On leaving ministry

This June, I won’t be receiving reappointment to my church. It will mark the end of twenty years in pastoral ministry. I just shared the news with our church this morning. I wrote the narrative and reflection below as a way of understanding and clarifying some of the process for myself as I prepared to share with others.

A little more than a year ago, I had a restlessness I’ve never had before. I was hardly sleeping. I was more emotional than I’ve ever been. Emily (my wife) saw me cry more in the first few months of 2020 than in the first twenty years of our relationship. I sat with Todd (my boss/pastor/15-years ministry partner) in a coffee shop and was barely able to hold myself together as we talked about the future. Things were actually going well. I was enjoying life and ministry as much as ever. It was an odd time to be over-emotional, especially as someone who’s rarely emotional at all. Yet I had a nagging sense that something was off.

At that point, our family was planning to go to Spain for the next year. We had already arranged for me to come back to my position at the church on the other end of that time. But part of my restlessness was a feeling that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t actually be coming back at the other end.

That was not an exciting thought to me. I’ve loved the work of ministry and particularly the church and community where I’ve gotten to lead. I’ve told people often that I didn’t expect to leave until they carried me out (in a box, not on their shoulders, hopefully not with pitchforks). So the strong emotions weren’t because of dissatisfaction about what I was doing. They were more about grief that I felt like it might be coming to an end.

That all came before the pandemic. The pandemic obviously changed our plans for Spain, but it also brought some relief––or at least distraction––from any notion that I wouldn’t continue in ministry. But sometime near the end of summer, the questions about what I was doing returned, and they only grew from there.

I’ve talked and written quite a bit about calling. I’ve done that in part to try to understand it myself. The idea of calling to a particular place or task or role is, in some ways, still a mystery to me. I said for years that I wasn’t sure I was “called” to ministry, only that the work I was doing seemed good and right, and so long as others would let me do it, I’d take it as a path God had made available.

When we came back from Spain in 2014, I thought for a moment that I wasn’t going to come back to pastoral ministry. In fact, I rather actively tried not to. That was the last time I had the kind of restlessness I experienced over this past year. Then, it was a nagging sense that I was making the wrong decision if I didn’t come back to this. Now, it has been a sense that I would be making the wrong decision if I stayed.

Maybe this is all so mysterious to me because I tend to make decisions based on reason and spreadsheets, not on feelings and senses. And yet, while most of my daily life decisions are rational and pragmatic, the biggest decisions haven’t been. Our sabbatical year, coming back into ministry in 2014, leaving it now in 2021, none of those have been rational, spreadsheet, pros and cons decisions. They all came with a sense that I needed to choose a certain direction, that to do anything else would be to choose the wrong way.

Some people speak freely and often about God’s leading as they make decisions. Though I certainly believe God leads, directs, and calls, I’m hesitant to label particular decisions this way. It has a tendency to shut down any other conversation. Once you’ve played the “God card,” no one has permission to question your decision. I don’t want to play that card in that way. And yet, God’s leading is the best way I can describe the process behind some of these big decisions. God hasn’t spoken any of these plans in a voice from the heavens, and I can’t with certainty call it something as strong as the clear will of God. But for lack of any better understanding, I’ve taken these decisions as following the leading of God. I hope that’s what it is.

The final few steps in this direction came through the fall and winter. If you read this blog regularly, you might have noticed that I began writing reflections on my first twenty years in ministry last fall. Part of my motivation was to take some extra time to reflect on calling and ministry and just how good this work is. Ministry during pandemic has been … mostly miserable. But a lot of things have been miserable during this time, and the pandemic will end. As I started to ask questions again about the future, I wanted to be sure I was doing that while reflecting on calling and the goodness of ministry, not to be misled by the temporary frustrations of pandemic-era ministry.

A fast was the last major step. At the start of 2020, I had invited several people to participate in a 10-day fast during the UMC General Conference. When the pandemic canceled the conference, I canceled the fast. In December, I decided to observe that fast as a time for prayer and discernment about the future. That time and some important conversations in the first weeks of 2021 gave me final confirmation that it was time to make a change.

The decision to leave comes with a lot of grief. Pastoral ministry has been so good. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with people celebrating their most important moments, grieving with them in the hardest times, and offering a word of support or direction or prayer in the times when they needed it most. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time studying Scripture in preparation for preaching and teaching. And I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time giving other people opportunities to lead and watching them grow. What a gift to have called this my job for twenty years. Already I have some hope that maybe that sense of calling back to this work will return one day. But for now, I get the sense that it’s not my work to do anymore. At least not in this way.

What’s Next?

I’ve heard many people advise never to leave one thing until you’re drawn to the next. I think I needed something nearly the opposite. I had never given much attention to what I would do if it weren’t pastoral ministry. I never expected to do anything else as my primary focus, except perhaps to teach theology and be a pastor on the side.[note]Even in that brief time in Spain when I had said I wasn’t coming back, there wasn’t much space to consider what I’d do instead. That was all filled with a sinking feeling that I was making the wrong decision.[/note] The sense of calling away from ministry allowed me to recognize new interests that had been growing over the past several years, ones I hadn’t even been able to recognize as such until I had some release from continuing in my current role.

