Monday, September 28, 2009

Draw the Circle Wide

We welcomed five new members at Mount Vernon Place yesterday and had the privilege of baptizing two of these individuals. It was a beautiful day - one of my all-time favorite worship experiences in this place. As part of worship, I asked two of our new members if they would be willing to testify - to share a glimpse of why they were excited about joining Mount Vernon Place and what brought them here. Both of the witnesses were extraordinary - offered with love, grace, passion, and excitement. It was a blessing to hear their words.

I asked one of the individuals if I could have a copy of his words to share on my blog. As I read them, my only prayer is that God will continue to keep us on this path, and that God will show us how best to further open the circle that has powerfully been opened to so many people already. What a blessing it is to serve in this place!

Here they are for you to read:

I remember an afternoon when I was 16 years old. I was sitting in a meadow in front of the chapel at Camp Aldersgate – our United Methodist Church camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. A pastor speaking to a group of us shared this simple poem:

They drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.

As a Christian who also happens to be gay, I have known the hurt and despair of having circles drawn that shut me and those like me out in ways that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life and faith in the very communities of faith in which we were raised and once nurtured. My guess is, there are others here today who perhaps for the same or for different reasons have shared similar experiences.
But after a few short months here, in this place, I stand to give witness to what I sense is happening at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church; and why, today, I seek to be a part of this community of faith. Something is happening here that captures my imagination and convinces my heart: the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Deborah, of Paul and Priscilla is a living God who is walking among us today – speaking new words of hope to those both inside and outside these walls, and leading us all to new places of promise that encourage greater strength of community, healing and depth of faith. Something is happening here!

Today the five of us seeking membership in this congregation are linking hearts and minds with a community of believers who have taken an incredible leap of faith as you seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ – reaching out into our city and our nation in bold and creative ways to meet neighbors in need. Drawing circles around them that included – that incorporate them into a shared life that provides for a greater hope and promise of well-being.
I sense this congregation to be a community of seekers: people who know that living a life of faith is like being on a journey. As God moves among us, so must we seek and be prepared to be led to new and different places in our ministries. I’ve said to others that one dynamic of this community that makes me want to be a part is the sense that “we are always becoming!” There are other places we all could be where the sense is “This is who we are! This is what we do! And this is how we do it!!” It’s a good thing to know who you are, but each day is a new day that presents new situations, and new challenges with opportunities to share our faith with those around us. I want to be a part of a community of faith that has this sense of adventure – a sense of “always having to figure it out,” always discerning where we are, and what God is calling us to do in this new day, this new moment.

In 1980, as a young gay man who had just spent four years in seminary preparing for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, I attended our General Conference in Indianapolis, IN. I was there as part of a group of gay and lesbian United Methodists with a new name: Affirmation. Needless to say, in those early days we were very much on the outside of “the circle,” well into the margins. At the opening of the Conference I stood in an outer hallway of the Convention Center holding a tall banner we had just made a few days earlier that read, “Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.” The hallway where I stood was the path that all of our Bishops took as they processed onto the main floor of the convention center. They all passed by me and ‘my’ banner. One bishop stopped and said, “Get out of here. You must leave this place! ” I looked him in the eye and said “Bishop, I’m not going to leave!” At that moment my heart was more resolved than ever to speak honestly and openly about who I was as a person of faith, and to always search for that growing community of believers in Jesus Christ who understand that their faith compels them to welcome – to include rather exclude people.

So Bishop, here I am! I’m still here! And I give thanks for my sisters and brothers in this place – for the way you welcome me; for being the people of God that you are; for being the people of God that you hold promise to become; and for being a people of God who have a passion for drawing circles that include people rather than keep them out. Thank you for embracing the five of us this morning and bringing us into this community. We want to draw circles with you.

William J. Matson
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
Washington, DC
September 27, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Breaking of Bread

I purchased a book yesterday in one of the museum shops. The book is filled with pictures of paintings that portray the Lord's Supper. I am fascinated by different artists' interpretations of this sacred meal. I am awed by the paintings that tell the story - of how Jesus appeared, of who was at the table with him, of how Jesus broke bread. We know that this meal is what led the disciples to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread following his resurrection.

I saw Jesus last night. Jesus came to me in the breaking of the bread.

