On Being Off Balance


This weekend was full of celebration for Baby Boy H. It was great to gather with friends and family in Spartanburg on Saturday morning, but it was also surreal as I opened little footed-bear pajamas and overalls and baseball outfits.

It isn’t that I haven’t felt pregnant because I certainly have (just ask Sam…on second thought, don’t ask him), but because the people who were gathered around me had known me since middle school and high school and some of them had even signed the registry for coming to see me when I was born. It was surreal because I was surrounded by the circle of life.

As we drove back to Columbia, I reflected on the fact that there was really no question anymore whether I was pregnant or not. There were no quick glances over the shoulder, no more wondering eyes. And if the stomach wasn’t a big enough clue, there were the moments where I bumped into counters I had been around my whole life at my mom and dad’s house and that one incident in which I knocked my two-year old nephew down because I didn’t see his head, which lined up exactly to Baby H.

Certainly the growing belly and baby are asking me to exist in this world differently from what I drink and eat to how I fill the space around me to how I interact with friends and family and even strangers. It is all so new and different sometimes and other times it feels so natural and like this is exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

And I wonder if we find ourselves in predictable patterns in life because there really are predictable patterns or whether we create this seemingly predictable patterns ignoring the fact that the world around us is changing. We are getting older, the people we grew up with are getting older, the Supreme Court is passing a Marriage Equality Act, the South Carolina State House is taking down the confederate flag, people are hacking into cars as people are driving on the interstate…

We can get so caught up in trying to maintain balance and equilibrium that we ignore the rapid change that is all around us because we don’t want to be off balance. We want to stand strong and confident and sure of what we believe and how the world operates. We want to know what the future holds and be sure that the way we are spending our time is the right way to spend your time.

But we can’t know that.

Because even the earth itself is sitting at a 23.5% tilt, a little off balance.

And maybe when we can get to the point that we acknowledge that we are off balance and we don’t know what the road ahead holds, than we can really hold this moment as something unique and special, something that will never happen exactly the same again.

Maybe that’s when we can truly become whole beings living in this off balanced world.

Bi-Vocational Ministry: The Future of the Church?

This summer’s travel to Dallas to meet up with pastors and ministers from across the country has reminded me of the importance of creating relationships with colleagues in ministry. This is especially important for those who are working in bi-vocational ministry and as single-staff church leaders who don’t have colleagues to brush shoulders with everyday.

There is a double-edged sword to being a bi-vocational minister. It is impossible to be there for everything the church does or everything that church members need. This enables a leadership model that empowers the people of the church (or a multiplicity of leadership) to minister to each other and to do the work of the church because quite simply there isn’t someone who is paid to take care of everything all the time.

I really do believe the church is called to into a multiplicity of leadership if it wishes to engage mission. There can be no hierarchy in the church on mission because hierarchy centralizes authority and power. For a church to engage Mission we must do the opposite: disperse authority and power.

On the other hand, having one person who is responsible for the theological guidance of the church can be dangerous because pastoring and ministering are never part time.

These demands aren’t part time. In fact, the early church appointed deacons because they recognized that the time demands on a pastor are big enough that they need to be kept from doing other things…Frankly, pastoring just takes lots of time. It takes sitting with people andsimply listening to them. Pastoring is slow work. Pastor’s are often called to just be present, not looking at the clock, wondering if this is going to go past their 10–15 hours this week. Pastors are called to pray and listen to God with their Bibles open, without hurrying.

If anything is evident from the recent Pew research, it’s that the model we have been using for years isn’t something that will last into the future. This means by necessity or by design bi-vocational ministry is going to become more and more of a reality for ministers and churches.The practicality of bi-vocational ministry runs in contradiction to the 9-5 typical work week and schedule of other industries. This means that ministers who are bi-vocational ministry are going to have to be creative about the work they do and the times that work gets done.  If bi-vocational ministry is the future of the church, then we have an awful lot of work to do as ministers and as congregation in dreaming up new ways to do church.


Walking in Washington



This summer, we got the opportunity to walk in Washington, DC with our girls. When I say we walked, we walked over 10 miles in a day as we went to the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of American History, toured the capital, and saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. It was a great chance for us to spend time together with each other as a family, but also for us to remember that we live in a culture that is bigger than just Columbia, SC and remember that we are a part of a bigger culture and community as citizens of the United States of America.

Just by chance, we were there at the same time that we the Marriage Equality Act was passed. As we talked about it with our girls who are 7.5 and 5, we realized that this was a historic moment for us and for them, but in completely different ways. Sam and I would always remember the debates and discussion that lead to this act being brought before the Supreme  Court, but for the girls, it is different. They haven’t ever lived in a world where they don’t know kids who have same-sex parents, so as we tried to explain to them what the Supreme Court had decided, they looked confused. In their world, there are already families who are families with two moms or two dads. We explained that there were families that already existed, but there were other places where those families couldn’t be families across our country.

