned as our Lord Himself would provide the means…

At our Good Friday service the pastor of the Baptist church unexpectantly appeared after the service began. I had invited the members of his church to attend but since he is bi-vocational and does not live in the community we did not expect him at the service. Right or wrong, I saw his appearance as a sign and asked him to serve communion with our lay steward. To my knowledge, this was the first time that a person of color had administered sacraments in that church.

Two weeks later, we hosted our community's National Day of Prayer event at the same church. The guest speaker delivering the message was the pastor of a Missionary Baptist church in the nearby countryside. Again, to my knowledge this was the first time a person of color had ever preached from the pulpit of that church. In both cases, no fallout resulted from these precedents but instead barriers evaporated and bridges were formed. There is much, much more I could elaborate on the growing unity we are experiencing in our community as result of the events I have shared, but that's not really what this post is about.

I am not about to speculate that attempts to replicate what occurred in our community would meet with the same success in another. Nor did I mention the hard-hitting sermon series I used to "soften up the beachhead" before initiating the actions listed above. But in response to the question, "Are we doing enough?" my answer will always be "No, we can never do enough." So, we must always strive to do all the good we can, when we can, to all those we can. You can't get much more Wesleyan than that.

I'm sorry that Rev. Moore could not find solace through Wesley's famous axiom for his own life. It is obvious that he spent his life seeking to provide a level playing-field for all God's children. We should not beat ourselves up because we can never do enough but instead seek the presence of the only One who can. In Him alone we will find solace for our souls and equality for all. Amen. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mission? Transition!

I've probably washed enough dishes to fill the Grand Canyon, served enough breakfast tacos to feed every inhabitant of the State of Rhode Island, and Merry Maids has nothing on me for numbers of toilets cleaned.  "Why would anybody do such a thing?", you ask. 

Over the last 17 years I've met religious leaders, literally, from the four corners of the world.  I've made dear friends by the boatload. Many come to Cross Roads yearly. We swap stories and share Christ and our lives.  Several women have come "with child" only to return with their child in tow. I am blessed to watch them grow.  A youth pastor who lost a toddler, a budding trio of pre-teen guitarists, a parent volunteer going through a divorce, some sr. high "clowns" in training, a young woman with cancer, a potential author needing encouragement, a depressed empty nester, a teenage 'cutter', God sends them all all, adults, children and youth.   I am blessed to share their joy, sadness, hope, faith and love as they pause briefly at the Cross Roads.  I watch kids pass through these gates and journey from goofy junior high schoolers to confident adults leaving for jobs, college, marriage, or the armed forces. It makes me cry to say good-bye.

But, life is change. Transition or die - or at least get left behind. 

I am not as young as I used to be and putting in those long physically demanding hours have worn me down a bit.  It's time to pass the torch to a new, younger, and more energetic generation, so they can experience the absolute JOY that is Cross Roads.  Cross Roads has been my life and for now I will continue as director trusting God to show me who is to follow me and how. But, change is in the air.

I am in a major transition right now between the first ministry God called me to at Cross Roads Retreat and the second, the book He called me to write, Stand at the Cross Roads.  You would think that after watching God vanquish every obstacle that stood in the way of His building the camp and then experiencing His abundant blessings through it, that I would be an old pro at being ready for whatever lies before me in a new ministry.  Not!  While I am apprehensively excited about what God has in store for me, I find myself consumed once again with self-doubt, insecurity, fear of rejection and even sadness at letting go at Cross Roads.  

When I wrote Stand at the Cross Roads I was turned down by a prominent Christian publisher who said the book promoted divorce. That rejection re-ignited my worst fears. I was on the firing line for years, enduring criticism, backbiting, gossipy naysayers, modern Pharisees, and most debilitating of all, rejection by many family and friends who thought I was either a women's libber gone mad, a trouble maker, man-hater, or just plain crazy. So, I’m not too excited about stirring all that up again.

My path led me to the Cross Roads, and for 17 years I have been faithful to, and been healed through this ministry, but I also know you don't say 'no' to God.  Plus, if you're not making waves, you're probably not riding in God's wake! 

When recently asked why I wrote Stand at the Cross Roads, I said, “It’s simple.  There seems to be a common belief that God no longer does anything spectacular in ordinary lives.  My story shatters that misconception and proves that God is still a faithful, prayer answering God.” That is the message God wants me to help Him get out there.  No other.

So, here we go – me and God – round two!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Spiritual Pilgrimage

"God does not call the equipped; He equips the called" - Anonymous

I never maintained any desires or ambitions of becoming a pastor - it just sort of happened. And, I certainly never harbored any belief that I had the capabilities to actually be effective in that role, either. However, I do believe in God, and that through Him all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Thus, seemingly, He has accomplished what I believed to be the impossible in me. More than anything else that I have learned through ministry is there are no exceptions to this verse found in Matthew's Gospel. Had I never embarked upon this particular pilgrimage I most probably would still be living in denial of what God can accomplish through others - especially as it pertains to me.

I've also discovered that I am not alone in this manner of thinking - it's actually quite commonplace in the church.  A couple of years ago I met the pastor of a declining African-American congregation in my parish. As we began conversing about outreach opportunities in the community he told me of a summer camp his church had hosted two years ago for the at-risk children in the area. These were the children on the school lunch program during the school year and many were now missing those meals now that it was summertime. The pastor wanted to host the summer camp again. His church, which not only supplied children with two meals a day, but it also sent additional food home with them. Unfortunately, the church lacked the financial and human resources to make this vision a reality on their own.  

