Clergy & Church Sneak-Peeks

United Methodist clergy sneak-peeks at their prospective new appointments have been probably been with us since our founding. We’ve just switched from horses and word of mouth, to websites and surreptitious scouting trips. My three children knew the drill. As soon as we heard, we hit the trail. We found the church, checked out the parsonage from a drive-by with everyone semi-ducking their heads. Looked at area schools, even fast-food restaurants and whether the Sonic had a playground. Churches also are tempted to go check out their new pastor ahead of time – a no-no.

As a District Superintendent for 8 years, when I handed out profiles, I told the same thing to SPRC Chairs as I did clergy: “It’s a small state and everybody knows somebody from everywhere. Call those people and find out all you can. Do not go visit their church! We’re not Baptists who judge a preacher on one sermon. Remember no church is as good as you hear it is, and no church is as bad. Start making the transition, and remember you never get a second chance in making a first impression.”

I especially told SPRC Chairs, “If you want to know what your new pastor looks like, just set up a video camera in the church and parsonage’s front yard on the day of and day after appointments are announced. Sometime during that day a car is going to slow down at both locations. Its occupants will be slinked down in the seat peering over the edge of the car window eyeballing everything that they can. Make sure the grass is cut at the church, cemetery, and parsonage and all the trash picked up. Spruce everything up because this is your first-shot at easing the anxiety of a whole family and starting off right.”

Even in this age of internet sleuthing, we still depend upon our own eye-witness judgment. Especially with young children, it is extremely important to give them a peek at their new digs. Waiting to go check things out at an Introductory Visit is too late and formal. So, churches, if you haven’t already, do your own personal drive-by of your facilities. Eye-ball what any passer-by might see. If it isn’t appealing, do something about it. This isn’t just good advice for churches that anticipate a change in clergy. It’s a good idea all the time if you want to be inviting to your neighbors.

I know that when I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic for some charge conferences, I would leave early, get to the church way ahead of time, and do a walk-around. I learned a lot about each church in the district by just looking. How a church took care of its cemetery told me quite a bit how they valued their past, and how they took care of the living.

I remember going to one church whose name and location suggested on paper that it was a peaceful place. In my walk-about around the cemetery I noticed there were multiple spellings of the same last name. That clue explained a lot about the tensions in the subsequent meeting. The bottom line of what I’m trying to get at during this strange season of already and not yet in appointment-making is that we need to clean up our own house first, and get the plank out of our own eye before we start nick-picking the speck in our prospective pastor or church.

Boy, I have seen churches and pastors really get critical over the official profiles. These are handed out to SPRC Chairs and clergy when appointments are released. Those profiles, by the way, are going to be pored over and over and over. Every word will be parsed. Every date will be perused. The length of each appointment will be judged for good or ill. Expectations about ministry will be formed from what’s been written down, so write well! Tell the truth, but don’t throw anyone under the bus. Remember what I said earlier, “No pastor or church is as good as everyone says they are, nor as bad.”

The church that your “friend” had a hard time in may be prime for new leadership, so don’t pre-judge. It might be your best appointment. Churches, please remember that the clergyperson who only stayed two years at their last appointment may be moving for the best possible reasons. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less than stellar fruitfulness at one place doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered as your most beloved pastor 20 years from now. Timing and chemistry can make a huge difference.

God bless everyone who is taking those sneak-peek rides, and churches that are putting out feelers about their new pastor. All of us, whether we’re expecting a move or not, need to get our act together. We need to clean up our front porch, get rid of dead, faded, or unseasonal flowers in the cemetery, and put our best foot forward on our profiles, and websites. In other words, if we want to make new friends with all the people who are checking us out, we need to look at ourselves through their eyes.

Once again, be gentle with each other, especially children or youth who are being uprooted, plus spouses who will be looking for new work. This whole process is like being on a flying trapeze. You can’t reach out and grab the bar coming at you unless you let go of the one you’re holding. That goes for churches saying “Goodbye” to their current pastor, and clergy saying “So long!” to their current appointment. If you don’t let go of the trapeze bar, you end up stuck hanging in the middle with nowhere to go – a bad place to be. So get ready to let go, and grab hold of that next appointment or pastor. God has great things in store. No doubt, you’ll get what you expect!