These are the moments for me as a parent where I realize that the world is changing because the world I knew growing up isn’t the world they now know. Their perspectives and their views will determine where the world will go, not mine.

And suddenly, the most important work I can do is to walk with them in Washington and as they grow up.

Part-Time vs. Bivocational Ministry

At the CBF General Assembly this year, I led a breakout session about bivocational ministry. Throughout my time in divinity school, we talked about the future of ministry being bivocational ministry, but I was surprised to find out that when I tell people I am bivocational, they are surprised. The more ministers I meet, the more I am discovering that bivocational ministry is not an unusual concept, and yet to many people it still seems out of the ordinary. If bivocational is indeed the future of the church, then it is important to distinguish between bivocational ministry and part-time ministry for churches and ministers. What I have found is that the two terms are often used interchangeable when the expectations are quite different.

I have found more than once a listing for a bivocational ministry position that is really a part-time position. There are several ways to distinguish between the two. Part-time positions are often stipend positions and as such there are not negotiations or considerations about pay raises or the possibilities of pay raises. Part-time positions don’t include discussions of benefits or any kind of “add ons” to the position. Part-time positions don’t always have an advanced degree expectation from the applicants and are often filled by seminary or college students. Part-time positions also often include a rotating amount of hours.

In comparison, bivocational ministry should look a little bit different. If the position is truly meant to be bivocational, then it means that the person who takes the position should be able to double his or her salary and arrive at the averages salary for a minister. The average salary for a minister can be found by consulting denominational leaders or can be compared to teachers in the area with similar education and years of experience. Since the bivocational position is meant for the person who holds the position to work two jobs, then the hour expectations should fall within the 20-30 hours per week expectations. In addition, the hour expectations makes it difficult if not impossible to hold a full-time job in addition to this position, so the discussions in a bivocational ministry position should include some talk of benefits and/or “add ons” to the salary. Salary discussions should also include plans or possibilities of raises. Bivocational ministry positions often have the expectations of a completed advanced degree or work towards an advanced degree.

This discussion is important because it empowers the minister who is looking for a position and a church who is looking for a position to be accurate in their expectations of a position. In addition, if bivocational ministry is the future of the church, then we need to better understand what that term means and what a minister who seeks a bivocational ministry position needs in order to provide for himself or herself. These conversations maintain a respect and understanding of the professional nature of ministry and minister even within the changing landscape of church life and church leadership.

When expectations are clarified and understood by both sides, then ministers and churches have a better chance of working together to further kingdom work.


Serving Together

me and jeff

This Sunday, we served communion after we participated in #chimewithcharleston as a way to remind ourselves not only of Jesus’ sacrifice, but also the sacrifice of the nine people who were following in his footsteps as they welcomed the stranger into their community. It was a holy time as we remembered their broken bodies and their blood shed and as we remembered Jesus’ broken body and shed blood. And we remembered that the Lord’s table invites us all in. We remembered that the table is also a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

As I walked away from the table, I realized that it was a powerful image to have my serving alongside our summer intern Jeff who has just finished his first year of seminary.

A black man and a white woman ministering to a congregation might seem odd to a lot of people. In fact, as I have introduced him to people as our intern, we have gotten responses like, “Oh that’s great, so now your congregation is multiracial.” Even though the person didn’t know anything about Emmanuel or the makeup of our congregation, the underlying assumption is that we wouldn’t be serving together.

We could have brushed off the comment as ill-informed or misguided as it certainly was, but there is a deeper issue for us baptists who consider ourselves moderate or progressive. What are we really doing to try to serve together, as men and women, black and white, and people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Are we really challenging ourselves to connect and serve together or are we much more comfortable serving ourselves?

What if it didn’t take nine deaths to bring churches in the same city together? What if partnership were our natural inclination rather than competition?

I’m guessing the world would look a little different if we as leaders in churches and we as leaders in our community served together.


One of my favorite parts of being the Editor-in-Chief at Harrelson Press is conferecing. I know that many authors and have worked with many authors for whom this is not try. They would much rather be huddled at their computer making stories and characters come alive, but for me, the one who gets to edit those stories and transform them into books, the best part of the publishing process is sharing the wonderful stories I receive with other people.

This week I am Dallas and am anxious to share Stacy Sergent’s book Being Called Chaplain with a national audience. She writes about the difficulty of residency and the strains of finding your faith as a chaplain. I think she thought that her audience would be mainly chaplains, but what has been so incredible for me to watch as her publisher is the way her story of trying to find and maintain her faith in the midst of life transcends the walls of the hospital to being relevant to anyone who is trying to find his or her faith in the midst of life.