I’ve had increasing chances in recent years to interact with other people working in public service across the city and state. The work they’re doing has been compelling to me. I’ve become fascinated with the law and the way it creates an ecosystem for us all to live within. I’ve seen how it can make it easier or more difficult for local businesses to start and grow, how it affects people’s ability to get and keep housing and jobs, and how it can help or hinder children from having the resources they need to thrive. By this summer, I was reading full majority and dissenting opinions that came out from the Supreme Court. Sometime around then, I began saying, “If I were ten years younger, I think I might go to law school.”

In November, as Emily and I drove back from a trip for my 40th birthday, I sat in the passenger seat taking career assessments on my phone. I had at least arrived at the point that I knew I needed to start thinking about what I would do if I weren’t in ministry much longer. Someone had said that people considering a midlife career shift should take one of these assessments, since they probably hadn’t taken one since college and were likely different people by now. Every assessment I took ranked multiple legal careers in the top ten. Again: “If I were ten years younger, I think I’d go to law school.” At some point, Emily notified me that I was not ten years younger, and I wasn’t going to be. But it might not be too late.

In December and January, I set a goal of talking to one person each day in the legal field. They ranged from private practice to government to public interest to academics. Those conversations confirmed even more my interest in the law and particularly work in government law.

I ended up applying to a small handful of law schools at the very end of January. I also met with Todd, my boss and ministry partner nearly from the start, to tell him I thought I should finish my time in ministry this June. Some jobs I think you can do while you wait to move on to something else, but I don’t believe ministry is one of those. Once you know it’s not your long-term future, it seems best to start working toward an exit. Regardless of whether any of the school applications worked out, I knew we needed to name an ending date in the church. We talked to church leadership and began preparing for transition.

About two weeks ago, I received an acceptance call from Yale. From the beginning, Yale was the dream, but I had never let myself believe it could be reality. Even a few weeks after the acceptance call, we’re still somewhat in disbelief.

In that acceptance call, the Dean said, “I know you didn’t say it in your application, but I got a sense that this involved a deep religious discernment process. I have a colleague who says, ‘The law shouldn’t just be a job, it should be a calling.’ I got a sense from reading your application that this was about calling.” Those may have been the most affirming and hopeful words I’ve heard in this process. Though I still can’t quite get a full grasp on the mystery that is calling, I believe in it. And it gives me hope that the future isn’t just our own making, but God’s guiding.

I formally accepted the Yale offer on Thursday. Our family has begun packing. There will be a lot of grief as we go. Nearly all of our lives are wrapped up in Kentucky, and a lot of my identity and greatest joys are wrapped up in ministry here at Offerings and First UMC. But we go with trust that something good is ahead, too.

Diversity Statement

Part of the law school application is a diversity statement. It’s an opportunity to provide a 1-page statement of any way you may bring diverse perspectives or backgrounds to your class and legal work. I wrote about my time in ministry. Here it is.

The first funeral I presided over was for a childhood friend. He had been hit by a truck cycling to work. His distraught mom remembered that I’d gone into ministry and called to ask if I would do the funeral. I never told her it was my first. Though I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing, as I sat with a grieving family to prepare a funeral, I was overwhelmed at the honor of being invited into their home and lives right then. It’s a rare privilege to be with people during some of their greatest times of confusion or heartache or fear. I still marvel that I get to be with so many people during those times.

Many people go into ministry because they love people and empathize well with them. I didn’t. When I started, the people close to me would have characterized me as highly rational, hardly emotional. My wife didn’t see me cry until we had been married five years. That wasn’t because I hid the emotion; I was just never overcome by it. When I started in ministry, I would have happily avoided those times sitting with families as they grieved or the times in pastoral counseling talking about the intimate parts of people’s lives, but I couldn’t. And as much as I was supposed to be helping others, those moments changed me. I saw the common pattern of shame from men who lowered their voices to a whisper in my office to tell me they were addicted to pornography. I counseled highly successful people who still sought their parents’ approval and felt like frauds. I wept with a young, new father whose wife had just died of cancer. The opportunities I’ve had to be part of others’ lives have changed me for the better, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.

I expect to see legal work differently because of my ministry work. My company was sued twice last year. Both felt like predatory lawsuits—people who knew they could force a settlement. In each case, my partners and I were afraid and confused as we sat with lawyers who calmly guided us. I recognized in those moments several similarities to the conversations I’ve been having for the past twenty years.

When I first considered going into law, I was worried I was too late. From what I’ve seen, applicants in their 30s are rare, those in their 40s almost non-existent. Though I come late, I believe these years have been invaluable preparation for me. I’ve spent nearly two decades meeting with people as they shared some of the most difficult and intimate parts of their lives. I hope that will help me bring to my class and my work a particular awareness of how people feel and behave in some of the hardest times.

