Friday, July 01, 2016

The First Day

Eleven years ago today I pulled my Jeep into a small parking lot off K Street, rang a doorbell, and was greeted by a chain locked door that would not open. The building engineer soon came down, helped me unload some boxes of books, and showed me to the church office. I opened the door to the sound of window air conditioning units blowing and the smell of Wendy's french fries. Two women sat at the two desks eating their lunches. They kindly looked up and said "hello" while the engineer led me into a large office. These memories of my arrival are etched in my mind. A first impression quickly enabled me to see what was waiting for me.

It was in the middle of my first week when I gathered with our Staff Parish Relations Committee. The chair was a 97-year-old, incredibly classy and kind, nearly lifelong Washingtonian named Mabel. She led the meeting with a table of older adults who seemed to be filled with suspicion around who I was, what led me to their church, and how I was going to change them. But at the end of the meeting, Mabel looked me in the eye and said, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the center of the city. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place, and Mount Vernon Place needs you. Don't you ever forget that you have the best job in Washington." 

I listened to her words that night and quickly concluded that I had just left the best job available when I emptied my office at Duke where I had served as Director of Admissions for the Divinity School for four years. Did Mabel have any idea how I felt after only five days as her pastor? Did she understand how big the task was before us?

It's been 11 years, and I can now easily say I have the best job in Washington. There was little about the first two years that was easy, however. We sometimes went six weeks without a single first time guest in worship. It took more than a year to attract a new member. There were no baptisms in the first couple of years but many, many funerals. It was tempting to quit at times. There were several weeks when I could not wait for the Christian Century to arrive so I could read the job postings, praying there would be something there for me. But God's grace and faithfulness prevailed, and the Spirit showed me how she was at work often. 

In the last couple of weeks, several people have reached out for advice for what to do first in their new church as the appointment year begins in the United Methodist Church. There are a million things I could say and a few things I would have done differently. But the most important thing is to follow the example of Jesus.

Luke tells us that twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents returned home. They assumed he was with them only to later find that he was in the temple where he sat among the teachers, listened to them, and asked questions (Luke 2:46). Our learning is never over. When I first arrived at MVP, two Baptist pastors generously invited me to join their weekly conversation at Starbucks. They had both led change in their downtown congregations and were willing to instill wisdom within me while also offering constant encouragement. Please try to find teachers who you can sit with and ask questions. Imagine yourself a constant student who has learned much with even more left to learn. 

Jesus then begins his ministry. He is baptized and hears the words, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Try to never forget either part of this statement. You are God's child, God's beloved. God adores you. God is also well pleased with you. Your congregation will not always be pleased with you. Not everyone will like you. In the times when you are told who is against you, seek to remember the one who is for matter what.

Jesus is then tempted in the wilderness but is able to escape without giving into the devil's desires. There will be numerous temptations on your way - to sin boldly, to make more money, to have more success or power, to believe it's about you. Spend time in prayer every day. Seek to be filled with the knowledge of scripture that keeps your feet on a steady path.

We then find Jesus returning to Nazareth where he enters the synagogue and stands up to read. He proclaims a word from the prophet Isaiah about how the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus then announces that the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing on that day. Jesus quickly makes it clear what he is there to do. He has an agenda, a calling to fulfill, work to be done. 

On the first day of an introduction to political science class while in college, I learned that politics is "the ability to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others." Preaching should have the same goal. Every time we proclaim God's word, we want people to be changed - to be filled with hope, to know they are beloved, to know who Jesus is and was, to understand God's call on their life, to be moved into action, to be given the courage to work to set the oppressed free, to understand how they have a light to shine, to be called to embody generosity, to practice and receive forgiveness, to love God and neighbor, and so much more. Please never forget how God uses your words to shape and form people. Take time to create a plan for your preaching. Go away for a week each year to sketch out where you seek to lead your people in the coming year. God is ready to speak through you.

Jesus then quickly surrounds himself with a group of disciples who will share in his ministry. He calls ordinary people to join him on the journey. You, too, need to call out the gifts of others in your midst. You need to invite people into ministry with you and allow people to see how they can make a difference in serving others both inside and outside the walls of the church building. But you also need to surround yourself with a group of people who can fully understand what you're going through.

Nearly five years ago, six clergywomen were granted money from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Seminary to learn how to love God and neighbor together. The funds lasted two years but five of us are still gathering. We seek to meet monthly, and the space is always made safe to share whatever is bringing us down, causing us joy, or challenging the depth of our being. We seek to help each other become more faithful disciples, better pastors, better wives, and better mothers (for three in the group). These women provide accountability, encouragement and bread for my journey. Please do not look to your church members to be your support or your friends. Find people outside your church to journey with you and to know you fully. 

Finally, learn how to shake the dust of your feet and move on. People will leave your church, and their leaving can cause significant pain no matter who they are or why they leave. But remember that it's not all about you. Your role is to help people grow in their faith and experience God. People may realize that your congregation is not the best community in which this growth can happen. They may get frustrated with you and see your shortcomings more than your gifts. Listen to their concerns and do everything you can to find common ground. Apologize often if you have made a mistake. Make room for conversations in which you seek to learn as much about your shortcomings as possible. But do not believe you are there to please everyone, and do not hold the criticism for long. When the criticism comes, pull out your email folder and the folder in the filing cabinet that is labeled "HAPPY" - the files you have filled with notes of gratitude affirming your gifts. Remember who you are. Beloved. Precious. Child of God.

Oh, and one more thing - perhaps the most important thing. Love your people - the ones who love you and the ones who don't yet like you. Show up in their lives when they are hurting and when they are rejoicing. Write notes to them filled with gratitude for who they are and how they are offering their gifts or allowing God to shine through them. Pray for them often. Tell them regularly how much you love being their pastor. Don't let them forget that you believe you have the best job in Washington - or wherever you might be.

I'm praying for you and with you as your time begins. Being a pastor is a joy for which none of us is worthy. Don't take it for granted.