Craig and I were dining in one of Florence's oldest restaurants, celebrating Craig's 40th birthday. We knew ahead of time that we would arrive at the restaurant, get in line, and then be seated with strangers. We followed the wisdom of the hotel staff, and did exactly what they suggested we do. We were seated at a table, and within a matter of moments, another couple was seated with us. A man named John sat down next to me. John's wife, Rosemary, sat down next to Craig. We sat down as perfect strangers.

Soon food started to arrive on the table. Italian meats came first. Then came some tripe (which I said, "no thanks" to). We then had a lovely salad. Pasta arrived next. The pasta was followed by a plate of meat - four different kinds of meat. When the meat was enjoyed, a plate filled with different desserts arrived. All of this food was washed down with a huge jug of red wine that sat in the center of the table. We all shared the meal together. We all enjoyed one another's company. We laughed. We told stories. We contemplated life. We dreamed about the future. And, all I could think about was the Eucharistic feast - the Great Thanksgiving.

There is something extraordinary that happens at the table. People sit down as strangers. But they leave as friends. When bread is broken, community is formed. When a table is shared, barriers are broken. When individuals come and offer what they have, others are blessed. Craig and I experienced this kind of fellowship last night. It was amazing.

At the end of the meal, the check arrived. We were prepared to share the cost - to split the cost of the 180 euro meal. John, however, immediately got out his wallet. John treated us - telling us that he wanted us to enjoy marriage as they had enjoyed marriage - all 30 years. He wanted Craig to have a special birthday. He wanted us to experience generosity. Meanwhile, his wife, Rosemary, sat back and said, "This is just the way he is."

It was grace. Extraordinary grace.

And, that's just the way the one is who hosts us at his banquet feast each time we come to his table to participate in the Eucharistic Feast.

It's just the way he is, and we encounter him often in the breaking of the bread.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Climbing to the Cross

I have spent the day looking at incredible art. While in Florence, we have visited the Uffizi Gallery and the Academia. I have marveled at David. I have seen so many pictures and statues. But, I have been amazed even more at the theology behind some of the works of lesser known artists.

Luke 23:50-53 reads, "Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectandly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid."

I have never before thought about who took the body of Jesus down from the cross or how these people got the body down. I have never thought about it until I saw so many pictures with ladders. So many of the Italian artists have created the crucifixion with ladders - with ladders that extend to the top of the cross - ladders that people can climb in order to get the body of Jesus and the other two people down from the crosses.

Ladders. I have never thought about people actually climbing to the top of the cross in order to remove the body of Jesus - to carefully untack the hands and the feet of Jesus. But, I saw the ladders today as portrayed by Italian Rennassiance artists. I cannot stop thinking about these ladders. And, I cannot stop thinking about Joseph of Arimathea.

We are told that Joseph, though a member of the council, did not agree with the plan and action of the council. Joseph, an insider, chose to be an outsider. Joseph chose to stay close to the cross. He chose to put a ladder against the cross - a ladder that would extend to the top of the cross.

I can imagine the pain and ridicule that came Joseph's way. I can imagine that his colleagues questioned why on earth he would be carrying a ladder to Golgatha - why on earth he would be placing that ladder up against a cross - why on earth he would be removing the body of one who was crucified. Still, Joseph went. He went, he carried a ladder, he climbed the cross, and he removed the body.

When I am rediculed, questioned, or criticised, it is so much easy for me to back down the ladder than it is to climb the ladder. When people question what I do in the name of my faith or my prodding of the Holy Spirit, it is so much easier to give into their criticism, and to stop what I am doing, than it is to continue on my way.

Joseph, however, did not stop. Instead, he carried a ladder to Golgatha. He placed the ladder up against the cross. He removed the nails in Jesus' hands and feet. He brought the body down and laid it in a tomb. He brought the body down that would rise again in three days.

I wonder.

I wonder even more now that I have seen these ladders in so many paintings today, what might happen if we did not back down in the face of criticism. What might happen if we continued to climb the ladder. What might happen if we continued to climb the ladder and talk with those with whom we disagree? What might happen if we tried to always stand for Christ - for Christ's ways, Christ's love, Christ's grace - even if we are going against what others are telling us we should do or think or say or feel.

Joseph climbed the ladder. I saw him climb it in so many paintings today. He climbed the ladder - even though he was a member of the council who fought for the cross - he climbed a ladder when the council's actions were over. And, in the paintings, he is not the only one who climbed the ladder.

Many others were there with him.