———

What do pastors do all week?

I’m now in my 20th year of pastoral ministry. Last week, I started writing reflections on the role of the pastor. I’m sharing these as a way to share some aspects of pastoral ministry that I don’t see highlighted or clarified too often. I hope it might help people who consider going into ministry, inspire other pastors to think about the similarities and differences in their own experiences, or help church members see things from a different perspective. See my first post on calling and the joys of ministry here.

I think people in nearly every profession are asked, “What does a typical day/week look like for you?” I’ve answered that question a number of times.

The facetious answer is to say that the typical Sunday looks like leading a worship service for a few hours and then taking a nap; the typical weekday looks like golf.

Thus my favorite version of the “What I think I do…” meme:

As with most professions, what I do week to week is probably quite a bit different from what outsiders (or even sometimes I) assume.

Also as with most professions, the real answer to the “typical day/week” question is, “There is no typical day or week.” They vary quite a bit.

Nevertheless, I’ve created a “typical week” in my life as a pastor.

In 2018, I was trying to get a better sense of how I was using my time. Sometimes what we think we do isn’t really what we’re doing. I wanted better awareness. I wanted to be sure my use of time was aligning with priorities. So I tracked my time throughout the year. I’ve taken the totals from that year and condensed them into one week.

To call this “a week in the life of a pastor” is a misnomer in at least two ways:

1 – The calendar I’m about to show you never happened. Instead, it takes what I did throughout a year of pastoral ministry and allocates it all proportionally to a single week. I’m sharing it to give you some idea of proportion and various activities and priorities.

2 – My particular position is unusual in a lot of ways. I lead a relatively small, relatively young community. So hospital visits and funerals are rare occasions for me, while they make up a large part of other pastors’ weekly schedules. I’m part of a larger church team, which means a few more meetings, but also less direct responsibility for some administrative tasks.

Here’s what my “typical week” looked like after tracking and averaging a year’s worth of time.[note]Like most of the rest of the world, right now it looks vastly different from this. There are a few things that have been streamlined, and I’m happy for the changes. But overall, I would love to get back to that typical schedule and away from the 2020 version.[/note] I’ll elaborate on it below.

Philosophy

First, a few words about philosophy as I plan my weeks.

Though the above calendar doesn’t represent any actual week, I designed it in a way that it could represent a real week. A few things you might notice there:

  • Priorities: Lead worship with intentionality and care; Visit the people; Study and pray.

    I’ve written at length about these being the top 3 priorities for the classical pastor. I expect these three things to consume the bulk of my week because of their importance. Everything related to worship and worship preparation is in light brown in my calendar. Everything related to visiting the people is in red (personal meetings) and orange (team meetings). Everything related to study and prayer is in a shade of purple.

    I would like to give more time to all three of these. Part of my time tracking in 2018 was to identify any ways to reduce time spent on other things so I could spend more on worship, visitation (with preference to personal meetings), study, and prayer.
  • 46 hours per week, 6 days per week. I try to keep my weekly time spent in the range of 45-47 hours. The blank spaces in the calendar matter, too. They represent time with family and friends, community involvement, personal time in Scripture and prayer, other hobbies and interests, exercise, and sleep. I believe all of those are important to me being a better pastor and a better person. So I see the blank spaces––keeping them and using them well––as important to my role.

    A lot of pastors take off one day of the work week. I’ve found that I do better to work each day with the ability to get off a bit earlier when I need to. That allows me to be home with kids on some afternoons, which is also the time I’m least productive if I’m trying to work.

    You’ll also see that Saturday is free. When I’m at my best, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset are strict no-work times, honoring the Sabbath. The main indicator of that for me is no meetings and no screens. Those are ordinary work. They’re non-urgent. They don’t need to happen on Sabbath.

    Last year, a few members of our congregation ended up in an awful car wreck that included a fatality. It was on a Saturday. Did I show up at the hospital? Of course. Crises like that are extraordinary. If you have a child who falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not pull her out?[note]See Luke 14:5[/note] But anything on a screen and the ordinary meetings can wait. (Also, if I find myself responding to crisis constantly, it’s either time to get more help or redefine “crisis.”)
  • Gaps in the days. I intentionally structure 30-60 minute gaps into my work days when I have the opportunity. Those are for walks, occasionally a nap, or going to the gym if it’s a longer gap. I’ve learned that building these in every 2-3 hours is better for my productivity, energy, and happiness. I wrote a lot more about all of this at “Managing workflow, managing energy.” (Though I don’t follow everything there as strictly as I used to.)
  • Time with people, time alone. “Ministry is for introverts. You spend a lot of time alone preparing your sermon, studying, and handling administrative details.”

    “Ministry is for extroverts. It’s all about people.”

    I’ve heard both of those claims a few times.

    From my experience, you need to be okay with significant time alone in pastoral ministry (and be productive with unstructured time). Some of the work requires it. And you need to be okay with significant time with people. Some of the work requires it.

    The calendar above shows 28 hours per week with people (60% of the time) and 18-1/2 hours working alone (40%).

