Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade in Review

The last day of 2009.

The last day of a decade that began with so much promise - so much anticipation - so much wonder - so much delight.

As I review all that has happened since the new millennium marched to fruition, I realize that nothing has fallen short of expectation. There has been an abundance of wonder and delight.

I've held three jobs since 2000. I've had the joy of being the associate pastor for a large United Methodist Church in the mountains of Western North Carolina. It was this church that taught me the joy of being a pastor. It was this church that kept me wanting to be a pastor in the early days of my current appointment where joy in ministry was hard to find. It was this church that taught me the wonder and delight of birth and death, sacrament and testimony, rebirth and new life. I'll always be grateful for the people of First United Methodist Church.

I've also had the joy of being the Director of Admissions for Duke Divinity School. For four years, I had the privilege of hearing about how God works in wondrous and exciting ways to call people to ministry. I was able to sit with students as they discerned their calls to ministry or their calls to another vocation. I was able to cheer the Duke Blue Devils Basketball team several times. I was able to preside over worship in Duke Chapel and preach there once on the Sunday following my ordination. I was able to grow and change, and in the midst of it all I discovered a more profound love for the local church.

And, for the last part of this decade, I've been completely transformed through my appointment to Mount Vernon Place UMC. It is here that I have seen resurrection with my own eyes. I have discovered how you are never too old to study the Bible, even at the age of 101. I have realized that it takes an entire congregation to go from decline to growth. I have watched miracles happen through a real estate development that still makes me pause in disbelief when I look at the numbers. I have learned that it does not matter what you wear to church - your being present is what matters. I have discovered that the more diverse a congregation is, the more it will look like God's kingdom on earth. I have realized that church growth is not reflected in the numbers but what happens when people are really willing to allow the gospel to take claim of their lives. I have learned time and again that the place I find the most joy in ministry is in the center of the city. And, there is no where else I would rather be than here.

I have had five different addresses in this decade, starting with an apartment in a complex called Strawberry Hill where I lived with another seminary student for three years. My parsonage in Hendersonville was a large house where three bedrooms sat empty and unused (imagine!). My favorite house of the decade was a great townhouse in Durham with vaulted ceilings, wonderful windows and a quaint breakfast nook where I learned about the downsides of polybutylene pipes. My condo in Washington exposed me to the competitive nature of the real estate market in 2005 and also to the joy of living in a diverse neighborhood where I learned to take nothing for granted. I continue to be grateful for my four years in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington. And, my current home is wondrous because of the one I get to share it with! I hate to admit how much I love suburban living - but there is something to be said about getting away from it all at the end of the day, crossing the river to a different way of life where parking is always available.

I have experienced the gift of relationship and love this decade. While I am grateful for the relationships that preceded my move to Washington, I am also grateful for the ways in which some relationships end so that one can come that will last forever. Just this morning, I was reviewing emails from the early weeks of my relationship with Craig. I remembered how it was an instant connection we shared, how we were able to be vulnerable with one another almost immediately, and how much joy he brought then and continues to bring to me today. Marriage is a gift. I am still in awe that anyone would want to spend their entire life with me, accepting my sometimes cranky moods, my tendency to spend more time at the church than I probably should, my self-centeredness that comes out at times, and my mind that wonders all over the place, traveling a thousand miles a minute at times. I praise God for marriage and for Craig.

And, I've experienced God. I have watched God show up in expected and unexpected places. I have seen God in nursing homes and funeral homes. I have experienced God around the bed of someone who just took his last breath and around an infant who had just taken her first breath. I have felt the joy of God in becoming the Godmother of three children who are the birth children of three wonderful and unique friends for whom I would do most anything. I have watched God heal broken relationships and broken spirits. I have experienced God in mourning and in laughing. I have seen God at the altar on my wedding day and on the wedding days of so many friends and others. I have seen God in so many beautiful places and people. I have learned that there really is a season for everything, for every purpose under heaven.

It's been a good ten years. Thank you, God, for all the blessings of this decade.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

The wonder of it all is that God would come to us. God came on this day! And, God has shown up often throughout this year. I am grateful!