God, help me to climb the ladders you have placed in front of me. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cussing in Church

I got cussed out today, and it happened in a very unlikely place. I was not driving on I-395 into the city. I was not in the Costco parking lot, competing with 25 cars for the two remaining spaces. And, I was not in a grocery store that is always crowded on Sunday evenings in Washington. I was, in fact, at church.

At Mount Vernon Place, we have a regular practice of sharing our joys and concerns. It is a central part of who we are as a congregation. We seek to be real and authentic with one another, truly sharing the things that are giving us joy and the burdens we are carrying - the things that are causing us hurt and pain. Several people shared joys that are happening in their lives today. It then came time for concerns. After a few people shared, I got up, stood at the microphone, and asked for prayers.

I shared with the congregation how we need to pray for our country. I talked about how I was in downtown Washington yesterday and happened to get caught in the traffic as mobs - thousands upon thousands 0f people - were gathering in Freedom Plaza for an anti-tax, anti-Obama, anti-health care demonstration. I shared how as I sat in traffic, so many of the signs broke my heart because many people held a sign of hatred in one hand and a sign with scripture printed on it in the other hand. I then shared how my heart broke yesterday morning when I read an editorial in the Washington Post. The editorial is written by Colbert I. King and is titled, "A Dangerous Kind of Hate." In his editorial, King writes about pastor Steven Anderson's sermon of August 16 - a sermon preached in a Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona in which Anderson focused an entire message on "Why I Hate Barack Obama." In this sermon - a sermon preached in a Christian Church, Anderson preached, "'I'm not going to pray for his (Obama's) good, I'm going to pray he dies and goes to hell."

King goes on to write, "There's something loose in the land, an ugliness and hatred directed toward Barack Obama , the nation's first African American president, that takes the breath away" (Colbert I. King, "A Dangerous Kind of Hate," in the Washington Post, September 12, 2009, page A17).

My breath was taken away yesterday morning, and while I did not quote this specific line of King's, I did talk about Anderson - how I did not understand how anyone could be filled with so much hatred and still call himself a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I then invited the congregation to pray - specifically saying that whether we sit on the right or on the left, we are to pray. I said that no matter what our views are, we need to pray for the unrest that is so real, so apparent, so rampant in our nation. I asked that we pray for our leaders - all of our leaders.

During the closing of the final hymn, I noticed that two women who I had never seen before were no longer singing. In fact, they were standing with their arms folded in front of them.

When the benediction was over, I stepped out to the front portico as I always do to greet first time guests who come filing out first. One of the two women came marching up to me, looked me in the face, and shouted, "You are a God-damned liar." She then went on to shout something about tax dollars and abortion. Her friend soon walked up behind her with tears in her eyes and handed me a note written on the inside of an offering envelope. It read,

Pastor Donna -

As we sat through the first hour of the service today, I was touched by the kindness, love and compassion that was all around us - thus, the shock and dismay that I felt as you referred to me as divisive and full of hatred was akin to a kick in the gut. You see, my friend and I took part in Saturday's march. We did not have signs of hatred - we walked in prayer - praying for the future of our country - praying to be understood and not stereotyped. Thus - I leave the church this morning weak with anger and cannot understand why you hurt me so - Yet, I love you in Christ's name.

Lis from Naples Florida

I've never been called a God-damned liar in one breath and told that someone loves me in Christ's name in another breath. It just does not add up to me. I did not know what to do - I stood there in dismay as they walked away.

I did not stereo-type anyone. Rather, I invited people to pray for the hatred that was evident in the sermon quoted by King and in the signs I saw people carrying. I questioned how people who follow a peace-filled Jesus could be filled with such hatred - could wear the t-shirts that some were wearing, could carry the signs that some were carrying, could pray death upon anyone. This is not the Jesus I know and follow.

King's right, there's an ugliness loose in the land - an ugliness I have never seen before. I'm praying - for the safety of our leaders, especially our president who has people wishing his death. I'm praying - that one day people who follow Jesus will also fight for the things Jesus taught us to be concerned about. I'm praying - that this unrest ends soon.