Trapeze Pic

 

 

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Itinerancy and Appointment-making Survival!

This is an anxious time for the churches and pastors who expect a move in the United Methodist Church this year. Itineration is at the heart of who we are and what we do in clergy deployment and is a reflection of our outward focus to the world. We are people of community – a community of faith that builds us up and holds us accountable, and a secular community that needs our ministry! In Wesley’s parlance we do “works of piety” to strengthen our personal holiness, and we do “works of mercy” to transform the world for Christ.

Both of these actions are best done in community. Our piety is enhanced and built in discipleship groups and relationships. For clergy those relationships are bound by covenant in the annual conference and expressed in local churches or other extension ministries. Our works of mercy center on our local and global community. Our entire system is one in which we embrace the motto, “Together We Can Do More!”

Therefore, in and for community, through the combined efforts of many, we move clergy around to enhance works of piety and mercy. John Wesley called this active movement of clergy, “the apostolic plan of evangelization.” He sincerely believed that a primary genius of the Methodist Movement was itineration. Clergy were not to become “settled” as they routinely were in the Anglican Church of his day. In his mind, it was better for clergy to be constantly on the go in outreach to the world. The United Methodist Church continues to call clergy and laity alike to have a vibrant responsive ministry to our contextual realities!

Over the years more and more clergy have stayed longer in places. This can be a great thing if clergy and churches are continually creating new ways to minister to people. If churches and clergy are going through the motions, then it’s not. John Wesley said of himself, “If I were to stay in one place for a year, I would preach myself to sleep!” Wow, that’s a tough threshold, but his point, of course, is keeping the Gospel fresh, and the laity and the clergy, too.

But here I am about to move from being a District Superintendent back to the parish (At least that’s my hope), and I’m pondering how well I am handling the anxiety? I just got off the phone with a young clergyperson about to take their first appointment and my repeated advice to him was, “Pray and hang tight” By the way, “Hanging tight” does not mean to tense up. It is a charge to hold onto faith more than ever!

These are words that I need to heed. This is the first time in my ministry that I have known in advance that I’m definitely moving! There’s an eight-year term limit on DS’ so this has been anticipated, but I think that knowing I’m moving has actually exacerbated the uncertainty more than diminishing it. I have 15 more years of service somewhere(s), and am ready to let go of the trapeze bar that I’m on and grab the one that’s flying my way!

I’ve been meeting almost daily and quite a few times on Sundays with the persons anticipating moves in the Columbia District – S/PPRC’s and clergy. Everyone’s a bit nerved out. Sure, I know that this emotion will switch to anticipation and excitement when appointments are announced on March 10, but until then what can I and they do to find a centering place in God? When all of us in pulpit or pew have had what we perceived as less than favorable experiences in the past, what do we do to allay our fears today?

Isaiah 40 is an anchor in this storm of “already and not yet.” It begins in verse one with a message of comfort. Isaiah 40:1-11 is a song about God’s redemptive power. Words and phrases that speak of hard service being completed; that God’s comfort is greater than our fear of calamity or the “System” is balm to our souls. I especially like verse 11: “He (God) tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

For every clergyperson with a family, it’s good to know that God and the Cabinet care for you, your young, and whatever special circumstance is yours! God’s care extends to all involved in the appointment process. Yes, there will be hard decisions made, and there will be disappointments, but by the grace of God there will not be any mis-appointments when it’s all said and done!

Further comfort from Isaiah 40 is lined out in the litany of things, people, and systems that are no match for God. Verses 12-26 dare us to ask, “Who is God’s equal?” Is God greater than the nations? Absolutely! Is God greater than any human idol including a “plum” appointment? You know so! Is Creator God more powerful than creation, and the answer is certainly “Yes!” Is God greater than the princes and rulers of this world who sometimes are called bishops and superintendents? You better believe it! Is God greater than the starry host and the cosmos’ systems? By all means!