The year started with the passing of my precious step-father, Red. Red died on Epiphany day, January 6. He had been sick for some time, and as we reflected on his final weeks before his death, we realize the wondrous gift he offered to all who he loved. Red was given the opportunity to say 'good-bye' in powerful ways. He made space to be with so many people who came to see him in his final days, and he used these moments to call out and name the gifts of those around him. It was a thin place when we were in his presence and he told us all good-bye. We'll celebrate his life again at the National Western Stock Show in Denver in January where he will be memorialized at a service there.

Mom's life has changed in many ways this year - not just because of Red's death but because of so many other changes. She closed her store, The Berry Patch. Her second term of being mayor of the city of Lamar ended, too. She is wondering what the next chapter will hold, and I simply keep telling her that she has too many gifts to stay idle.

Craig and I were able to spend Thanksgiving with my dad and grandparents. It was Craig's first trip to Missouri, and I am so glad we were able to go. We were able to drive through the campus of my college, visit my favorite Missouri winery, and spend quality time on the farm. We laughed a ton with Dad, and it was wonderful. Grandma and Grandpa still actively farm in their 80s, and they are a picture of what it means to work hard. I am so grateful for them.

Dana and Kayla are doing well in Denver. Dana has just resigned her current job and starts a new position as the director of a new childcare center in January. Kayla is a busy high-school freshman, and we pray she continues to find the right community of individuals who will nurture her remarkable gifts. High school is such a hard time!

We celebrated Craig's 40th birthday in September with a trip to Italy. I was playing on the Internet in the spring and discovered round trip flights to Rome for $470. It was a deal too good to pass up, so we booked it! We enjoyed three nights in Florence and three nights in Rome. The trip was spiritual, relaxing, insightful and fun. I am so glad we were able to go. And, the trip was paid for by weddings that I worked this year - seven total - including that of Craig's brother in San Diego and another dear friend from Mount Vernon Place who was married in May in California.

The church continues to be a place of joy and delight, a place where I am able to see and discover God at work in so many ways. I realize time and again what a precious gift God gave to me when God called me to be a pastor. I truly cannot imagine doing anything else.

After four years of negotiations, meetings, and tears, the property redevelopment at Mount Vernon Place finally ended in October when we dedicated the new ministry space. It is wondrous space - space that is connected to the historic church building by a four-story glass atrium. We have great classrooms, an incredible kitchen, and a sun-drenched fellowship hall. I love my new office - truly a pastor's study - and the fifth office space I have occupied in less than five years at Mount Vernon Place. I sure hope I get to stay a while!

Our congregation continues to grow in beautiful and diverse ways. In October, we voted to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, adding our name to the list of United Methodist Churches who believe that all people, particularly GLBT people, are welcome within our churches. As I look at the congregation I serve, I cannot imagine any church telling so many of our people that they are not welcome. As I examine our Book of Discipline, I also realize we have a long way to go in terms of being a denomination that embodies justice and equality for all people. I'll continue to work passionately for change in our church. I yearn for the day when my gay brothers and lesbian sisters are afforded all of the opportunities I have been afforded as a heterosexual woman including the gifts of ordination and marriage.

God captured my attention in a powerful way this year. Upon moving to Virginia, my ride into the church started much earlier in the day and took me on a different route. When I lived in DC I did not have to see the victims of prostitution standing the street a few minutes before 7:00 in the morning. I have counted as many as 22 people ending their working night, and my heart has been ripped in two more than once. Through the passion and commitment of our church members, Mount Vernon Place was led to partner with an organization called Courtney's House. The mission of Courtney's House is to get girls who are 11 to 18 off the streets, out of pimp control and into a safe environment. My eyes and my mind have been awakened and stunned time and again, and I am so grateful that Courtney's House is both a ministry partner and a building partner occupying space in the church. There is so much work to do around this issue, and I have learned that many of the women I see are not women but girls, and not people who have chosen their vocation but people who have been victimized into it. There is so much justice to be done.

Craig and I continue to enjoy the gift of marriage. He is the right balance for my life - as I live to work and he works to live. I know that when he starts asking about my need to be at the church so often that it is time to step back and assess just how much time I am spending there. He makes me laugh - even giggle at times. He holds me accountable, and he makes me a better person constantly as he asks why I am often in such a big hurry.

