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When Ministry Is Hard

 

Ministry is hard when you have to stand beside and pray on behalf of a mom who has lost her 7 and a half week old reminding her that she still has to take care of her postpartum body that hasn’t even healed yet.

Ministry is hard in a political climate that is divisive, filled with name calling, and high stakes.

Ministry is hard in the midst of decline church membership, declining budgets, and increased expectations on time and responsibilities.

Ministry is hard when you feel called to serve, but can’t find a place to call you to serve.

Ministry is hard when you see over and over again the hurt and pain the church has caused so many people.

Ministry is hard when you are ministering to the homeless and hear people remark about how people who are homeless are just lazy because there are jobs available everywhere and you know it’s not true.

Ministry is hard when you find your privilege exposed and your assumptions revealed.

Ministry is hard as our culture looks to our churches for guidance on how to interpret the violence we experience much too often.

Ministry is hard as you navigate what it means to be someone who is called God’s word to God’s people.

Thanks be to God for those men and women who are ministers, especially when ministry is hard.

 

Worship When Life Has Not Gone As Planned

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The call Sam and I felt to start ministrieslab to pop up in the midst of need is indeed a call from God to minister to God’s people, but I didn’t realize it was a call to question my own privilege. Privilege that blinds me to need. Privilege that causes me to think I know how to help people. Privilege that makes me believe I know how to plan an authentic and engaging worship service because I hold a MDiv.

Privilege that’s challenged me every week over the past eight weeks as I walk into Transitions Homeless Shelter. As I walked in today, our pianist was practicing, but this week it was different. He had gathered a chorus with him, a chorus that gladly agreed to sing as part of our service. As they ran through Amazing Grace, more and more people came in the open door and set down as I set the Lord’s table for communion.

And with the music, came worship.

Worship not that I had planned, but that the clients at Transitions led. Worship that came from their hearts, their concerns, their voices, their experiences, their needs. Worship led by God’s people. Worship that transformed my understanding of what worship truly is.

I come from a tradition of carefully-crafted worship services with orders of worships, written calls to worship where the leader and people’s parts are clearly labeled, and where those who lead the service often don’t worship because they are concerned about ensuring that everything goes as planned. Today, I didn’t have to start the worship service, but instead I was invited into worship with this community of faith.

There is a beautiful truth that exists in this integrated community of faith: life has not gone as planned. In this community of faith, race, gender, and sexuality don’t matter because the truth that we are all in need transcends all those labels. It reminds me a lot of our chapel experiences at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity that invited us to worship together, black and white, old and young, male and female, and all kinds of different sexuality.

Perhaps instead of planning worship so carefully, we should instead plan on placing ourselves in the midst of need. Because there in the midst of need, we will surely find the presence of God.

 

 

On Coming in Second and Competition for Open Positions

“I don’t want to be in competition with you. I want to be in collaboration, in community, in fellowship with you,” I recently admitted to a group of young baptists. It was a reflection on the realization that the open pulpits that exist are not enough for the number of talented men and women who are looking for pastor positions.

Of the 17% of people who attend church, 50% of those people attend megachurch, leaving the other 50% of that 17% who are attending all other churches. It’s a shocking realization for those of us who are in CBF because it indicates a shrinking job market. It’s even more shocking for young baptists who have answered a call to ministry hoping and praying to also provide for their families as they answer that call.

It’s another statistic that reminds us that the church is changing and reminds us that the future of the church might look drastically different than it has in the past 100 years. It’s another statistic that reminds us that bi-vocationalism is going to become more and more important. It’s another statistic that reminds us that those we called classmates and friends could very well be our competition in our next search process experience.

For those who have been down to the final two candidates and not been called, may God’s peace surround you and remind you that even when a church doesn’t call you, you are still called. Even in the midst of competition and a shrinking job market, you are still called. May Creator God inspire you to think of new ways to serve and create in this changing dynamic of church to which we are called.

 

When Partners Become Co-Pastors

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I relayed to Emmanuel this past week during our Easter celebration that Mary in John’s gospel account was in the same place. For years she had dedicated herself to being a disciple of Jesus, which was easy to define because Jesus was among them. He was literally walking among them, so following him meant walking with him, but once he died, none of Jesus’ disciples knew exactly what it meant to be a disciple anymore. How do you follow someone who no longer is walking among you?

