Tag Archives: Ministry

3 Myths About Young Clergy

U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, reads a sermon during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. Camp Lemonier is the hub of Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, providing humanitarian relief, security and anti-terrorism activities to the nations in the Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)
U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by  Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)

As a pastor under 35, I often encounter disinformation about myself and my fellow young clergy.  Congregations, older clergy, pulpit search committees, and denominational leadership often fall victim to mythology about young pastors.  There are many myths out there, but here are three I find most significant:

Myth #1: Young Clergy = Young Families

One of the most persistent myths about young clergy is that if a church hires (or a Bishop sends) a young pastor, young people and their families will instantly flock to the church.  This is a serious fallacy.  While a young pastor *could* be especially insightful in reaching young adults for Christ, discipling them, and building relationships with them, it won’t matter a hill of beans if the church itself is not invested in doing the same.  If you have never asked a Christian young adult what they think about the world or what they are looking for (if at all!) in a faith community, you need to rethink if you really want young adults in your church.

Reality: A young pastor can help, but it takes a congregation dedicated to knowing, investing in, and serving with young adults to reach young adults.  If you are praying for a young pastor to come so that she or he can do all the work of reaching young people, you are setting up that pastor to fail.  You want a magic wand, not a pastor.

Myth #2: Young Clergy Don’t Like Older Adults

We live in a society where different generations don’t interact with regularity.  The breakdown of the family means that we might not know the generations before or after us.  Where ancient cultures valued the wisdom of age, our marketing-driven economy only wants the self-indulgent wallets of the 20-40 crowd. Many churches are convinced that young clergy don’t care about or aren’t interested in ministry with older adults.

Reality: This is a deep lie.  Most of my young clergy colleagues value not only older clergy, from whom we have much to learn, but also the older adults we are blessed and called to serve.  Stubbornness and close-mindedness are not limited to any age, and neither are joy or spiritual maturity.

Myth #3: Young Clergy All Want to Work with Youth and Children

Many of my young clergy friends who staff larger churches are often pigeonholed as the youth and/or children’s minister.  While many young pastors serve very effectively in these roles, one’s age does not necessarily correspond to giftedness with various generational ministries.  Just because a young pastor has three young children, it does not follow that she or he wants to work with children day-in and day-out.  Just because a young clergy likes the same bands that the youth do, doesn’t mean that the new young pastor is a good fit for the youth program.

Reality: Young clergy all have different gifts, skills, and interests.  Some might be great at planning contemporary worship, and others might love traditional liturgy.  Some may love doing the children’s moment and others might hate it.  You will meet young pastors who love visitation and pastoral care, and others who loathe it.  There are young pastors passionate about administration, and others who are allergic to meetings.

The Bottom Line

Don’t assume a young pastor has a specific set of skills or interests.  Ask where they are gifted, be upfront about expectations, and be realistic about desired results.

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading
“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

Discerning a Call to Ministry? Ignore the “Do Anything Else” Advice

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How often do we send this message to people discerning a call to ministry?

There is a piece of advice I heard in seminary that is oft-repeated, and one that I have come to dislike.  It originates with Spurgeon, as pointed out in a great article over at Gospel Coalition:

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.

I have two problems with this view, especially since it is so often regurgitated. (Don’t believe me? Check out here and here and here and the comments section here.) The two are:

1. This advice assumes that ministry requires only one skill or ability.

2. This also implies that ministry is uniquely difficult.

First, the “do anything else” advisers seem to want to drive away anyone from the pulpit that has any real skills! Of course an authentic calling – both internal and external – is greatly important.  But calling does not imply a dearth of talents.  There is no one “ministry gene” that someone needs to faithfully heed the call to church leadership.  Instead, ministry requires a group of diverse skills, which will vary depending on the context.  In my own setting – pastoring a small church – a normal week could requires skills in writing, oratory, management, long-range planning, counseling, caregiving, conflict resolution, research, coaching, and staff development.  Even more specific ministry roles (for instance, youth ministry or executive pastor positions) will require a wide range of personal and professional skills.  Does anyone possess them all? No, that’s why we focus on our strengths and manage our weaknesses.

But all this goes to show that someone who will excel in ministry could likely succeed in a wide variety of fields related to leadership, communication, education, etc. To say to someone discerning a call to ministry that they should only go through with it if that cannot possibly do anything else is to drive away a great deal of talent and promise from the church.

Second, pastors are good at complaining talking about how difficult our work is. This is what the table conversation at an inordinate number of clergy gatherings might consist of, if you don’t choose your seat wisely. For me, implied within the “do anything else” advice is a warning: “This work is so arduous and frustrating that you won’t make it unless this is your last resort, unless God has made sure you ABSOLUTELY can’t do anything else!”  Much of this way of thinking leans tends to this direction.  One of the above advisers puts it this way:

On the whole (with exceptions) the hours are long, the people are a problem (indeed without the interaction with people the Pastorate world be great!) and the pay is poor. I am not even sure about the retirement benefits.