Emmanuel has come. God is with us. Imagine - imagine a God who took on flesh to be with us - a God who relentlessly pursues us, a God who desires so much to be in relationship with us, walking alongside of us. This God has come. As we finish one year and begin a new year, I pray that this God will enter your life in a powerful way - in a way that makes you and me realize that nothing will ever be the same again.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Letter for the People of Mount Vernon Place UMC

Dear Church Family:

There are twelve days of Christmas. I rejoice in this fact since some of you will not receive this greeting until after Christmas Day. It is my hope and prayer that the tardiness will allow you to savor Christmas even more – to see it as a twelve-day experience with wonder and awe continuing throughout the celebration.

It has been a year of transition and change, blessing and delight for Mount Vernon Place. It is a joy to think about the ways in which we have seen God at work. I regularly tell people that there is no other faith community of which I would rather be a part, and this year has reaffirmed my commitment to this statement and my excitement for being in ministry with you.

We are ending 2009 with a 20% increase in worship attendance over 2008. We have welcomed many new people into the life of our congregation – neighbors who walk to worship each Sunday, individuals who read something about Mount Vernon Place that provoked them to come once and who have been here every Sunday since, people who are new to the community, and people who are traveling several miles to be here. It is a joy to see the growth that is happening in the congregation – not just numerically but also as people grow spiritually, demonstrating a willingness to allow the gospel to change and transform them and us.

In September, we welcomed a new Director of Music and the Arts. Kevin Durkin moved from Buffalo, NY, where he served as a teacher and chair of the fine arts department for a high school in addition to serving as the organist and choir director at a large church. Under his leadership, the choir has quadrupled in size and new ideas for how to expand our reach through music and the arts are emerging each week.

In October, we dedicated 22,000 square feet of new ministry space, welcomed the arrival of Wesley Theological Seminary students who are living above the church offices, and greeted several new building partners. Seminary courses have been meeting at the church since August, and the seminary has two offices in the lower level of the new space. In addition to the church staff members who work in the office suite, we have the joy of several other organizations working alongside us including Prison Outreach Ministries and Generations of Hope Development Corporation. And, Courtney’s House moved into my old office in the historic church, continuing their efforts to get victims of sex-trafficking who are 11 to 18 years old off the streets and into a safe environment. Besides these partners, we have a baker using the kitchen two days a week, a jazz group that practices here on Monday nights, a theatre group who is here on Thursday nights, and the Undercroft Theatre has been used widely by a variety of different groups including the Capital Fringe Festival. These groups are just as sampling of the ways in which the vision of a building that is open and used as much as possible is really coming to life.

Our Charge Conference, held on October 31, was quite significant. At this annual meeting, we had the opportunity to vote on approving two of our members as candidates for ordained ministry. Beth Ludlum and Adam Briddell will now continue the journey of going before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry and then the Conference Board upon their graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary. In addition to Beth and Adam, we have two other members who are in this process. It is a joy to think about the gifts these individuals are bringing and will continue to bring to the United Methodist Church. Following the approval of these two candidates, the individuals attending the Charge Conference voted to become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, adding our church’s name to the list of congregations and campus ministries across the nation that are working to make sure that all people are fully welcome within the life of our congregations and ministries. The diversity of the congregation at Mount Vernon Place is one of the things I love most. This place truly is a place where one can come as they are, and I am thankful for being able to proclaim that all are welcome here.

As we look to 2010, I am excited to see the ways in which God will lead us and guide us, empowering us to be an ever present sign of God’s reign among us. Thank you for the privilege of being your pastor. It is one of the greatest gifts God has given to me.

Merry Christmas, Pastor Donna

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seeing the Signs

I saw the sign. I sat at the stoplight and watched it for a few minutes, becoming more frustrated with myself for getting off on the wrong exit. I needed to make a U-Turn. My GPS had taken me through a small neighborhood - turn left, turn left, and now turn right. My GPS was telling me to turn right. The sign in front of me attached to the stoplight clearly said that I could not make a right turn between 3:00 and 7:00 p.m. It was 3:20. I was not too far into the hours of prevention. I needed to get to the church member's home I was visiting. "Shoot, I am just going to turn."