God, help us.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Lost Language of Vocation

The Lost Language of Vocation
1 Samuel 3:1-19 and Ephesians 4:1-16
September 6, 2009
Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

It is that age-old, timeless question that keeps being asked over and over again. Elementary school students ask the question. Individuals keep asking the question once they get to junior high school. While in high school, guidance counselors are trained to help students explore the answer to the question. We continue to ask the question while in college. At the mid-point of our lives, we resume asking the question. It is an important question – perhaps one of the most important questions we ask. And, countless individuals and voices around us seek to answer the question for us.
What should I do with my life?
We take tests that inform us of our key strengths. We ask individuals to tell us what they think we should do. We go to graduate school with a plan in mind at times and uncertainty at other times. We long to have the answer brought to us on a silver platter – for God to somehow show us the direct path we are to take. But finding the answer to the question is not always easy. And even when the answer comes, we often work hard to place the answer aside, doing other things instead.
Howard Thurman, the man who was once dean of Howard’s Rankin Chapel before going on to the same position at Boston University, presented a baccalaureate address called, “The Sound of the Genuine.” Like many baccalaureate addresses, Thurman had plenty to say about one’s life work. Thurman said on this occasion, “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again - you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life.”[1]
The sound of the genuine is that which gives us joy. It is that perfect mix of our gifts – the gifts God has given to us – the unique qualities and characteristics that make us who we are. And, Thurman points out the danger of what can happen when we are unable to hear this sound, when we somehow find ourselves crippled because we are doing something that we are not called to do.
He writes, “There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”[2]
There are sounds all around us. Already today, we have heard hundreds of sounds if we have been careful enough to listen. There are also voices all around us, and many of these voices tell us what we should be doing. Many of us were taught as children that if we wanted to be really successful in life then we should consider two vocations, being a doctor or being a lawyer. Others of us were told to follow the family footsteps and do the same thing our fathers and grandfathers do. The Army told us that enlisting was the way we could be all we could be. Most voices told us to try to make as much money as possible. Other voices taught us what it means to be successful. Today, many of these voices sound promising. Many of these voices tell us that the only thing that matters is money and status. We are taught that fun is for the weekends, and joy is reserved for Saturdays and Sundays but not Mondays thru Fridays. And we are tempted to give into these voices, to heed their call, to sign on to being puppets on a string. We are tempted to give in to the voices around us instead of listening to the sound of the genuine. In fact, we often cannot even hear the sound of the genuine because there are so many competing voices and sounds speaking to us.
We are trained early in life to ask the question, “What do you do for a living?” But what exactly is “living?” What if we were to ask instead, “What do you to for life?” and believe that life – real, abundant life – could be found in what we do for a living – that the two are not mutually exclusive?
We spend so much time in our jobs. And some of us do things that we love on any given day while others of us do things we hate. Some of us rise up singing, ready to go to work while others would do anything to stay in bed and avoid work. Some of us have a job. Others of us have discovered our calling. We have found our vocation.
Frederick Buechner writes this about vocation, “Like ‘duty,’ ‘law,’ and ‘religion,’ the word ‘vocation’ has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all.” He continues to write that vocation “is the work that we are called to in this world, the thing that we are summoned to spend our lives doing. We can speak of ourselves as choosing our vocations, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of our vocations choosing us, of a call’s being given and lives hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing.”[3]
We turn, then, to our Old Testament lesson for the day. Samuel is the son of a woman who was barren for a good part of her life. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was a barren woman who desperately wanted a child. She made a deal with the Lord that if she were to conceive, she would set apart her child as a nazarite until the day of his death. She promised to set him apart as one who would not shave his head or drink wine or other strong beverages. The Lord eventually hears the cries of Hannah and grants her request. Hannah conceives a child and gives birth to Samuel.
And, Hannah keeps her promise. She keeps Samuel close to the temple. When Samuel is still a child, we see him dressed in a linen garment, ministering to the Lord under Eli the priest in the temple.
The story read today begins by telling us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. There might be many other voices speaking, but God’s voice is hard to hear.
We are also told that it is nighttime. Eli is lying down in his room with the lamp of God burning nearby. Samuel is lying down in the temple. And here, in the temple, Samuel hears the word of the Lord. The Lord calls Samuel by name but Samuel supposes the voice calling him is that of Eli. Samuel runs to Eli saying, “Here I am,” but Eli explains that he has not called him. Samuel returns to the temple and lies down again only to hear his name being called once more. Again, Samuel runs to Eli, and Eli again tells Samuel that he is not calling Samuel by name. When the call comes a third time and Samuel presents himself to Eli, Eli realizes what is happening. Samuel is being called by God. It is God who is speaking to Samuel, calling Samuel by name. Eli then instructs Samuel how to respond. Samuel is to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The Lord calls again. With Eli’s help, with Eli naming the voice of God for Samuel, Samuel hears the voice of God, and Samuel finally responds. Samuel is able to hear the voice of the Lord because Eli tells him God is calling him. Eli is central to Samuel being able to hear, to Samuel being able to discern God calling him.