Mary decided she was going to go to the place where she last saw Jesus: to his tomb, but what she found confused her even more. His body was not there and the stone had been rolled away. She ran to tell the other disciples what she had seen. And after the disciples saw and left the tomb, Mary let the emotion of what she had experienced and the grief over Jesus’ death engulf her and she stood at the edge of the tomb weeping. And again Mary is alone. She is alone with her grief, she is alone with her questions, she is alone. And she glances back into the tomb and with her tear-stained eyes, she saw two angels, these divine beings. And they asked her why she was weeping and she explained to them that she didn’t know where Jesus’ body was and with that statement what she was really saying was that she didn’t know what was going on or where to turn. Her whole life had been spent following Jesus and now what was she supposed to do when there wasn’t even a tomb holding the body of the one she had followed to visit or tend? She had nothing to do, but stand and stare.

In the midst of Mary’s confusion about what had happened and in her wondering what was next, there Jesus appeared to her, not as someone she recognized, but looking like a gardener, but when Jesus called her name, suddenly everything made sense. And because she is the first to witness the miracle, she is told to deliver the message to the other disciples.  And because she lingered alone, confused and frightened, she received an explanation for the empty tomb. And Mary, Mary alone who stood waiting and wondering at the tomb of Jesus  is the one who first sees and first hears from the Risen Christ.

Maybe it’s not in the certainty of the resurrected Christ, but in the uncertainty of what is going on and what’s going to happen next that we find Christ. Maybe it’s when we can’t find answers and when we aren’t sure about what we are seeing that Jesus enters the picture; a picture so confusing that we don’t even recognize him. And yes, maybe it’s when we are alone sobbing with grief, not understanding what we are seeing that we experience the Risen Christ.  

Maybe in our moments of vulnerability, of uncertainty, of not knowing what happens next, comes new life, new hope, a new chapter.

In the midst of this transitional period, I’ve had many people tell me that I had done it wrong. “You aren’t supposed to resign before you know what the next step is,” they told me, but I felt strongly that God was asking me to step into the unknown because God knows that it is the most uncomfortable and vulnerable place for me.

I’m so thankful I have a partner who dares me to dream bigger and challenges me to see more and bigger than I ever would be able to see alone.

And by partner, I mean co-pastor!

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It’s Back to Work We Go

As 2015 comes to a close, there are more than resolutions on my mind. With the end of the year, my maternity leaves also ends, and I join the ranks of working moms who are trying to balance the demands of a professional life as well as a new baby. I started reading on the topic almost from the moment we found out we were pregnant. I had to stop numerous times because if you research the subject as a new or expectant mom, you’ll be overwhelmed and discouraged.

With that in mind, here are a couple of books I’ve read:

Tina Fey admits to all women that she is in a different situation than a lot because has the means to hire good help. I especially love her reference to breastfeeding and how it was the most wonderful 48 hours of her life. She is real and honest about her love for her children and her love for her work.

 

 

 Sheryl Sandberg’s admits that she was tough of working moms before she became a mom. She also admits that she was working in the hospital after she had her child, not because she had to, but rather because she needed to check in. While her viewpoint is interesting, it’s not reality for the majority of women who don’t have the means she and her husband have at their disposal.

 

This was my favorite read thus far because it is from the perspective of two working pastor-moms. They admit the times that they feel like they should be gaining theological insight from the parenting experience, but can only see dirty laundry, dirty diapers, and dirty dishes.

 

 

I am extremely lucky to be able to work from home frequently as well as having a partner who is vested in creating a life so that we can spend lots of time with Ben, but it’s still hard. It’s hard because parenting in and of itself is hard. It’s hard because you want to teach your children to be independent while wanting them to know they have a support system and a foundation that is sound and stable. It’s hard because there are so many different ways to parent and to care for a child that are good and valid and important. It’s hard because you as parents are also individuals who have desires and passions that drive and inspire you.

As I listen to Ben learning to make sounds and as I smile back at him as he begins to recognize me, I wonder what work will look like for him. I wonder if he will ever live in a world where people “go to work” for certain periods of time everyday. I’m not sure, but I hope what I am teaching him as a working mom is to go after his dreams and passions and to sculpt a life around those rather than having people dictate his life for him.

Life’s just too short to do otherwise.

On Carrying Each Other’s Burdens

I’ve never been in combat nor have I ever trained to be in combat, but I know good people who have given body and mind to training and serving. They have told me that when one of your fellow soldiers goes down, you lean down, pick them up, throw them over your shoulder, and get them to safety and help if at all possible.

This is not a situation we are well-trained for in civilian life. In fact, more often than not, we walk by those in the most dire need holding our appointments or our assumptions that the person in need got himself or herself into the position in the first place as more important than serving another member of the human race.