Ministry Areas

Worship – 12-1/2 hours per week

Corporate worship is the most important time of the week for our community. (I said a lot more about that here.) So I spend a lot of time on it. On average, 12-1/2 hours per week––over a quarter of my working time. That’s an average of 7 hours in sermon preparation and also includes the worship services themselves and time meeting with a worship design team to prepare. Our worship design team meetings are one of the most important parts of my week and have significantly impacted our community through how we worship over the years.

This wouldn’t be nearly enough time if I preached weekly. I preach about 60-70% of the time and others from within our community preach the other 30-40%. We do that because we believe it’s important to hear from a variety of voices. It also allows me to spend less total time in sermon preparation without shortchanging the time needed to prepare for each time I do preach. If I preached every week, I’d probably want to find another 4-5 hours in my weekly schedule for sermon preparation.

Visitation – 8-1/2 hours per week

Sitting across a living room, meal table, or coffee table with people has become the most enjoyable and rewarding part of ministry for me. The loss of most of those opportunities during the pandemic has highlighted that.

From my longer piece on visitation: “Visit the people” is the church antidote to magic bullets. It focuses on people rather than any grand strategy or exciting new program. It’s slow, steady, and deliberate. The results will be better measured in years than weeks.

I once had a goal to sit across from every member of our congregation at least annually, along with at least a quarterly personal meeting with everyone in leadership. While that hardly seems like a lofty goal, I’ve found even it more than I can keep up with.

Priorities include meeting new guests and pastoral counseling. I try to meet with all new guests once they’ve come to worship two or three times.

Sometimes I have several people I’m meeting at once for pastoral counseling. Sometimes I have none. I’m not a trained clinical counselor, and I don’t pretend to be. I refer people to those counselors frequently. But pastoral counseling can be a crucial complement to clinical counseling. (I wrote more about that here.) So it’s a regular and important part of what I do.

In this category, I’m also including meetings with our pastoral team, my community’s staff team, ministry students, and other leadership meetings. Those meetings are vital to our trust and work with each other.

A note on meetings: I used to be involved in a lot of meetings that seemed perfunctory, meeting just to meet. Our church has a relatively large staff spread across three campuses. How often do we meet as a full staff? Almost never. One or two times per year. We recognized that we were having meetings because we felt like we should, but the very little we accomplished didn’t justify the time lost for other priorities. Most of my semi-regular team meetings now are lunch meetings. That’s because we recognized that the primary purpose for being together was developing and maintaining trusting relationships, plus ongoing communication. That happens better around a lunch table than a conference table. We set aside a few specific times for longer, more strategic work.

Reading, Continuing Education, and Prayer – 5-1/2 hours per week

The great Anglican priest and theologian John Stott wrote that the “absolute minimum of time for study, which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage” was “every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon, or evening; every month a full day; every year a week.”[note]In Between Two Worlds, p. 156[/note] I’m sad to say that I’m failing even the absolute minimum according to Stott. (I do a decent bit of reading outside of work, so I hope perhaps that compensates for the difference.)

Though it doesn’t meet Stott’s minimum standard, reading is vital to good ministry for me. John Wesley scolded any preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.”

This, of course, involves choosing reading that isn’t petty or superficial. Early in my time in ministry––pre-seminary––I heard someone advise that pastors should be reading at least two theology books for every how-to or leadership book we read. This was early on, and I was really into the how-to and leadership books, so the 2:1 ratio was a big shift for me. But now I couldn’t agree more. Except I believe a 2:1 ratio is way too much how-to. How-to and leadership books make up a lot of ministry world reading. And they occasionally have something valuable. But most of my real gains from reading haven’t been little tips and tricks to improve our volunteer recruitment or how to be a bold leader, they’ve come from reading deep, thoughtful accounts on history, theology, the Bible, psychology, etc. (I wrote more about my reading plan here. And why study and prayer are the third essential task for a classical pastor here.)

Also included in this is time for intercessory prayer. That hasn’t always had a place in my work week. It’s primarily a result of watching Todd Nelson over the past 15 years. I haven’t seen anyone else treat intercessory prayer as such a vital component of their ministry work. That has been a model I’d like to emulate. It may not be work that shows clear and obvious results, but I believe it’s real and good work on behalf of our community. I think it would be even better if I would move this from part of my time alone to part of my time gathered with a few other people to pray for the church and world.

Church Leadership Development / New Communities – 6 hours per week

This is the piece that’s unique to my position. It’s everything in green on my calendar. One of the primary ways that our church across three different campuses works as one church is through a few intentional efforts at leadership development and establishing new worshiping communities.

These may not relate to most other ministry positions, except that most pastors likely have some kind of pet project. These are mine. I’ll share in brief about them here because I love getting to share about these. If you’d like to talk more about how any of them work and if they could work in your setting, send me a message.

Our leadership development focus includes a laity development component and a clergy component. We’ve developed a Discipleship Intensive program that asks people for an 8-hour per week, 2-1/2 year commitment. It’s … intense. We’ve had 27 people complete it over the past five years, with several others somewhere in the process right now.