If this is all true Isaiah 40:27 confronts my fears with the pertinent question: “Why do you say, O Jacob (Tim), and complain, O Israel (Your name), ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’” If God is greater than the litany of powers lined out in the earlier verses, then there is no cause for complaint or fear. There is, on the other hand, cause for great faith!

Therefore, Isaiah 40 concludes with a canticle of praise and comfort:

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young people stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

For all of us in this itinerant ministry called United Methodism, may we hold fast to God and trust!!! In the Olympic spirit give a listen to Eric Liddell’s reading from Isaiah 40 in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Pray and hang tight!

A New Week and a Tired Soul

It’s a new week and I have a tired soul. The body isn’t holding up too great either. “Now do it again, with feeling!” says the conductor or teacher. How often I wake up on a Monday morning in ministry and find myself wondering what happened to the weekend. I’m about to do “it” again with another week of ministry, but the “feeling” is just above empty on my physical and spiritual gas gauges. Clergy hardly have any Sabbath rest. Our offices are often called a “Study,” but with the tyranny of the urgent that we face every day, there is precious little time to actually study. I know what my schedule pretty much looks like for the rest of the week and I am already looking forward to the weekend. Sad, and I wonder how many other clergy and people in general feel the same way. What are we working for? Who are we working for? What is the meaning of life and where does it come from?

Some answers to those questions are found in the word “relationships.” My prayer focus this morning is a derivative: Companionship. “Com” is Latin for “with,” and “Panis” means “bread.” Breaking bread with one another has been and continues to be a sign of fellowship and hospitality. Jesus fed the 5,000, broke bread with his disciples on multiple occasions before and after his death, and with the fellows on the Road to Emmaus after the resurrection. Breaking bread with family, neighbors, and the poor is a sign of community, shared purpose, and common meaning. When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they give thanks to the one who redeems and makes us one: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body.”

So I face another Monday morning to offer and receive companionship. It is not just another day in a long litany of days. This day is an opportunity to break bread with someone, many someones – to sit at table and enter their story. Isn’t that a calling to embrace and not dread: to hear and be heard, to commune with a fellow straggler on the journey and meet Jesus who always walks along and breaks bread with us?

As a United Methodist District Superintendent this is that time of year when I spend time at each church or charge and hold annual meetings. In my seventh year people’s names are known quite well by now and we share personal history. We have become companions, sometimes literally. I was at one church the other day and they gave me some bar-b-que and hash to take home. We ate it for two nights and it was delicious! We also just had our seventh District Clergy Retreat on top of Mt. Mitchell and shared bread and hearts as we ate together, discussed together, and shared prayer for one another. Gosh, when I go back and think of all the times of companionship in recent days I am inundated with companionship and its positive influence on my life. It has occurred in church, with seat mates at football games, and in my office as I have listened to the hearts of dear lay and clergy.

Therefore, I embrace the ways that Jesus will come and break bread with me this day through others, and pray that I will be spiritually prepared to welcome the opportunity. Someone once told me the story of a person who was invited to visit heaven and hell. In heaven he saw people holding 4 foot long chopsticks and before them was spread a banquet table loaded with delectable treats. In hell he saw the same thing: people holding 4 foot long chopsticks sitting at a sumptuous banquet table. The only difference was that the people in heaven looked well fed and happy, joyfully conversing with one another. The people in hell were bitterly quiet, emaciated and starving even though there was ample food laid before them. The person asked St. Peter what was the difference. St. Peter said the people in heaven used the 4 foot long chopsticks to feed each other, while the people in hell were impossibly trying to feed themselves.

Companionship is less obsessed with feeding one’s own appetite for attention or self-interest, and more engaged in communing with the Jesus in those with whom we break bread today. Feed yourself and starve. Feed another and be well-fed. God bless your week with encounters with Christ. This is how God made us to enjoy life and find both help and meaning. Feed yourself and go hungry. Feed another, and thrive!

Guaranteed Appointments, Itinerancy, and Being Sent for Jesus

It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!

Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!

Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.

I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”

Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.

Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.