Let’s review the story again. Samuel has been set apart for the Lord’s service since birth. Samuel is in ministry regularly at the temple. He even sleeps at the temple. But, for whatever reason, no one has told Samuel that God might call him. No one has prepared Samuel for the voice that might call him into ministry, summoning him to play a key role in fulfilling God’s plan. When the Lord calls Samuel, Samuel believes it is a familiar voice – the voice of Eli. And Samuel is unable to hear the voice of the Lord until finally Eli realizes it is God who is calling Samuel and then encourages Samuel to both listen and respond.
No one was expecting to hear God’s voice. No one was expecting the voice of the Lord to come. Again, we are told in the first verse of this chapter that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Even the people lying in the temple were unable to hear the voice of God. Even the evidence of a miracle, the son of a barren woman who poured her heart out to God only to have God answer could not hear the voice of the Lord.
And while we might also believe that the voice of the Lord is rare today, God is still speaking. I spent four years working in seminary admissions, reading and hearing thousands upon thousands of stories about the ways in which God had spoken to someone – calling them away from politics and into ministry, away from a successful business and into ministry, away from teaching and into ministry, away from nursing and into ministry, away from law and into ministry, away from their original plans for life and into ministry. God’s call showed up in all kinds of places. God is still speaking, but we, too, have a hard time hearing the voice of God. And, we, too, often fail to enable others to hear the voice of God in their lives. God is calling all of us – some of us to heed God’s call and be set apart for ministry and others to help people respond to this call – to be Eli’s – individuals called to help others to be able to hear and respond to the ways in which God is speaking to them.
A few weeks ago, I had the joy of reconnecting with my childhood pastor. Charles Buck is the pastor who confirmed me when I was in the sixth grade. When he was here, he reminded me of a fascination I had with a bishop while attending the Bishop’s Confirmation Retreat as a twelve-year-old. I was so captivated that day by the Bishop’s leadership and abundant joy that I asked the bishop how much money he made. You see, I had been taught all my life that money was important, and I wanted to see if his salary fit in with the expectations that had been placed before me. While my call to ministry might have been started at that moment, no one really said anything to me.
While in college, I rarely went to church but I would occasionally visit the chapel from time to time on Sunday evenings. On two occasions, the college chaplain invited me to preach. I accepted her invitation both times and enjoyed it, but the chaplain never asked me if God was calling me to ministry. Everyone at college knew I was bound for a life in law and politics – that I had been set apart for something “great” – something that was certainly not ministry. No one ever asked me about considering seminary. No one ever asked me if God was speaking to me. I had gifts for ministry. Others saw these gifts. They invited me to use these. But no one ever said to me, “I think God is calling you to ministry.” No one was willing to get in the way of my plans in order to awaken me to God’s plans.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul says in the passage read earlier that Christ gave gifts to people so that they might be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Paul then says that these people were given gifts for a specific purpose. Paul writes that these individuals were given gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Certain individuals were given certain gifts for one reason – to equip others for ministry and to build up the body. Part of the reason Paul is begging the church at Ephesus to live the life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is for the building up of the body – for the strengthening of the body. The body requires that all parts work together. And the body must continuously be strengthened. And our body, the church of Jesus Christ, is in need of individuals who can be equipped for the work of ministry and also equip others for this important task.
For some time, the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary has been conducting research on the age of United Methodist clergy. In an extensive report, the Lewis Center shares that out of the 18,000 fully ordained individuals in our church, individuals we call elders, only 5% are under the age of 35. At the same time, 45% of our elders are over the age of 55. The church is facing a potential crisis of leadership. Half of our ministers will retire in the next 10 years and very few individuals are entering ministry at an age where they can give their life to the church – at an age where they can creatively and energetically and passionately devote their fresh eyes to the needs of the church, equipping saints for ministry. The church is in great need of gifted young people who are willing to offer their lives to the church – to building up the body.
Paul calls the church at Ephesus to work together to build up the body of Christ. Samuel is able to hear the voice of God but only through Eli who enables him to hear it. And so I have a few questions for us as a congregation.
Could God be calling us to point out the giftedness of others? Could God be asking us to not conclude that the voice of the Lord is rare but that the voice of the Lord is speaking to many people? Could God be inviting us to help others discover their vocation – their lives’ call – that place where they discover real and deep gladness intersecting with the world’s need? Perhaps we are called to look around our congregation – to examine the lives of people sitting in the pews with us – and to ask the question, “Who is God calling?” and “How can I help this person to see the ways in which God has gifted them, to see how God might be speaking to them?” I do not know of a single person who has been able to hear a call from God on their own. It takes a community of people to form a pastor.
Buechner asks, “What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses the spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.”[4]
What is your thing?
What does the voice of the genuine say to you?
What is your vocation?
And who is God calling here in this place?
God is still speaking! The voice of the Lord can be heard often in these days.
[1] Howard Thurman, “The Sound of the Genuine,”
[2] Howard Thurman.
[3] Frederick Buechner, “The Calling of Voices,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 36-37.
[4] Buechner, 40.

