Finding God’s Will: Will Jackson

This morning as the dawn’s sun peeks through the trees, I’m thinking about my last congregation where early on I quit going to the front door to shake hands with parishioners. You see it was the custom for whoever did the preaching to go to the front door and the other clergy to go to the side door. On my first trip to the side door and every Sunday after that the dear and challenged young man, Will Jackson, grabbed my hand and heart. He sat by the side door every Sunday with his beloved parents, Bill and Faye, and his big sister, Mary Katherine. Every time I walked by he reached out his hand – a touch of sacramental grace from a lad who couldn’t speak with words, but spoke with his heart. From that first time it happened I knew it was God’s will/Will for me to go to the side door because I didn’t have church that Sunday or any other until Will touched me.

Do you want to know God’s will/Will? What or who is God’s Will/will for your life? What’s your personal mission statement? What’s your church’s? I have enjoyed listening to churches share their mission statements and goals at charge conferences, and I agree with what someone once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” In my experience that lack of direction usually means a less than worthy destination. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Thoughtless doing without clear goals is busy-ness without fruitfulness. Doing lots of stuff without clarity of purpose is wearisome and lacks satisfaction. It leads to mediocrity, and describes much of what I see in our churches.

The churches that I’ve seen that are thriving know their goals. They can say them out loud, not like automatons or lemmings, but because they have a passion for a singular purpose. Someone said that mission statements need to be “long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized.” I like that. The purpose of the church should have enough depth to challenge, but be clear enough to be immediately verbalized. I’ve heard some like “MD4C” which stands for “Making Disciples for Christ,” and “Together We Can Do More.” Clarity of direction is key for disciples. If leaders aren’t clear then the rest of the flock is left wandering in the wilderness!

In ­Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters the Red Queen as she is trying to find her way through the fairy tale forest. Alice cried out, “Which way do I go?” The Red Queen was almost nonchalant in her reply, “Well, that all depends on where you want to go.” Alice continued her plea for directions with, “Well, to tell the truth, I really don’t know!” The Red Queen concluded, “Then it really doesn’t matter which direction you take, does it?” So we have churches, people, governments, and societies floundering around going in every direction imaginable like chickens with their heads lopped off because they have no clue where they want to go.

Where do you want to go? Better yet, where does God want you to go? How can you tell? I think sometimes our sense of call or direction begins with the opportunities around us. What’s the need? Other times I need to ask myself what are my passions, or as I ask the clergy who are coming in to see me for their consultation, “What lights you up?” That simple question gives me more than a hint as to what that person’s direction might need to be. What do valued and wise people in your life advise you to do? Sometimes others see more clearly than we do what our priorities should be! Of course and foremost, what has God said to us in prayer and in God’s Word? If I read the Scriptures and ask intently with undistracted focus, “What are you saying to me today, Lord?” – God usually speaks with a deep inward impression on my soul. Oh, for the courage to do what the Lord says! That’s direction!

Our Bishop, Jonathan Holston, is wonderful. He often says that we need to dream what he calls “God-sized dreams.” He’s so right! That’s a sure-fire way to avoid mediocrity. When Disney World opened south of Orlando the widow of the great entrepreneur Walt Disney stood with one of Disney’s engineers as they were both gazing at its magnificence and beauty. The engineer was sincerely trying to honor one of our country’s greatest innovators when he turned toward Mrs. Disney and said, “Boy, I wish Walt could have seen this!” Without lifting her gaze off the awesome sight of Disney World in all its splendor, she simply replied, “He did. That’s why it’s here.”

God wants us to have God-sized dreams and articulate them clearly enough to inspire others to catch them. Listen today to God’s voice and sense the Holy Spirit’s nudges; listen to your own heart and think about your passions, giftedness, and what lights you up. Listen to the wise counsel of Christian friends. Look at the needs around you that must be addressed. Knowing God’s will ain’t rocket science! Do something about it! Amid the din of all other voices and clamors for your attention, touch the “least of these” in Jesus’ name and you’ve met and done God’s Will/will. Give a listen to Martina McBride to know what I mean.

Appointment-making and Itinerancy!

As I write this our appointment-making cabinet is on lunch break, and I thought it might be a good time to write a few reflections. This effort tends to affect your desire to eat anyway. For me, it either makes me want to endlessly get up and graze at our snack table, or makes my appetite utterly disappear. I’m not too hungry today. Those whose lives depend upon what we do here, don’t let my lack of appetite freak you out. Things are going extremely well as we ponder the best match of pastoral gifts and graces and church needs. I appreciate so much Bishop Jonathan Holston, South Carolina’s new bishop. He is a keen observer of people and has already made significant relationships across our annual conference that informs this process. He is transparent, fair, and impresses upon the cabinet that the missional aspect of our appointments should always be foremost in our shared thinking.

We follow Wesley’s rules of “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.” We are very careful to avoid harming churches and clergy (including their families). We sincerely want to do good for all involved. We especially want to honor and stay in love with God for whom this kingdom-building enterprise exists. This is hard work, exhausting work. We use every bit of information that we can muster identifying church needs and clergy gifts and family contexts. We pore over statistical data that churches supply along with their self-identified opportunities and points of concern. We try to look for laser-like clarity as we study the consultation information and profiles of clergy. We kill a lot of trees with putting together all this information about churches and pastors, plus we have all sorts of electronic information that we project on the screen in the room. It’s an arduous process and we need your prayers. The clergy and families along with the churches need plenty of prayer, too.

We are a sent-system of clergy deployment. Ministers are called by God when they enter United Methodist ministry and are sent from then on. Churches don’t call pastors, and preachers don’t self-select their places of service. We try to make for good matches so that Jesus is glorified and God’s grace is more effectively shared. I have even pondered if we might spread the Word better if we moved all of our church members and left the clergy where they are. That would be missional!

I can remember the times in my ministry when I have really wondered about the wisdom or apparent lack thereof behind appointment-making. Everyone in United Methodist itinerant ministry and all the churches who have been receiving pastors over the years have been burned more than a few times. We have probably all wondered, “Did the District Superintendent listen to us?” After seven years as a DS I know that the answer is “Yes!” Sometimes that listening doesn’t provide an answer that’s either expected or desired. My experience on the Cabinet is that we try our very best to be faithful to this ministry for the good of all and for the glory of God.

A lot of you, clergy and SPRC Chairs, are going to get expected and unexpected phone calls at the end of the week. Please know that you are appreciated, prayed for, and loved. Let’s all continue to bathe this process in prayer. Every day we have appointments to keep. As United Methodists this takes on special meaning during this time of year. What does God want you to do today? As we make appointments, my prayer is that we all keep our God-appointments today. May our walk with God empower all of lives to be fruitful wherever we’re sent today!

Addendum: I just grazed at the snack table and was sifting through the mini-candy bars and felt something unusual. It was a Baby Ruth all sealed up with nothing but air inside. All kinds of thoughts and sermon uses have popped into my head, plus some thoughts about some of our churches and clergy and appointment-making. Before you take offense, no, of course, I’m not talking about you! Nevertheless, what sermon titles or appointment thoughts pop into your mind? “All Dressed up, but nothing inside,” “Nice Wrapper…,” “All Show and No Dough,” “Looks Good on the outside, Empty on the inside,” …. lots of possibilities come to mind. Tell me your thoughts as it pertains to the church! Congress is off-limits!