We’ve also established a fellows program––and now an internship program––for seminarians. These are to provide the church-based experience and training that we believe are a vital complement to seminary for preparing pastors. Our fellows and interns meet in cohort twice a week for the practical training components, then they serve in the church (fellows for 27 hours per week, interns for 7) for additional experience.

In 2018, our church was taking early steps toward planting a new community in a growing part of the city with no UMC presence. That didn’t take then, and our plans are temporarily on hold, but we believe new worshiping communities are the best way to reach new people, so I hope and expect it will be a part of our future when the environment is more favorable.

Though my pet projects may be quite a bit different from others’, I think having some kind of project outside the basics of classical pastor ministry is helpful. In a lot of ways, pastoral ministry is slow, ongoing work. I think some of the “magic bullet” approaches we see to ministry––unfurling a new banner every year or two––are because we get impatient with the slow and steady approach of classical pastor ministry. Projects are a nice outlet for something different without forcing our congregations into a new grand visioneering statement every few years to generate some temporary excitement.

Outside Connections / Resourcing – 3 hours per week

The calendar items I’ve set in blue fall into my “outside connections / resourcing” category. This includes meetings with people outside our church, speaking, and writing.

When I began writing, I did it to help clarify some of my own thoughts. Nothing helps me do that better than having to put thought into complete sentences that I want other people to read and understand. It came as a surprise that writing was also a great way to make connections. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of friends and identified a lot of people with common interests because of writing. So I consider this blog and other writing primarily as a tool for connecting with others. I’ve also seen it as a way to resource others––a small way to provide something of value to people beyond my immediate local context.

I don’t speak a lot, but I get occasional invitations that range from speaking at my college fraternity to speaking to university or seminary classes. Those have also produced some meaningful connections and, again, have been a way to resource others outside my local church.

I try to meet with at least one person outside of our local church setting each week. That might be another pastor in town, or it might be someone who leads a non-profit or other initiative of interest. This helps me to get outside of my little bubble.

Denominational Work – 4-1/2 hours per week

These last two areas are the ones I’ve had to work hard to keep as low as they are. They are necessary and important to ministry, but they can easily take over and crowd out a lot of the above. Over the past few years, our district and annual conference have had an increasing number of mandatory meetings for clergy. There is also some expectation that clergy will serve on district and conference teams. And we have an annual conference for 3-4 days each June. We do all of this because we believe in being a connectional church. That is, we are not just an association of self-chartered churches. We’re connected and stronger together than we would be apart.

This is an area where several pastors––at least in my area and denomination––will have to make decisions about priorities. Through the fellows program I mentioned above, we have a weekly meeting with someone in ministry to learn from his or her experience. A few of them have given a similar warning: “Prioritize your local church and hold firm. Avoid the temptation to do more for the system than you do at your church.”

I’ve seen how this can happen. Pastors can be sucked in to spending more time at the conference office and on conference teams than they spend with their people. Some will even advocate that this is how it should be––the clergy run the system while the people in the local church focus on the local church. But our denomination has named local churches as “the primary locus of mission and ministry within The United Methodist Church.” I firmly believe that a pastor who is paid by and appointed to a local church should give that church his/her top priority attention and energy. As go the local churches, so goes the conference. If we neglect our local churches for the sake of conference work, I expect the local churches and the conference both to suffer as a result.

I’ll admit that some of my skepticism about this is a result of seeing a lot of conference-level investment amount to very little fruitful action. This is, in part, due to the nature of our system. With every transition in leadership, many of our teams seem to start over––new visioning and strategy work. With transition of other team members, the vision and strategies that were developed rarely are upheld. And in our system, we have a lot of transition. So most teams will acknowledge that they’re still early in the process of planning or implementation.[note]I once complained to a consultant (we use a process consulting group for nearly everything in our conference––at least a dozen teams, maybe several dozen) about the slow and tedious nature of the process. He said that Phase III is where you really start to see results. I asked him which groups were in Phase III. He acknowledged there were none in our conference. But some “on their way there.” We’ve been using that consulting group for over a decade. At some point, you acknowledge that Phase III is a mirage and Phases I and II aren’t worth it without Phase III.[/note] We rarely get to the fruit that comes from hard, long-term work in the same direction. That amounts to a lot of 8-hour meetings without much worthwhile progress to show for them.

So my commitment has been to devote 10% of my time––about 210 hours per year––to denominational meetings and work. I’ve found that I have to be careful about my commitments and willing to say no to keep it that low.

Administration – 5 hours per week

There’s not a lot exciting to say here. Email and paperwork are a part of nearly any job. This one, too. I have to fight to not let these overrun more important things. A mentor used to remind me, “People over paper.” So this is an area I try to confine to 5 hours per week without allowing important commitments to slip or important messages to go unreturned. At my best, I truly limit my administrative work to a 1-hour block each day. Leave my email program open, and I’ll let each new message distract from deeper work on other things. Sometimes I do this well, sometimes I don’t. I’m happier and more productive when I do it well.