It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”

My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”

Women Clergy and “Stained Glass Ceiling”

I have been traveling for the last 3 months to all the churches in the Columbia district presiding over charge conferences. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I continue to hear gender bias and the dreaded phrase, “Some of our people won’t accept a woman as their pastor.” The church has long caused clergywomen to hit the “stained glass ceiling” of serving smaller parishes with lower salaries. As a justice issue, we should all agree that equal work should result in equal pay. I have two children who are Elders in the United Methodist Church, one daughter and one son. Narcie and Josh are both unique and are great! Of course, I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you as objectively as I can that both are better preachers and leaders, pastors and teachers than a lot of the clergy that I know. My daughter should not get short shrift because of her gender! She is excellent and she’s working harder than most male clergy AND she has the prolonged anxiety of a brain tumor on top of everything else. When people talk about women clergy in a disparaging way I want to say, “Give me a break!”

The church hasn’t always been this way about women’s leadership in Chirstianity. In the early church, women earned positions of prominence. During Jesus’ life it was primarily the largesse of working or wealthy women that provided the support that Jesus and the disciples needed (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3). Women were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. Women were there at the prayer session in the Upper Room that led to the birth of the church at Pentecost. Phoebe was a Deacon in the church at Cenchrea that Paul greeted in Romans 16:1 and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesied/preached (Acts 21:8). And where would the church be without Mary, the mother of Christ? Paul sums up the equality of Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It was also Paul who reminded St. Timothy of the source of his faith, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice,” and, how “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).”

Therefore, if women were so indispensable at the beginning of the church, how can we imagine women being left out today? Unfortunately, the early church acceptance of women dissipated all too rapidly into an enculturated male-dominated entity. We have sadly experienced 2000 years of allowing the secular world shape the sacred. This is all the more reason to celebrate, rather than disparage the influence of women in the church. If it weren’t for the faith of my mother, grandmother, wonderful female Sunday School teachers and mentors (I never had a male teacher in grade school or at church), my faith would have either been nonexistent or desperately inadequate. Women are the core-supporters of many churches. United Methodist Women are invaluable as leaders in ministry and mission. I thank God for what they do in the Columbia District, the Annual Conference, and General church!

We need more women leaders (men, too, for that matter). Thank goodness the United Methodist Church has long supported the call of women into ordained ministry. Still, however, clergywomen are a minority and there are those who wish to keep it that way. Here’s my response to churches that don’t want a female pastor, “Get over it!”

Gender issues and discrimination should be a dead issue in every profession. We have made great strides, but there is room for growth. In 1888 there were only 5 laywomen and no clergywomen at the United Methodist General Conference. After approximately 90 years of almost no representation, in 1976 there were 10 clergywomen and 290 laywomen out of 1000 delegates at General Conference. In 1992, it was 81 clergywomen and 303 laywomen out of 1000. In 1996, it was 107 and 328 respectively. In 2000 the numbers were 112 clergywomen and 212 laywomen. In 2008, of the 996 delegates, 148 were clergywomen and 220 were laywomen. Forty percent of the total delegates were female.

The church certainly has more than 40% women despite the number of those elected. It seems that the gospel hasn’t caught up with us yet in the church. The secular world has laws and changing attitudes in its favor, but we have something even greater – God’s Spirit! The Church should be the leader, as it was in the beginning, in women’s rights!

Christmas Is Coming!

I’ve got pottery to make for Christmas and my forearms hurt from 6 hours of doing it yesterday. So far I’ve made my stuff for the Killingsworth Auction to help one of our women’s shelters. One of my ministers is getting married and her vase is made. I’ve done another 51 bowls and vases for the staff in the United Methodist Center. What I have left are 20 pieces for the Cabinet, 20 pieces for the family, and 100 Christmas ornaments for all of the Columbia District clergy, active and retired. Plus everything has to be bisque-fired and then glazed and fired again. It’s a daunting task. I love doing it. I’m just tired.