He also confessed that as result of their limited resources his church had partnered with a non-profit agency to staff and fund the camp held previously. Unfortunately, the site coordinator for that agency absconded with the funding midway through the summer and left the church liable for payroll and other expenses. Still stinging from this experience, the church had not pursued hosting another summer camp even though the overwhelming need was evident. I responded by pledging my support if the church could be persuaded to host a summer camp for the coming year and we agreed to see if we could elicit support from our perspective churches to this end.

After fledgling support was garnered at my two churches my brother-in-Christ died of a massive stroke and left his church without a pastor. Suddenly it was just the "crazy-talkin' preacher from the Methodist church" trying to lead the project forward and I encountered the same lack of confidence in this small congregation as I had always harbored about myself. Finding myself in familiar territory, I led the congregation in prayer and organizational meetings and let the Holy Spirit due the rest. Miraculously, funding and volunteer support materialized from the other churches in the community. God's hand was clearly already at work before we even began.

I took a week of vacation from work to get the program off the ground. Launching the program was not without pitfalls and hardships but it was awesome to witness the young lives being touched everyday and give the other congregations an opportunity "plug-in" for hands-on mission and outreach in their own community. It had been this side benefit of the program that had been a real motivator for me to partner with the little Baptist church - I wanted to give my congregations a chance to respond to an apparent need and get their hands dirty doing the work of Christ in their own backyard.

Through the pursuit of this ministry the little church has discovered that God has given them all the resources needed to carry on His work, even without a pastor. They have already announced that they will host a summer camp next year.  My two congregations have discovered that they, too, have been entrusted with confidence that only comes through Christ while serving their community in ministry and outreach - they CAN do it.  As for me, well, I just stand in awe once again of what He can accomplish through seemingly unwitting individuals, who with one step of faith, become shaped by His transforming powers in their lives. People like me. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Evolutions of a Blog

It’s been a year since my last post and in all truth I haven’t had the time or inclination to make a contribution to a blog which seems to have lost its identity and purpose.

This blog saw its greatest popularity during the year of its inception as the CLMs of West District Class of ’10 became engaged in trying to revitalize the Lott Church. It was a noble project but ultimately failed and this event cast a pall over the participating members of the class, as well as others.

Ultimately, our class graduated and we embarked into ministry. Two went on to become licensed local pastors and one left the United Methodist Church to develop a new church start in Caldwell. All these events contributed to a change of identity (and name) for the blog from “West District Class ‘10” to “Ramblings (and some rumblings) From Around The West District.”

Much of what has been posted here represents my own journey in small, rural church ministry in a declining mainline denomination. I tried to glean the full meaning from the events and the articles posted here and how they might speak to the effectiveness of my ministry. Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that my primary directive is still the same – go and make disciples - we now just have to accomplish this with fewer denominational resources, and that’s okay.

While we like to tout our “connectionalism” as a denomination we still have an individual responsibility to fulfill that directive – especially as resources diminish, leaving less and less to “connect to.” So, we can’t afford to sit around and wait for the cavalry to arrive and assist us in the building of the Kingdom here on earth, it’s up to us. The success of my former classmate’s new church start is a good indicator that God certainly doesn’t need denominations to make disciples, anyway.

May we each seek our Lord’s will through discernment and then pursue that which He wills with our lives through the ministry He has entrusted us with in this season.

- Shalom -

Friday, July 6, 2012

Lessons in Mission – Part Two

In the previous post I ended by asking the question, “How did we miss the mark?” A simplistic answer would be, “Well, we do what we United Methodists know best – build something!” Herein lies the conundrum; we are more adept at going into the world and perpetuating the false materialistic values of our Western culture utilizing our well-honed construction techniques than engaging authentic ministry that affects the quality of life issues of those mired in generational poverty. So what do we do about it? We keep on doing what we know to do best – build.

Clearly, this is no longer a valid solution to the needs of the world (if it ever was) to be undertaken by the church. Don’t get me wrong – I love to build things. But I am coming to see the real danger associated by well-meaning and well executed undertakings of the church that fail because nobody adequately discerned if this was God’s will for we should be doing in His name.

Likewise, I question whether there was adequate discernment when the decision was made a few years ago to use walk-on football as a vehicle to boost enrollment at Lon Morris College. The resultant explosion of the student population generated a scramble for acquisition of near-campus housing, precipitating an even greater debt service for the already strapped institution. It was the impending foreclosure of this same housing which triggered the decision to file for bankruptcy earlier this week. Clearly, more (buildings and associated debt service) is not better, but that’s what we continue to pursue in the name of doing mission and ministry.

One definition for insanity is the continuation of doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a change in results. One thing that is not changing; we’re still closing churches. So my question is, when will the madness end? When will we turn from the ways of this world, seeking to apply secular solutions to spiritual and social justice issues? When will we begin seeking God’s before we go out in mission and ministry instead of simply walking in the natural and materialistic ways of man? 

Just as Jesus set the world on its ear with his counter-cultural teachings and ministry so too the church is called to stand apart from the ways of the world and follow in his footsteps. By acquiescing to the value system our dominant culture and its materialism there is little remaining to distinguish the church from that culture. There are a growing number those who are looking for an alternative to the disappointments they’ve discovered in the empty value system of our Western culture and are now seeking a spiritual experience. In the meantime, we’re still closing churches…

There is an incredible irony found in the Gospels: Jesus was a carpenter who built things with his hands. But in searching through the New Testament I have yet to find where he actually built anything here on earth except for the beginnings of the church. This was a church without buildings made entirely of people. And in everything he did he first discerned the will of the Father. This is the model he left for the church. To deviate from it is not just unchristian, but madness.