Monday, September 07, 2009

For the Love of the Church

My mother is the mayor of a small town in Southeastern Colorado where I spent a week last month. During my time with her, much of my mother's heart was captivated by an explosive conversation occurring within the community. The town, like many small communities, is suffering from the economic downturn. There are several empty storefronts on Main Street. Many citizens in the town are struggling with their small businesses, loss of jobs, and the changing economic landscape.

A couple of years ago, the town did a nationwide search to find the right administrator for the city. They found their ideal candidate - someone who shared creative ideas for what could happen in their community, someone with a proven track record of making a big impact on a similar community in Florida, someone with tremendous passion to bring about much-needed change.

The administrator was hired. He moved his family across the country. He unveiled a plan for urban renewal, an extensive plan for how to bring more commerce to the community by making simple changes in the community that others would find more attractive. The man has poured his heart and soul into the position, yearning to bring his experience, his dreams, his visions, and his ideas in order to bring about the change he was hired to bring. My mother has been filled with excitement, along with many members of the city council. But, two years later, the administrator has announced an early retirement. He has been accused of having self-serving ambitions. He has been called a liar. People have worked hard to push him out, to stop the change from going any further. Vicious, vicious things have been said about him in an online forum attached to the town's newspaper website.

And now, every morning, my mother sends this person an email that says, "Do not let anyone steal your joy."

My mother has been repeating the same thing to me this week. "Donna, do not let anyone steal your joy."

In response to my last entry, I received an incredibly helpful email from a dear colleague who is in ministry several states away. My colleague wrote and shared how she was filled with the pain of labor, how she was working so hard for something new to come about in the congregation she serves, and how the labor pains are excruciating. She then offered helpful advice to me on what mothers do after they give birth, suggesting that I do some of the same - that I hold the church tight right now, that I sit back and admire this precious gift, and that I take delight in the gift that has come. Her email was a blessing to me.

But, I keep thinking of her labor pains, my labor pains, and the growth pains that I am currently experiencing. I spent a week with this colleague back in May at a conference in Atlanta. There were three of us sharing a hotel that week - three women clergy who love the church, three women clergy who are in churches that have the capacity to explode, three women clergy working far more hours than is probably healthy, three women clergy having to explain often to our spouses and partners as to why we are not going to be home until after 9:00 yet again, three woman clergy sharing our hopes and our dreams and our love of the church. And, this week, all three of us have expressed the enormous pains associated with being a pastor - the criticism, the lack of trust, the second guessing of our every move, the desires of our congregations to be comfortable with the present and uncomfortable with the not-yet.

We all love the church. We responded to a call to ministry because we saw the church as this dynamic agent of change. We know the church as an organization that has the capacity to transform lives from the inside out and to make a huge impact on the community. We have seen the joys of ministry - the incredible gift of spending time with people who confess their darkest sins, who are encouraged to live new lives, and who make changes in their lives in the name of the gospel - who let go of some things in order to journey into the unknown future of discipleship. We love our positions. We love Jesus and his call to serve the least of these. We know the power of amazing grace and long to open others to the grace at work in their lives. We are aware of what unhealthy churches look like and what healthy churches look like. We have been exposed to growing churches and declining churches. We have been mentored by all kinds of remarkable people who have shared with us how to be the most faithful pastors that God can enable us to be.

We have also been exposed to all kinds of people who work to steal our joy. We have all been accused and criticized for similar things. We have been questioned about things we have said and things we have written. We have been criticized for messages God has given us to preach and for showing too much enthusiasm for things God is doing. We have been chastised for doing some things and questioned for not doing other things. We have all experienced our share of pain, and frustration, and heartaches.