I didn’t anticipate that being called pastor would change the way people saw me, but every day I have people who contact me asking for help. They ask for prayer. They ask for financial help. They ask for perspective. They ask for insight. They ask for hope that there is another human being who can see them.

And almost as often, I meet with friends who are ministers who are carrying not one fallen soldier, but five or ten or twenty-five. You can see it in their eyes and in their shoulders and in their walk that has slowed down from the weight of carrying another’s burdens. It’s something we, as ministers, train for in seminary, but the pure weight of the number of people who are in need and the time and energy to truly care for a person has increased as humanity has become more divisive and more concerned with selfies than with relating and interacting with those who breath the same air.

If asked, I am not sure anyone, a person of faith or a not, would volunteer to carry another person’s burdens, but if we don’t start carrying one another and leave it to those who are paid to care, then we soon won’t have enough ministers to care for all the need.

Slow down. Take the time to see the people around you and it won’t take long before you see the great need that surrounds you.

The Revolving Door of Ministry

It’s been a year since I graduated seminary and as the class who I was in classes with starts their final year of seminary, I wonder what they are walking into. What will the world of ministry look like in a year, especially for those who are looking to find positions in parish ministry?

I didn’t realize that “seminary student” was a special classification and that once you graduated and accepted a call to ministry, there would be a subtle, yet real change to how other ministers interacted with you. Although this makes sense, it is still surprising to me to be considered colleagues with those who have been in ministry for years. Yet, I have been welcomed into conversations, brainstorming opportunities, and even conversation in our state about what it means to be a pastor in 2015.

In the midst of these conversations, I have talked a lot about the nature of bi-vocational ministry and its sustainability as the future of the church. There are a couple of reasons this conversation is becoming more a part of mainstream conversations (even across theological dividing lines) about church work: church budgets are suffering and oftentimes personnel costs are the biggest expense and there aren’t as many full-time ministry positions available for the vast number of seminary students who are graduating and searching for positions.

The crux of the problem comes to those who are willing to try bi-vocational ministry when the new minister’s student debt or expenses exceeds the amount he or receives for the two jobs. Logically, it seems that this would work because by putting two jobs together that equal the starting salary of a minster, then the student should be able to make ends meet. The reality is that if you are working two part-time jobs, then the cost of health insurance, retirement contributions, and other benefits are covered by the new minister, making it nearly impossible to make any dent in student loans and other debts incurred while in seminary.

This is not a phenomena that is happening just in churches. In fact, as we live in post-2008 recession world, this mentality of paying less for highly-qualified people is called the interim strategy. Companies (and yes churches operate a lot like companies) have convinced themselves that “just for a little while” they will pay ministers less or combine two positions that were recently held by two people into one, so that the budget can catch up.

This interim strategy applies in reverse as well. Recent seminary graduates often decide to take jobs that are for less money, have less benefits, and more responsibilities as the end of their grace period on their loans looms overhead. They convince themselves that they are going to work in positions that they are overly qualified for or positions that don’t pay the average salary of minister “just for a little while” until they get the hang of ministry only to find out that they can’t make ends meet.

New, young ministers then get the reputation of not staying around in ministry positions for very long and leaving after one to two years perhaps from that “just for awhile” ministry position, but, in many cases, from ministry all together. This may not seem like such a big issue, especially because there is always a new crop of seminary students who will be looking for those “just for awhile” positions, allowing congregations to continue operating with an interim strategy, but the revolving door of ministry this kind of thinking creates is detrimental not only to the sustainability of congregations, but also to the gospel we try to preach and live by in those congregations. If we are suppose to welcome in those who are in need when they are hungry and need something to eat or when they don’t have clothes, give them something to wear, then are we truly living the gospel?

Maybe right now in the current economic context and in the midst of 7+ years of operating with an interim strategy, it’s our ministers who are struggling to buy groceries and clothes and pay for their houses and find themselves in need while also trying to serve others.

Finding Home

 

 

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which has made me fall in love with her writing and her ability to tell a story all over again. As I talking to Elisabeth this week on our weekly podcast, she told me that Gilbert had done several Ted Talks, which of course I needed to check out.

You should listen to the whole thing:

What struck me about this is her interpretation of home. “Home is the place or the thing that you love more than you love yourself.” For her, it was writing and that drove her through 6 years of frustrating failure.

There are so many of us who live each day off kilter and out of sync because what we are spending our time doing is so not who we are that we exist in a constant state of unhappy stress. Maybe you are living there because you are scared of change or scared of failure or scared of the unknown, but I just keep thinking there are only so many days we have to live. Why not risk living them to find home or if you’ve already found home to go home and enjoy giving up yourself for something more important?

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.