———

Of course, this doesn’t really capture it all. There are no random text messages or phone calls or emergencies on this calendar. They come, just as they do for people in almost every profession. For me, they don’t overrun my life. Some of that is perhaps fortunate and has to do with the demographics of our congregation. Some is boundaries and helpful coaching about what a crisis is and isn’t, and that I’m not the messiah and don’t need to have a messiah complex.

Not all of it is fun or exciting. I’ve learned over the years that I’m more likely to enter any of these blocks on the calendar without much excitement––whether it be a time of sermon prep or a time in pastoral counseling or a block trying to write something––and then finish it having enjoyed it and feeling like it was productive. This is, on the whole, good and meaningful work.

I know my experience will have many differences from others’. Happy to hear about yours in the comments.

—————-

Like it or want to discuss? Most people find this blog because you share it. Thank you! Hit a sharing button below to share with others.

Ministry: Calling and delight

I’m now in my 20th year of pastoral ministry. During my earliest years of youth ministry, I remember another pastor advising, “Only do this if you can’t do anything else.”

The implication was that ministry work is hard, that other routes would likely be more rewarding if they were options. “Only do it if you know you’re called. Otherwise you’ll never make it.”

I didn’t know I was called. Not for a long time.

I’m still not sure I’m called in any permanent sense, as if it’s pastoral ministry or bust for the rest of life.

Calling is a strange thing. At least in a lot of the ways we treat it today––as a personal certainty about our life’s work. Frankly, I think we give it too much attention in ministry world. We expect ministry candidates to articulate with clarity how they know they’re called to ministry. This usually carries the suggestion that this is the only proper path for their lives. To do anything else would be running from God’s will for their lives. There’s a popular testimony that goes that way: “I knew I was called ten years ago. But I spent the first five years running from it…”

Here’s an example of how I hear us commonly talk about calling:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I understand some of the bad reasons that linked article is trying to avoid, but the tweet paints a common, one-sided picture of calling and ministry. In church world, we spend a lot of time talking about (1) personal sense of calling, and (2) how hard ministry can be. Twenty years in, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective on calling and ministry.

1 – Another perspective on calling

How I ended up in ministry

I only even considered pastoral ministry because of Jerry Ernst. He asked me to lead our youth group during my last two years of high school, asked me to preach on youth Sunday during both of those years, and asked me to serve as the interim youth minister for the summer after he moved away. All of these came as surprises. Jerry entrusted me with much more than I imagined I could or would be entrusted with.

I considered it because Aaron Mansfield came to me after I preached for the first time and said, “If you do anything other than this with your life, you’re going in the wrong direction.” (I took it as kind encouragement. He has apologized several times since for coming on a bit strong.)

I started into pastoral ministry because Steve Drury at Trinity Hill UMC asked me to serve as an interim youth minister for a summer while I was in college. When I thought I’d finish out the summer and move on, he and a group of parents asked me to stay. That interim turned into three years.

I stayed in pastoral ministry because when I told Paul Brunstetter it was time for me to move on from youth ministry, he rearranged staffing structures and told me I could leave youth ministry but shouldn’t leave ministry altogether.

I stayed in pastoral ministry because Dulaney Wood heard I was making plans to move on, asked me to come to his house, and told me I was making the wrong decision.

I came back to pastoral ministry after a year overseas because after I had told Mike Powers I was moving on to something different, he came back to say, “Are you sure?” So I re-considered … and told him a second time I was going to move on. And he came back yet again.

Those are moments. A few people have supported and encouraged me beyond what any moment would adequately capture––Todd Nelson, Jonathan Powers, Chad Foster, my parents, and my wife. Early on, Emily said she’d do whatever it would require of her for me to do this––work less, work more, rearrange her schedule, recalibrate her expectations––and she has.

It’s difficult to stop once I begin naming names. There are so many others whom I should list. That long list represents a church that has consistently affirmed my role in ministry with their words and actions.

This is all very personal to me, but it’s also a reflection on what I believe is a healthier way of understanding calling. We get a few instances of miraculous calling stories in the Bible––Moses at the burning bush, young Samuel in the Temple, Saul/Paul on the Damascus road. But these are exceptions. The book of Acts gives us the more typical pattern:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Acts 14:23

Perhaps for a few people called to daunting tasks, a miraculous sort of calling is necessary––that kind of thing that leaves someone with an “unshakable call from God.” But for most of us, I expect the primary sense of calling will come from community. Others in the church community recognize that you should be leading and entrust you to lead. At the least, calling will need to be confirmed by community. The Israelites still had to choose to follow Moses. The people had to listen to Samuel. The apostles and elders of the early church had to confirm Paul’s calling.[note]Some of the prophets seem to be exceptions. They followed God’s calling despite almost no positive reception from the people. But the calling to prophetic ministry is not the calling to pastoral ministry. John Wesley especially noted the difference between the extraordinary calling of prophets and apostles and the ordinary calling of priests and elders. For those who believe they’re called to be prophets … I’d suggest it probably means you shouldn’t be pastoring a local church.[/note]

I haven’t made it through hard times primarily because of a personal sense of calling. I’ve made it through them because of a community of people who continued to reaffirm that I should be there, even when I was less sure myself.

