Archives For Itinerancy

I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.

Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’

Today Shirley died.

And like Jesus, I wept.

I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.

When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’

She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?

priest_collarOkay, so some of you give me crap about always being snarky, sarcastic and cynical. So, I thought I’d do a decidedly uncynical series of posts: Top Ten Things About Being A Pastor.

#1: Grace Happens

Before I graduated from Princeton, Dr Robert Dyksta, my theological Jedi master, lamented that I was about to serve in a denomination whose system of appointing pastors ‘contradicts everything we know about psychology.’

I asked what he meant and he replied by explaining how it’s a given that people in congregations wear masks, keep up pretenses and are reluctant to let others see what’s behind the curtain of the self they show others.

He then offered me this wisdom: ‘If you’re going to stay a Methodist, then you should tell your bishop you’ll serve wherever they send you so long as they’re willing to leave you there for at least seven years. It takes that long for people to reveal who they are behind their masks, warts and all.’

In other words, it takes time and patience to see notice grace at work in people’s lives.

But seen it I have and that, by a long shot and then some, is the best thing about ministry.

I could tell you about the woman whom I’ve known these past 7 1/2 years, who seems a completely different person these last few years than the  one I knew the previous years. To be honest, our relationship back then was often marked by mutual frustration. Today I think of her as something of a cross between a friend and a surrogate grandmother. What accounts for the change in her? She credits it with a spiritual discipline she started practicing a couple of years ago, intentionally praying the shema every day and daily committing herself to loving Christ and through him, others.

Grace has changed her.

Maybe that doesn’t strike you as a Road to Damascus type of story but it’s real and it’s just one example of many I could give.

I could tell you about the woman who, having been cared for tenderly by a black nurse, at the end of her life confessed and repented of her racism.

I could tell you about husbands and wives who, after much painful work, have forgiven one another of adultery, abuse, addiction. You name it.

I could tell you about prodigals who’ve come home, mothers and fathers who’ve worked at welcoming them and elder brothers who’ve looked themselves in the mirror to finally confront the nasty self-righteousness in them.

I could tell you about people who’ve come to faith by dirtying their hands serving the poor, and I can tell you about individuals who’ve given over hundreds of thousands of dollars for the poor because God Christ has been generous to them.

I could tell you about people who’ve lost a child.

And lost their faith.

And found it again.

Even then I’d only be scratching the surface of what I could tell you.

Not only was Dr Dykstra right. His point has turned out to be the best thing about being a pastor. If you give it time, you get to see.

I can’t prove God exists, and there are those dark days and dark moods when I wrestle with my doubts and fear I’ve given my life to a fool’s errand.

But what I can prove, what I can point to and say ‘See, there it is,’ what I know without ever a day of doubt, is that grace is real.

It happens.

 

 

 

Spoiler Alert: If you presently have appointment authority over me or anticipate having that authority in the future, you can stop reading now. 

In one way, denominations are all the same.

We all have our our special coded language we use to describe and organize ourselves. In the United Methodist Church we tend toward boringly secular-sounding words like ‘conference’ and ‘superintendent’ and ‘itinerancy.’

Itinerancy refers to the United Methodist system of a resident bishop choosing the pastor for the congregation versus, say a Baptist church, that chooses its own pastor. Up until the very recent past, and still not the case everywhere, such appointments lasted only 3-5 years before the pastor would be moved on to another parish. Pastors, then, are treated almost like interchangeable parts.

The practice of itinerancy had very specific geographic and historic reasons for its inception. It was the best missional means for the church to follow the growth of the population across the western frontier. It was also a practice that presumed the congregation and its community were stable and it was the pastor who was transient, hence ‘itinerant.’

More recently, the system of itinerancy has allowed Methodist bishops to make ‘prophetic’ appointments to congregations; that is, itinerancy empowers bishops to appoint female and minority pastors to congregations that might otherwise resist such clergy. This, I believe, has been a good thing for the Church.

Today, itinerancy is a major hoop through which aspiring clergy must jump. To be ordained, clergy must articulate the theology of itinerancy, agree with it, pay lip service to it and vow to submit to it. As a young ordinand I jumped through said hoops better than most and passed with flying colors. And I wasn’t lying. But now I’ve got some questions.

I’m not suggesting that itinerancy is stupid or antiquated. Nor am I even really complaining about it.

I am suggesting, however, that when we treat itinerancy as theologically sacrosanct, when in fact it was a contextually necessitated process, we miss something.

So here’s my pushback:

When I was at Princeton Seminary, Dr Robert Dykstra, my Yoda, offered me this advice:

‘You should insist on being appointed anywhere so long as you had the guarantee you could stay there for at least 5 years. It takes at least that long for people’s pretenses to die and for the curtain to be drawn back from their lives. After that happens, you can do real ministry together.’

I had no idea at the time whether it was good advice or not. After all, he wasn’t even a Methodist.

I’ve now been at Aldersgate for 9 years. It hardly seems that long, but this summer a couple of things have struck me.

This July, on a mission team in Guatemala, I spent several days laying mortar with Laura Paige Mertins. LP was a sixth grade confirmation student when I first came to Aldersgate and now she’s about to start her third year at JMU. I’ve watched LP grow into a remarkable young adult with a faith more mature and grounded than many 3x her age.