I never keep anything for myself and relish giving it away. I don’t grow vegetables to offer people, but pottery I can do! My problem is that I’m not finished with Charge Conferences and today is November 2! Christmas parties and the Big Day itself are right around the corner. Can it be done? I’ve got glazes to mix and there’s little fun in putting your hands in wet glaze and sieving it through a mesh on a cold day. That my pottery studio isn’t heated doesn’t help. What will be my motivation to finish the task?

Psychologists, for years, have said that one of the best ways to get out of the doldrums is to make yourself do something for somebody else. They’re right! If we give in to the pits we’re never going to get out. Commitment is the ability to push through the pain, the angst, the pessimistic cynical mindset in which we find ourselves and keep at the projects that we’re supposed to complete. George Miller gave an interesting analogy, “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.” What he’s saying about Italian food is true for me. It sticks with me for a long time. To paraphrase John Wesley, “Doing all the good we can sticks with us, too!” We have to keep at the things that matter!

So, when we’re a little down, we shouldn’t give in to it. We should stick to the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. Sure, I know very well that sometimes I don’t feel like going out to my pottery studio, but I also know the endorphins that are released when I throw clay will make me feel better. Visiting someone, doing my devotions, or presiding over Charge Conferences isn’t always appealing, but spiritual energy is released every time!  Missionary and martyr Jim Elliott said something that inspires me to be committed no matter the task: “Wherever you are, be all there.” Unfortunately, there are lots of us looking forward to the weekend too much. Many of us easily avoid the things we should be doing right now. Jerome K. Jerome, who lived from 1859-1927, said it for all sad-sacks and procrastinators, “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

So maybe we shouldn’t vegetate and let our burdens build up. Doing something good and worthwhile is a better answer. It’s all about commitment. Lewis Smedes puts the matter quite plainly, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God… When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and control at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.” Today I will think of others and let nothing dissuade me from doing everything that I can for somebody else!

General Malaise

Maybe it’s the clouds and drizzle that we’ve had for three days, but I’ve literally sensed a pall over things. I don’t know what it is, but IT is usually something. Charge conferences are going well although there have been a few rough patches. There have been the usual nay-saying phone calls that are the soup de jour for a district superintendent. I have been non-reactive and tried very faithfully to be calmer as things get more tense. So far so good, but I have a wierd sense of dread-like unease waiting for the other proverbial shoe to fall. I am not a worrier, but there’s that nagging question of “What’s going on?” running through my subconscious and breaking into my conscious thinking. Have you ever been like this?

I am sleeping well, eating well, been around good positive people. My devotional life is great. Heck, even the stock market has been pretty much up for the last week. The biggest downers that I can point to are Steve Spurrier, the USC Football Coach, acting juvenile with a newspaper reporter that gets his goat, and 5th year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia’s final dismissal from the team. As a long-suffering Gamecock fan I know not to get too worked up or stressed out about the fortunes of our football team. I know this feeling I’m having isn’t about the ALCS or NLCS baseball games or a delay in the NBA season. Sports is a wonderful distraction from life, but I’m not one of those who lives and breathes for the next game or the stat line. Sure, it’s important and I want my team to win but there are bigger fish to fry in the game of life.

So what is it? What is it for you? Is there a general malaise that’s befallen society, the church, me, you? Christmas is coming and I have pottery to make but the thought of doing it is daunting rather than its usual exhilaration. Has the worry-bug got me? You? Maybe. Most of us in church work know the truth of the misconstrued sign, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the Church help!” Yep, for us churchy types, lay or clergy, the church is often our source of anxiety, not the cure. Worship and spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, serving others, being in a small group, and giving always improve my depleted emotional resources. Going to Mt. Mitchell is my oasis but that won’t happen again until sometime in November or next spring. Too cold and wet right now. Now into a three-day funk it wouldn’t much matter what I do or where I go. As someone said it, “If you want to get away from it all, don’t take it all with you.” Yeah! Duh, but what if there’s no escape?

Caleb has been to visit friends in Washington State for a few weeks. Maybe it’s him on my mind. Narcie will be soon due for another MRI in the midst of what I call our “prolonged anxiety” about the brain tumor, but I’ve been following Cindy’s sage advice: “Turn your worries into prayers.” Maybe the breakthrough is just around the corner. I pray so for her and everyone who is out of work, who is facing the unknown with a terrible or unknowable prognosis, or anyone who  is sensing a cloud of nebulous bewilderment. These are stressful times!