This is not to replace the role of God with the role of the church. It’s to identify how God was at work throughout. And at times, that came through other divine confirmations––an assurance from Scripture or in prayer, an unexpected occurrence at just the right time. But the primary way that I’ve experienced God’s calling has been mediated through the community around me––a community that I believe is better equipped to listen to God and interpret his will than I am on my own.

The Christian community’s role in calling

We tend to talk about and view calling like this:

But my experience has been closer to this:

This is actually closer to the historical pattern of calling to ministry. That inner, personal sense of calling is a rather new focus in the life of the church. Francis Dewar describes the more typical pattern in history:

Questions probing the candidate’s inner sense of calling do not appear in church ordinals before the sixteenth century.

[I]n the first ten centuries of the Church’s history, it was the local Christian community that had the chief part to play in the choice of its leader. In fact, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 forbade ‘absolute’ ordinations.

You could not be ordained unless you had been asked by a particular Christian community to be its leader. Conversely, if you ceased to be the president of your community, you automatically became a layman again.

Called or Collared? by Francis Dewar, pp. 9-10[note]Thanks to Mitchell Lewis for sending this quote to me on the very day I was writing about this.[/note]

This has enormous implications. I’ve seen some people go to seminary, devote years of their lives, and accrue up to 6-figure debts to receive an M. Div. degree only to learn that no church would entrust them with leadership. They had a personal sense of calling, but it wasn’t one that had been confirmed and promoted by the church.

In my dream world, seminarians wouldn’t pay for seminary. Seminaries wouldn’t allow you to pay (or even worse, take on debt) to receive an M. Div. degree. You could only go if you had a sponsor. Is there a church, a denomination, a Christian organization that believes in you enough to foot the bill?[note]To be sure I’m not over-speaking here, I don’t mean to suggest to you that if you’re currently in seminary and paying for it yourself, that you must not be called to ministry. Our systems aren’t currently designed to function according to this model. But I wish they were.[/note]

A note to Christian communities: We have a crucial responsibility to listen to God on behalf of others, to speak to others about how God has gifted them and how God might use them. We have the beautiful opportunity to encourage people along in pastoral ministry, even when they may not be able to see that possibility for themselves. We have the difficult responsibility to speak honestly to people when they’re pursuing this path but, if we’re honest, we don’t see it going well for them.

An important caveat: Can a community get it wrong? Yes! It’s good that Moses didn’t take the Israelites’ initial rejection––and ongoing rebellion throughout his ministry!––as final indication that he should quit. I don’t mean to suggest that a truly called pastor should never meet congregational resistance. The Christian community does not discern the will of God with perfect accuracy. And sometimes a Christian community can behave in outright wicked ways toward a pastor. I’ve heard the horror stories, seen a few, experienced almost none (thanks again to my wonderful community).

For people trying to discern calling

If you’re considering a calling into ministry, who is affirming that calling? Who is affirming it by investing in you and entrusting you with responsibility? Has a church or Christian organization already hired you and shown they want you to be on their team? Is anyone pushing you to go to seminary? Anyone ready to invest in it? If the answers to many of these questions aren’t positive, I would urge you to find a way to serve in a church or Christian organization, talk to people about how you can grow, seek opportunities for more and more leadership. Do that before you start spending on seminary. If you have trouble receiving those opportunities, you need to take those as potential red flags. Not yet dealbreakers, but cause for further investigation.

And if you’re struggling to identify a clear and certain calling to ministry, might you listen to the people around you more than yourself? Is it possible they’re seeing what plans God has for you more clearly than you’re seeing them for yourself?

A pretty close rendering of several conversations I’ve had:

Person: I’m just not sure I could do this. I don’t think I’m cut out for it.

Me: So, you don’t think you’re willing to do the work? Not up to the challenge?

Person: No no. I would do the work. But I feel like, Who am I to do this?

Me: So … you would feel like a fraud? An impostor?

Person: Totally!

Me: Are you living in a way that’s inappropriate for a Christian to live? Doing things that if people found out, they’d remove you from leadership?

Person: No.

Me: What are you hearing from other people?

Person: They keep encouraging me to take more responsibility. They keep giving me more leadership.

Me: Are you intentionally deceiving them? Have you told them you have qualifications you don’t actually have?

Person: Uh… no.

Me: So you need to know a really clear distinction: You are not an impostor. Impostors deliberately deceive people. They try to convince people that they’re something different than they really are. Fake medical degree. Falsified résumé. Hidden things in their lives. Impostors have too little concern for the damage they’re going to do. They’re reckless.

You are not an impostor. You have impostor’s syndrome. You’re overly concerned about the damage you could do. To the point that it’s preventing you from contributing what everyone else thinks you can contribute.