As one of my mentors taught me to recognize, “everyone works hard.” Especially in today’s economy, there is no work that is not difficult, that does not have unreasonable expectations, long hours, and little reward.  Every company – for-profit or not – is attempting to get more out of its employees while paying less.  No one makes what they are worth, with very few exceptions.  Pastors would do well to remember that our people are in the same boat we are, and often (here I’m thinking of ordained UMC elders) we have more job security than they do.  Our work is not uniquely hard.  It would be more accurate to say our work is hard uniquely.  In other words, ministry is not hard the way that a factory or office job might be, but is difficult because of the various skills needed (enumerated above) and the emotional toll that the week-in, week-out grind of church life can take – especially when funerals, sickness, conflict, and other emotionally draining parts of our vocation begin to pile up.

In closing, we should close with a word of hope.  Vocational ministry is not easy, but then, no one has it easy.  We would do well to remember that all of us look to the same source to sustain us.  Easter reminds us that death and meaninglessness do not win, that our work, when tied to the work of God (any work done for God’s glory is ministry, after all), will finally find its consummation in that Kingdom that is to come:

Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime. What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, teaching the ignorant, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when  it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so. We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world. As prisoners of hope, we keep working in the expectancy that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will is going to be done on earth as in heaven. (Will Willimon, Calling and Character, 55)

Thoughts Upon Ordination

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United Methodists don’t do this as part of the Ordination rite, but I kind of wish we did…

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

Paul, 2 Timothy 1:6

As I went through last week’s Annual Conference (the yearly gathering of United Methodists from a particular geographic area, in my case Western North Carolina – aka the best Annual Conference), I was continually reminded of the many people, places, and experiences that were important during my journey towards ordained ministry.

I was reminded especially of:

  • Karen, who invited me to Youth Disciple;
  • Gloria, my youth pastor, who made sure I felt welcomed even though I didn’t know a lot of the kids in the group; she tried to tell me I was going to be a pastor years before I even began to study matters of faith and theology;
  • Marc, who showed me the importance of living the faithfulness and trust that we proclaim as pastors;
  • Phillip, who introduced me to “the process,” and walked with me when I stumbled;
  • College professors like Warlick and Norwood and Akinade, who helped me learn that there were other ways to be Christian than being a narrow-minded fundamentalist;
  • Dr. Stoneking, who was wise enough to advise me to pursue an M.Div at a place that taught me to think with the Church rather than outside of or against her;
  • Seminary faculty like Smith and Campbell, who taught me to think deeply about the Christian faith while not treating their students like machines on an assembly line;
  • Drew and Kirk and Mike, who taught me the day-to-day of work of ministry in its pure, unvarnished beauty.  They taught me to love the local church, in/through/with/despite its failures;
  • Mike, who told me I could be a pastor when I wasn’t remotely convinced;
  • Dr. Phillips, a professor who played a pastor when necessary;
  • My parents, who have been my cheerleaders the whole way, and told me from a young age – with no evidence to speak of – that I was a leader;
  • Brittany, who has supported me more kindly than I deserve, even though she often loses out to the vocation. She has carried me through the valleys and kept me from being conceited on the mountaintops.

Most of all, I found myself continually marveling at the Triune God for his bounteous, unending, surprising grace.  His strange, unmerited call is the chief reason I now find myself as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. That grace was mediated to me through various means – worship, prayer, sacrament, service – and the people and places that have graced my journey.  Thanks be to God.

Blessed are the flexible: improvisation and ministry

As the apocryphal addendum to the Sermon on the Mount goes: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.”

I’m rapidly learning the virtue of flexibility as a pastor.  I’m not sure it’s really a virtue, because it is more a matter of survival than acquiring a skill or habit, but that is a technicality.  What I am certain of is that no pastor will survive a congregation (sans a coronary) without a large degree of flexibility.

Case in point: arriving at church this morning, we discovered that the heat had not come on the sanctuary the night before.  The rest of church was warm and toasty, but the sanctuary was about 50 degrees.  What to do?  Make the church members, many of whom are older and generally colder anyway, simply deal with it?  Cancel worship?

Enter what is now designated “plan b”: we moved the altar, pulpit, and lectern to the fellowship hall.  Hauled up all the equipment for the handbell choir.  Rearranged the tables and chairs so they would all be facing front.  Made coffee.  Made a LOT of coffee.

My time interning at a church with a contemporary service taught me that church can look like a coffee shop.  It wouldn’t be the first choice of my parishioners, if you polled them, but it could certainly be done “in Spirit and truth” for one Sunday morning.

And you know what? It worked great.  God was with us.  If anyone griped (as I expected some to), I did not hear them.  Blessed am I, with flexible church members…

What’s the point: life really is made up of how you react, not what happens to you.  As a pastor, you have to keep your head about you.  Stress, like all emotion, is contagious.  If you project it, it will negatively impact your people and hamper the ability to worship together.  On the other hand, if you control your emotions, and view problems as opportunities, you’ll be amazed at how God can surprise you on a Sunday morning (or any morning).

Blessed are the flexible, my friends.