So I’m going to turn back to the One who is ever ready to come to our aid: God! Jesus! Helmut Thielicke, in his book Life Can Begin Again, offers a great word for me and all of you who are tired or just plain weary: “We should not artificially turn away from our worries by constantly listening to the radio, for example, or running to the movies, or some other kind of busywork, but rather direct our cares to him who wills to bear and share all our sin and all our suffering and therefore all our cares. No diversion, but directing our cares. This is what to do. Jesus did not say: Look at the ostrich, how it buries its head in the desert sand and so tries to escape the fear of danger. No, he said: Look at the birds of the air, keep your eyes open, stand up straight and look to the heights where God makes known his grace and care.” Matthew 11:28 works, too. Straight from Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 1 Peter 5:6 is also a help: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may lift you up in due time.” Isn’t it due-time yet? That’s not my task. My task is to humble myself and wait. God does the lifting. Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-23 and start warming up the choir!

Casual Fridays & Halloween Masks

It’s another Casual Friday and I’m in a suit. Now I love putting on my jeans and a comfortable fleece top when the weather is wet like today, but I have consultations with pastors for the next 8 hours. I imagine they will come in dressed well. It would be a put-down if I dressed down for them. It would be saying, “I value me over you.”

How does it make you feel to go to a special function and there is someone there who is inappropriately dressed? Are you tired of the dressed-down casual look that is so pervasive in our society? Ball caps don’t cut it in fine restaurants and hardly anywhere else. Where are our standards of proper decorum? But just as quickly as I want to put up fences to keep the riff-raff out, I am reminded that Jesus wasn’t very exclusive. Unlike Augusta National, He let just about anybody into the Kingdom. It was the Pharisees who had such impossibly high standards that they missed the Messiah and the Kingdom.

Thinking of pharisaical dress codes reminds me of a family that had invited a college student and his date over to their house for Sunday lunch. As everyone started to relax, the host said to the young man, “Why don’t you take your coat off?” The host had already taken off his coat and tie. The young man kind of hem-hawed around, however, as if he didn’t want to do it. Finally, he got the host off in a corner and said, reminding the man of an old trick that he knew well when he was in college, “The only parts of my shirt I ironed were the cuffs and the collar.” He had pressed just the parts that showed. The rest of the shirt looked as if he had ironed it with a weedeater! That was the way of the Pharisees: the part people could see looked great, but their interiors were a different story.

Jesus wants us to look good inside out. His solution to our dress code dilemma is found in the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in Sanctifying Grace that creates clean hearts and lives in you and me. We cannot measure up on our own, but God can make us new creatures! Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “The gospel life isn’t something we learn ABOUT and then put together with instructions from the manufacturer; it’s something we BECOME as God does his work of creation and salvation in us and as we accustom ourselves to a life of belief and obedience and prayer.”

This is a good old-fashioned Wesleyan emphasis on Sanctification. We’re saved by grace, to be sure, but there IS a dress code! Consider this pastor’s dilemma: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was appointed. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary.

All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

This makes me ask, “Compared to what I think a Christian should be or look like, what am I?” The stores already have Halloween candy galore on display and ghoulish masks are on sale everywhere. The masks that really scare me are the ones we wear when we’re trying to hide from God and our neighbors. My daddy would often say one of his favorite proverbs when my shoes weren’t shined or I looked too much like a hippie as a teenager, “Proper display is half-sold.” However, dignity isn’t found in what we wear. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “It’s found in the content of our character.” Our character is what is revealed when we shed our masks and love our neighbors as ourselves! Dressing appropriately is important. Acting appropriately is even more important!