When you have impostor’s syndrome, the best thing you can do is quit listening to yourself and start listening to other people. Really, you need to listen to God. And right now, I expect the Christian community can hear from God on your behalf better than what’s going on in your own head.

Now, again, what are other people telling you about yourself?

That’s all on the nature of calling. Now let’s talk about the nature of ministry itself.

2 – Another perspective on ministry

The “don’t do it unless you can’t do anything else” line is usually a reference to toil and hardship. It suggests that the only thing that will get you through the suffering of ministry is knowing that God won’t let you do anything else.

Even more, some people have the impression that whatever God would call them to, it should induce misery. We have a sense that “taking up our cross” to follow Jesus means that God’s chosen vocation for us must be something we hate doing. So you’ll hear a lot of people say, “I know this must be God’s calling because I never would have chosen it for myself.”

How I’ve experienced ministry

I’ve had some difficult and painful moments in ministry––days, weeks, one or two years that were pretty brutal. Some of these will come no matter what you’re doing. Some are unique to the role of pastor. I’ll write some more about those in the future.

But far exceeding those moments are the moments of tremendous honor and privilege and blessing and joy.

People let pastors into parts of their lives that only a privileged few get to be a part of––some of the moments of greatest joy and greatest grief. We have the honor to sit with people as they prepare for a wedding and as they grieve after a death and prepare for a funeral. We have the awesome privilege of being sent to the Scriptures week after week to ask what’s there for us and our people, and then to announce to them what the text seems to be saying for us. We have the blessing of getting to pray with people through some of their hardest times and most important decisions.

My experience of ministry doesn’t fit well with the narrative of suffering for Christ. Moments of suffering? Sure. But defined by suffering? Hardly. My experience fits much better with the type of calling Eric Liddell references in Chariots of Fire. “I believe God made me for a purpose,” he says, “but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

This is much less I’ll do it if I have to than it is I can’t believe I get to do this.

1 Timothy 3:1 says, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” The words there are full of desire and delight language. What translates here as aspires is a word that’s translated in other places with craving or longing. What translates here as noble is translated throughout the New Testament as good or beautiful. 1 Timothy doesn’t treat the work of ministry as something to avoid unless you can’t. It treats it as something you might well desire and aspire to. Because it’s good and beautiful and delightful.[note]Most translations will translate the ministry role here as “bishop.” That’s a much more limited understanding than I believe is helpful or necessary. In John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, he specifies that the role discussed here can be seen as the “pastor of a congregation.” Thanks to Tom Fuerst for pointing me to this passage.[/note]

So for all the advice that says, “Only do it if you can’t do anything else,” I’ll suggest the opposite: If people will entrust you with this noble task, maybe you should do it … at least until you’re sure it’s not calling.


Like it or want to discuss? Most people find this blog because you share it. Thank you! Hit a sharing button below to share with others.

Two Kinds of Centrist

“Centrist” is a cynical political position but a valuable relational position.

Political centrists only find their place relative to those on either side. These kinds of centrists may be better described as relativists. The “center” that they occupy has no meaning without others’ positions. And, presumably, when those others’ positions shift, so will the centrists’.

Centrist political positioning can be good for coalition building, winning a vote, political advancement, and power. But we shouldn’t count on that kind of “centrist” to have others’ best interests in mind. So long as they identify as centrists, they identify as people whose actual positions are fluid, keyed to what others are doing not to conviction.

Relational centrists also find their place relative to those on either side, but in an entirely different manner. They put themselves at the center of various factions so they can understand them, give them a fair hearing, and help create understanding across those factions. When people who hold other positions shift, so will these centrists––not in their policy positions, but in their relational placement. They move so they can continue hearing people from wherever they are.

Centrist relational positioning is intended for peacemaking and understanding. It may not win a majority or consolidate power. Those aren’t its goals.

The political centrist may be quick to dismiss and demean people whose convictions are too far outside the center. Those people won’t be part of a “centrist” voting bloc, so they don’t serve the political centrist’s purposes.

The relational centrist, on the other hand, may be found with those people whose convictions are outside the center, not necessarily to win them to a voting bloc, but to seek peace and understanding with them and for them.

Some political centrists have firm positions and convictions. They only happen to be in the center now. If others shift, they might find themselves lumped in with one partisan group. For these folks, it would probably be better to define them by their actual, firm convictions, not by a relative and fragile “center.”

Some relational centrists have firm positions and convictions. And those positions may even align them with one partisan camp. Their “centrism” isn’t an ambivalence to the issues, it’s a desire to listen and work across divisions.

You can identify the political centrist by his focus on building voting blocs and winning strategies. His desire is to achieve the biggest possible win for his 50.1%.

You can identify the relational centrist by her focus on preventing misunderstanding and aspersions across voting blocs. Her desire is to achieve something that can be considered a “win” for the biggest possible number of people.

Like it? Click here to subscribe for blog updates.

Love it? Or just want to talk about it with others? Click on a sharing button to share.