I turned.

I ignored the sign.

I turned, and the moment I turned, a police officer greeted me, motioning me to pull over to my right. Another officer did the exact same thing to the car behind me. Within moments, I had been given a summons - a ticket for $91.00 for failing to pay attention to a sign. Almost 100 dollars were tossed out the window! A failure to pay attention to the sign cost more than most of the Christmas gifts I have purchased this year. What a stupid decision on my part.

I ignored the sign, and I am paying for it.

We are in the final stretch of Advent - of this season of waiting and watching, pondering and preparing for the one who has come and the one who will come again. During the last four Sundays, our scripture lessons have been filled with warnings to prepare.

We started with Luke 21, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves...Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap."

On the second Sunday of Advent, our scriptures offered us an encounter with Malachi, "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me..." while Luke told us about the voice crying out from the wilderness, "'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...'"

We then encountered John the Baptist on the third Sunday of Advent, hearing him call us "a brood of vipers," before listening to his request to "bear fruits worthy of repentance."

The signs are all around us. God has posted signs all over the place, signs asking us to repent, to prepare, to live a changed life. We have been invited to rejoice, to believe, to ponder in our hearts, to give and to seek renewal. The invitations have been extended time and again. The prophets have warned us. The messages have been posted in places where we have seen them. And yet, as I sit here typing four days before Christmas, I realize that another Advent has come and gone in which I have focused on everything that must be done instead of focusing on the signs. I have so often failed to pay attention to the warnings posted around me. I have been caught up in what is important to me, forgetting sometimes what is important to the Christ child whose birth we will celebrate again on Friday.

In many ways, being pulled over last week was a spiritual experience. I was caught. I had to face the fact that I had ignored the sign. Being given a ticket made me confront the fact that there are many other signs I am ignoring. My warning had arrived.

It is not too late to get ready. We still have a few days left. I intend to begin these days listening to the signs - repenting of my sins, asking God what parts of my life need to be renewed, seeking to bear fruits worthy of repentance - generosity, selfless giving of time and talents, kindness, mercy, and the list goes on and on. I desperately want these days to be focused on what is really important. I want to prepare for his birth once more and for the day on which he will come again.

I have seen the signs. God, help me to obey them.

Monday, December 07, 2009


I have worn many hats in recent days.

I have been a janitor who unloaded each trash bin in the fellowship hall following coffee hour yesterday, pulled trash piling high in an office that someone had vacated, and also took away the cakes left in the refrigerator from a late October dedication celebration.

I have been a preacher - an individual who wrestled with texts and tried hard to create a collection of words that would somehow seep into the souls of those who heard it.

I have been a parking attendant - someone who arrived early to place parking cones on the street so that our older members could have a place to park right out front and then place the validating machine where it needs to be on Sunday mornings, double checking the tickets of people to make sure they would not have to pay for their Sunday parking.

I have been a pastoral counselor - someone who has listened to the frustrations, the anxiety and the loss of others around me.

I have been a coffee maker and cook - someone who arrived early on Saturday morning to make sure that coffee pots would have plenty of coffee brewing in them for our guests arriving for the Alternative Gift Fair and then someone who got up early this morning to make taco fixings for dinner with the Finance Committee meeting tonight.

I have been a business executive - someone who has carefully reviewed budget requests from different ministry teams and answered questions of our District Superintendent about how our finances are going.

I have been a decorator - someone who carefully clipped coupons and watched the ads so that the church could get the best deals on greenery and wreaths, someone who unwrapped poinsettias and carefully placed them in the sanctuary.

I have been a pastor. I have been the wearer of many hats. I have been one who never knows what a day might hold and one who has journeyed through many days doing tasks that no one trained me to do - tasks that could never be found in a job description.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a young candidate for ordained ministry who shared with me how they were not sure they could lead a study on Sunday mornings before worship because "Sundays are already long days." I keep thinking about this person's comments and other comments like them that I have heard from individuals who are in seminary, preparing for ministry.