What’s more, for the purposes of my argument, LP feels comfortable asking me anything when it comes to the faith and I feel comfortable answering, knowing that she trusts what I’ll offer. While I attribute much of her abundant faith to her family and the church, I also know, without being egotistical, that some part of her faith/worldview is my doing and it’s only been possible because of a relationship that’s been built over time.

She’s but an example. I’ve been at Aldersgate long enough now to know whose marriages aren’t as strong as they seem and whose marriages are even better than they appear. I know who’s struggling with issues of addiction or sexual identity. I know who’s lost their faith and who’s made a major leap in their relationship with God.

In 9 years, I’ve confirmed something like 350 kids in the community, and this fall the congregation is actually letting me try out a children’s program based on the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus of all things should point out how after 7 years the congregation and folks in the community trust me, and I trust them. We both know each other’s strengths and not-so strengths. It’s time and relationships, I think, that allows us to take the leap from being directors of programs to actual pastors.

I normally hate it when pastors say ministry is all about relationships. That’s usually code, I think, for laziness or ineffectiveness. I’m not suggesting ministry is all about relationships. It is about relationships though. I’m suggesting that having an appointment process that operates as though relationships- and the trust engendered by them- mattered not at all may be missing something.

I didn’t mention any of this when they interviewed me for ordination and asked me about itinerancy. Not because I was holding back or hiding my thoughts but because it’s only now, with enough time in one place under my belt, that I appreciate Dr. Dykstra’s wisdom.

Spoiler Alert: If you presently have appointment authority over me or anticipate having that authority in the future, you can stop reading now. 

In one way, denominations are all the same.

We all have our our special coded language we use to describe and organize ourselves. In the United Methodist Church we tend toward boringly secular-sounding words like ‘conference’ and ‘superintendent’ and ‘itinerancy.’

Itinerancy refers to the United Methodist system of a resident bishop choosing the pastor for the congregation versus, say a Baptist church, that chooses its own pastor. Up until the very recent past, and still not the case everywhere, such appointments lasted only 3-5 years before the pastor would be moved on to another parish. Pastors, then, are treated almost like interchangeable parts.

The practice of itinerancy had very specific geographic and historic reasons for its inception. It was the best missional means for the church to follow the growth of the population across the western frontier. It was also a practice that presumed the congregation and its community were stable and it was the pastor who was transient, hence ‘itinerant.’

More recently, the system of itinerancy has allowed Methodist bishops to make ‘prophetic’ appointments to congregations; that is, itinerancy empowers bishops to appoint female and minority pastors to congregations that might otherwise resist such clergy. This, I believe, has been a good thing for the Church.

Today, itinerancy is a major hoop through which aspiring clergy must jump. To be ordained, clergy must articulate the theology of itinerancy, agree with it, pay lip service to it and vow to submit to it. As a young ordinand I jumped through said hoops better than most and passed with flying colors. And I wasn’t lying. But now I’ve got some questions.

I’m not suggesting that itinerancy is stupid or antiquated. Nor am I even really complaining about it.

I am suggesting, however, that when we treat itinerancy as theologically sacrosanct, when in fact it was a contextually necessitated process, we miss something.

So here’s my pushback:

When I was at Princeton Seminary, Dr Robert Dykstra, my Yoda, offered me this advice:

‘You should insist on being appointed anywhere so long as you had the guarantee you could stay there for at least 5 years. It takes at least that long for people’s pretenses to die and for the curtain to be drawn back from their lives. After that happens, you can do real ministry together.’

I had no idea at the time whether it was good advice or not. After all, he wasn’t even a Methodist.

I’ve now been at Aldersgate for 7 years. It hardly seems that long, but this summer a couple of things have struck me.

This July, on a mission team in Guatemala, I spent several days laying mortar with Laura Paige Mertins. LP was a sixth grade confirmation student when I first came to Aldersgate and now she’s about to start her freshman year at JMU. I’ve watched LP grow into a remarkable young adult with a faith more mature and grounded than many 3x her age.

What’s more, for the purposes of my argument, LP feels comfortable asking me anything when it comes to the faith and I feel comfortable answering, knowing that she trusts what I’ll offer. While I attribute much of her abundant faith to her family and the church, I also know, without being egotistical, that some part of her faith/worldview is my doing and it’s only been possible because of a relationship that’s been built over time.

She’s but an example. I’ve been at Aldersgate long enough now to know whose marriages aren’t as strong as they seem and whose marriages are even better than they appear. I know who’s struggling with issues of addiction or sexual identity. I know who’s lost their faith and who’s made a major leap in their relationship with God.

In 7 years, I’ve confirmed something like 350 kids in the community, and this fall the congregation is actually letting me try out a children’s program based on the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus of all things should point out how after 7 years the congregation and folks in the community trust me, and I trust them. We both know each other’s strengths and not-so strengths. It’s time and relationships, I think, that allows us to take the leap from being directors of programs to actual pastors.

I normally hate it when pastors say ministry is all about relationships. That’s usually code, I think, for laziness or ineffectiveness. I’m not suggesting ministry is all about relationships. It is about relationships though. I’m suggesting that having an appointment process that operates as though relationships- and the trust engendered by them- mattered not at all may be missing something.

I didn’t mention any of this when they interviewed me for ordination and asked me about itinerancy. Not because I was holding back or hiding my thoughts but because it’s only now, with enough time in one place under my belt, that I appreciate Dr. Dykstra’s wisdom.