It’s not easy when we encounter tragedy and pain to believe in God, especially when that tragedy and pain is so close to our own hearts. Stacy’s honest reflection and struggle demonstrate that it’s still possible, and it’s still worth the wrestling.

Read it and believe again. And if you’re going to be in Dallas, come find her at the Chaplain’s breakfast at the CBF General Assembly!

Faith Restoration and Conference

I was recently contacted via my contact form on this website to speak at a conference at Victory Church in London. Immediately, I felt there was something fishy about the email, but the reason for suspicion turned out to be a completely different reason than I thought. The invitation or initial contact sounded something like this:

The event organizing committee had a meeting few hours ago to deliberate on getting you available here in the United Kingdom after receiving your letter. We believe we serve the Lord of Possibilities. Arrangements are stated below.

We have attached a formal Letter of Invitation and contract agreement. Please reconfirm to us your Mailing Address and Cell phone number for our perusal and further action. Note you are meant to arrive a day before the commencement of the event.

Please return a signed copy of the contract agreement for proper documentation.

We have agreed to take care of your hotel accommodation expenses, feeding and ground transportation including airline ticket booking.

Of course, I went and checked out their website and the staff page indicated that the person who was contacting me was in fact on staff there as well as his appearance on other social media networks. This was certainly not a bot or a scam sequence, but inevitably two questions kept nagging me:

  • What are their views of women in ministry?
  • How would they have know me?

So, I continued to researched and turns out that neither of those questions mattered because, thankfully, others had experience the same thing:

But, it is clearly a scam.  I don’t know where the scam lies, but I suspect money would be requested of me when I tried to get a work permit (the email address of the UK border staff looks decidedly suspicious).  Or perhaps they would ask for my bank account information to give me the $7500 deposit and then would drain it instead.

It’s a hard time to be a minister with budgets being cut and full positions being combined to save money, so unfortunately most of us can imagine what it would be like to work for 5 days and make the kind of money it takes months and months to make.

I share hopefully to help some others out there who might also be contacted, but also to say, stay the course. The work is hard and exhausting and you, my fellow ministers, probably aren’t being paid enough, but you are changing lives and you are changing the world.


$1.50 Grace

I went to the library today expecting to fess up to the fact that I had turned in an overdue book because it was a new release, and I just wasn’t quite finished with it. I knew what I had done and even if I had forgotten the email notice addressed Merianna Louise Neely Harrelson certainly got my attention as the use of my full name did when I was a child. I had calculate out that the amount I would owe would be about $1.50. I even had cash for the occasion.

So, I was very surprised when I brought my stack of books to the checkout and admitted to having a a late fine only to find out that there was no fine on my account. I knew I had received an overdue notice, but there must have been a grace period extended even on new release non-renewable items, even for repeat late return offenders like myself.

The librarian smiled and said, “Well, that’s something unexpected and nice for today.”

I smiled in response and started to think about that $1.50. It doesn’t seem like much, but it could be a pack of gum of box of mints to help us get from Columbia to Asheville on one of our many trips back and forth. It could be a water or pack of peanuts at a gas station when Baby H is desperate for a snack.

And it could be just a little bit of the divine creeping into regular life reminding me that there are always opportunities to see people and to help people no matter how little the gesture may seem.

A Pastor’s Persepctive A Year Later


I look at this picture from a year ago and wonder if I knew what I was getting into in accepting a call to pastor. I wonder if my family knew what they were getting into in supporting and encouraging me to pursue my call to minister.

Family Pic 1 Year Anniversary

A year later, we are all looking at the camera. The girls are much bigger and older and wiser and overall growing way too fast. We are in a different church building. I am wearing another beautiful gift from my congregation. (It’s a scapular, in case you were wondering.) There’s also another Harrelson growing and changing us all as we await Baby H’s arrival in November.

But I wonder more than anything if I look as different as I feel. Sure, my hair is shorter, and I think the circles under my eyes are more pronounced, but as I look at the first picture, I can see myself looking into the future for our congregation. I can see the hope of the future and the excitement for the vision God has given me for God’s people.

In the second picture, a year later, I am looking directly into the camera because we are living the future God has called us to. We are more fully grounded in who we are as a congregation and what God has called us to. We are standing taller and more sure-footed than we were a year ago not because our journey has been easy, but rather because our journey has asked us to stretch our definition of what it means to be church and what it means to be followers of Christ. And because the more we have answered God’s call on our lives, the more God is calling us to do.

It’s not easy to be a community of faith together not only because of the rapid changes that are occurring culturally, but also because it’s hard to live in community together. I am so proud to be pastoring a community that is willing to change and be flexible and who is willing to take risks. They are teaching me about what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.