I know of no other job that demands more than being a pastor. I also know of no other job where many people have accepted the mundane as what is faithful - where many people go with the flow and forget the call for excellence and faithfulness. I know of no other job where someone works so hard and gets so much criticism. And, I know of no other job that I would rather have. I cannot imagine any job that I would enjoy more than that of being a pastor.

When I was talking on the phone this morning with my coach, mercifully complaining about the Board of Ordained Ministry and my responsibilities as a member, my coach asked me what keeps me on the Board. I shared my love of the church - my desire to see the church at its best - my hope for pastors who will do everything that is required of them and more whether it is taking out the trash, hosing down the steps, staying up late to wrestle with scripture, meeting yet another person for coffee, setting aside additional time for visioning, and showing up with their A-game as much as possible. I shared how I want the church to thrive - to be a place where lives are transformed, sins are left, lepers are cleansed, and the lame walk. I shared how I want to see something wondrous happen with our churches - how I want to see the kingdom - on earth as it is in heaven.

My friends who are studying for ministry, Sundays are long days. The Sunday school class, the worship service, and the meeting that follows are only half of the real picture. You're in for very long days and a demanding schedule. But, you're also in for a life that none of us really deserve but for whatever reason, we have been allowed to experience.

Thank you, God, for my call to ministry. Thank you for affording me the privilege of being a pastor.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I had a troubling experience with a doctor recently. I had a routine exam on December 13 at which time my primary care physician performed a variety of tests, taking a sample of many different fluids from my body. On Monday, 17 days after the exam, the same doctor left a voice mail message on my phone. She explained how I was fine but that I had an infection and needed to be treated immediately. She was calling in a prescription and instructed me to pick it up and start taking the antibiotic to treat the infection.

The doctor called 17 days after my exam to tell me that I was sick! She allowed me to continue with an infection that was untreated for over two weeks. And, I was a bit troubled. How is it that a doctor could wait this long to call her patient, I asked the nurse. The response I got was not satisfactory enough to make me want to return anytime soon.

At the same time, I am troubled by how she did not ask me anything about how I am caring or not caring for my body. The numbers on my chart were proof of my post-marital bliss that has added many, many pounds to my body. I have gained enough weight this year that a doctor should have noticed and asked me about it. But, she never said a word.

I wanted to be held accountable. I wanted to be pushed to live a healthier life. I wanted to be reminded of how important it is for me to eat a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly. But, she never said anything to me. She allowed me to get by without a word.

I was sick, and I never even knew it. I have gained weight, pushing my BMI to an unhealthy number. But, my doctor never said a word.

And, while I am completely annoyed, I also realize that we, as pastors, do the same thing all of the time.

We know what a blessing it is to worship regularly, how the practice of worshipping together on Sunday mornings brings us into a closer relationship with God and one another. We know the power of seeking God's forgiveness while also seeking to be reconciled to one another. We understand how the only way to ever see how much God has given to us is to also generously give back to the church and others. We have been reminded time and again of the blessing of serving others - how we understand our true call in life when we regularly serve the needs of others. We have experienced the blessing of being in a small group. And yet, so often, we forget to tell others what it means to be spiritually healthy. We fail to hold the members of our churches accountable. We neglect to encourage people to fully swim in the waters of baptism, to soar with the winds of the Spirit, and to taste the goodness of the Lord.

I was reflecting recently after reading the blog of a friend who started a discussion about whether or not pastors should know what people in their churches give. As I read the comments, I reflected on the time when I was working in seminary admissions but still ordained. I was fully ordained - a person set apart. But, if you looked at my record of giving it was anything but satisfactory. I was selfish. I was hoarding my resources. It would be an embarrassment to think about how little I was giving to the church. I shared with my colleague how I would give anything if a pastor or the church would have held me accountable at the time. I wish that someone would have told me just how much joy I was missing by not sharing abundantly. I wish someone would have told me that I was on spiritual life-support and far from being a spiritual leader.

I want excellence. I want to be the best I can be. I want my doctor to tell me the same thing - how she expects this of me. I want her to tell me immediately when I am not healthy. I want others to do the same when it comes to my spiritual health. And, I wonder. I wonder if others want the same from me.