But, again, we all love the church. We all have the same hopes and dreams for what this body can become and be and do and serve. None of us came into this occupation with self-serving ambitions. We all know that it's too painful of a place and that we could do a million other things with our lives if we really wanted to be self-serving. Again, we are here because we love, love, love the church!!!

For four years, I had the precious privilege of working in seminary admissions, listening to the hopes and dreams of individuals who had heard God calling their name. In almost every conversation, I also heard about the dreams people had for Christ's church - the ways in which people were eagerly anticipating the ability to bring about change and transformation in the name of Jesus Christ. Individuals had been exposed to the power of the Gospel and the gift of this Gospel being embodied in the life of the church, and individuals wanted to be part of a healthy, dynamic community of faith where others could experience this same gift.

Our seminaries do the very best that they can to train these individuals to serve Christ's church as faithfully as they can. They are then sent out where they quickly discover that it is not easy to be a pastor. As Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, often says, "We too often see our most gifted graduates appointed to pastor in churches where they are least likely to succeed." What he means is that people who are just graduating are often sent to smaller churches, many of which are in decline instead of experiencing growth. They are sent to places that are not eager for change, places where people are quite comfortable and do not always cling to the passionate new pastor who comes with countless ideas for what the church is called to be - the Body of Christ working for transformation in the community.

Again, I do not know of a single pastor who responds to their call in order to be self-serving, in order to change things for the sake of change, in order to upset the status quo just for the heck of it.

So, why do so many congregations accuse us of this nonsense? Why is it that the church has so much trouble with change when the basis of our faith is found in a book that tells us of the story of Jesus who came and never allowed anyone or any person to be the same - Jesus who called his church to be his body on this earth - Jesus who preached good news to the poor more than anything else - Jesus who invited all people to his table - Jesus who confronted the way things were in the temple so that something new could emerge - Jesus who was radical and brought about radical ideas.

My brothers and sisters in ministry, please do not let anyone - ANYONE - steal your joy. Stay close to the one who called you and journey with the voices found in the Psalms and other places in scripture.

My brothers and sisters who sit in the pews, please, I beg you to think long and hard before you stand in the corner of the narthex whispering about what your pastor has done to upset you, please think twice before you question her motives or her moves, please pray for your pastor each day, please talk to her if you do not understand something or are concerned about something instead of gathering around a lunch table talking about her, and please, whatever you do, please do not offer her heavy criticism just before she enters the sanctuary for worship on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Changing Lanes

My role is changing. Mount Vernon Place UMC has made the transition. We have gone from a church that was very close to closure. Just four years ago, we had an average age of 82. We took in one new member in a good year and none in many other years. There were times when six weeks would pass without a first-time visitor. Our chair of staff parish relations was 97. The lay leader was 90. The finance committee chair was 93.

Today, our worshipping congregation has doubled. Our average age is around 35. Some 50 new individuals have joined the church. Not a Sunday passes without a few first-time visitors being in worship. And, most of the time they return a second week and a third week and a fourth week. We have an amazing mix of lay leaders - old and young. We have an incredible congregation of babies to 101-year-olds. I love these people! I adore them.

For four years, I have been the engine behind most of the new things, many of the emerging ministries, several of the different ways of doing things. I have been in the birthing room time and again, waiting to see what might come out. It has been incredibly hard at times (actually, downright painful) but amazingly rewarding now that I look back upon it.

We have made the transition. We are no longer declining but growing - becoming more and more alive each day. The place has changed - in beautiful ways.

But, in the last week or so, I have been struggling to identify my place. I seem to have lost the chair that is most comfortable for me. I have been the recipient of emails telling me about new ministries that are starting instead of part of the process of helping the congregation to birth new ministries in healthy ways. I have let go of things that were once really important for me to do, waiting for someone else to do it and if no one steps up, being okay with letting it go.

I do not know how to faithfully make the transition from being in the birthing room to standing at the door, waiting for my high school student to come home.

And so, I am wondering. Those of you who have made this transition, those of you who have shepherded a congregation from decline to growth, how do you do it - how do you keep finding the reason that brought you there? Are there books you found helpful? Are there things you can teach me during this time? What is my role? How do I adjust to these changes?

If you have nothing to offer, I covet your prayers. I am struggling with how to change lanes - the road on which we are traveling has definitely changed.