Memories of God

A week ago today 15 of the Columbia District clergy went to the top of Mt. Mitchell for 3 days of retreat. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Things are so busy right now. I have consultations every hour on the hour for the next 3 weeks. I have charge conferences to preside over every night. This past Friday night I had to work in a SPRC meeting dealing with church conflict. Yesterday was 3 charge conferences plus two sermons, one filling in for a preacher who had a heart cath on Friday. I’m whipped but here I am back at it. Such is the life of a United Methodist District Superintendent, but, thank God for Sabbath rest when it comes.

Thank God for memories, too. Sometimes I fall asleep thinking/praying about God’s grace and providence. I remember my parents, other family members, special events like great times with Cindy or Narcie, Josh, and Caleb. I think about their weddings, graduations, the joy of hearing them preach and grow, become parents to Enoch, Evy, And Kaelea. I think about being in a tent for two weeks for two years in a row with Caleb and can feel the gentle breeze while sleeping ever so soundly. I just wrote a note for a friend who is about to go on the Walk to Emmaus Spiritual Life Weekend reminding him of how often I have seen God in his life. I’ll never forget how he came and sat up all night with me in the hospital as my Dad was dying. Last night as I preached revival I was blessed to see many friends from a former church that I served. Good and poignant memories flooded my mind.

I am rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God. It is a sublime reminder of God’s presence in the nodal points of our lives, the hinge-moments that shape our theology and understanding of God. The narrative of God intersects with our narrative and Jesus’ incarnation is made personally real. In twenty-minutes I have my first consultation of today and they go straight through until late this afternoon when I head to a charge conference. It is good to start the day with memories of God. They are fresh every day and get me through it. I took the above photos last Monday and they will serve me well as good memories of God’s unfailing presence! Soak up the memories so that they will last. Dwell on them so that they inspire you. Have a great week.

Acute Appointment Anxiety

Being a District Superintendent is something that I honestly love being and doing. I just got back to the office after spending several hours with a pastor and spouse walking, talking, and having lunch together. This time of year is when I spend three hours with each clergy doing whatever they want to do. We build relationships and we get to know each other a lot better than we do when we’re having consultations in my office. These times are a blessing. I’ll never forget last year around this time as I was with several of my clergy on a canoeing trip when I got the call about Narcie being in a hospital by herself and finding out she had brain tumor. A few days later I was doing pottery with some clergy when she called to let me know the scary prognosis. We were there for each other. I broke down and cried and they cried and prayed with me. Transparency and vulnerability is a good thing. We need community, especially as clergy who are always giving, giving, giving. I want to say thanks for everyone’s support, and ask that you continue to pray that Narcie’s tumor disappears and/or doesn’t grow. She goes back for her every 3 month MRI next week. This is when the prolonged state of anxiety gets acute. Help!

This is also the time of year when every United Methodist Clergyperson has acute appointment anxiety. Am I moving, or not? It’s the same for local churches. I’m  getting last minute phone calls from churches either lobbying for their pastor to move or stay. We start appointment making this Friday morning and it’s an arduous task bathed in prayer and full of emotion. We want to do what’s best for both churches and clergy, all to the glory of God. Our system is so different from the way average Americans think. It’s my perception that Americans would rather go out and pick their pastor the same way corporations and businesses hire people. The United Methodist system of episcopal supervision and appointments listens to what churches need and tries to match those needs with a particular clergyperson’s gifts and graces.

In our system we believe God calls people to ministry and the Annual Conference through the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Session validate that call. From then on we are a sent ministry. UM churches don’t send out “pulpit committees” to guage a potential pastor. The SPRC meets with me and the other DS’ to discuss the needs and we try to find the right person. I ask the Staff-Parish Relations Committee to do a secret ballot and vote on what the church/community needs during this season of its life in a pastor. I give them 3 choices that summarize Par. 340 “Duties of a Pastor” in our Book of Discipline. The choices that I think sum up what every pastor should bring to the table are: Leadership, Proclamation, and Pastoral Care.

Anyway, I use this information to guide my thinking about the clergy leadership that a church needs. This is what all DS’ do. We know that clergy exist for local churches, not the other way around! The local church is the primary arena for disciple-making. Please pray for us as we attempt this week to make this happen through the appointments. The church’s relevancy to the world depends on getting this right!