Church Life, Knit Without Ceasing, Ministry of the Meantime

A thing of beauty


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I thought the announcements were over, and I was ready to move us on to the Introit, when a dear person stood up and said words kinder than I would dare to quote, and three women came forward and presented me with this stole.

Many hands made it, many clever and loving hands. 

(They included knitting!!!!) 

One of the sad things about doing interim ministry is saying goodbye so often. But one of the sweet things is that since you're leaving, people tell you, or show you, how they feel about you.

I have a month to go at Y1P, but since it's summer and some of the hands involved will be out of town, I go this gift in plenty of time to say thank you more than once.

Which I am already doing.

I hear it looked great in the pulpit!

Thank you, thank you, to all who took part in creating it. I will wear it with fond memories of my time among you.

Here's a close-up of a pair of flowers:

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Call, Church Life, Ministry of the Meantime

“a settled community of faith”

In the comments on my last post, Questing Parson drew attention to this phrase: "a settled community of faith."

I chose those words not uncarefully, but perhaps not carefully enough. 

 Comeonout (1)
I've been pondering this cartoon ever since I saw it posted on Bob Fisher's blog, church.nu, last fall. In both the church I'm serving and in the planning for the Annual Meeting of our Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, I've been challenged to apply the principles I learned at the New Church Leadership Institute in 2008. My dream of planting a church with the support of the Conference stalled because of the bad economy–that's a hard thing, I'm still sad about it. Weighing my diagnosis with RA and the economy together, it makes rational sense for me to let it go, to trust that it will come about in its own time and place, that I don't have the 60-80 hours per week of energy that might be optimum for a church planter. And so forth.

Still sad about it.

So. Coming to that conclusion meant also having to start reconsidering what in the world God might be calling me to do in ministry. I went back and forth, making lists of things I love about doing Interim ministry and things I dearly miss about being a settled pastor.

Settled–there's that word my friend noted, probably wondering if a community of faith can or ought to be settled. He's a Methodist, therefore committed to itinerate when called to do so. But that is not our way. We have settled pastors and transitional or interim pastors, and when we accept a call to be a settled pastor, we stay put indefinitely. 

Perhaps it would have been better, more accurate, for me to say "a call to settled ministry." 

I didn't, though, because I didn't want to be locked into the idea that I was talking about simply a job, as in "my ministry," nor did I want to use the word "church," because that sounds too much like talking about a building. 

And so I wrote those words "a settled community of faith," and however inaccurate or provoking they may seem to some, they meant something to me in that moment.

I was thinking of how it felt to be unsettled in my family life, in the years after my separation, when I lived for a year knowing I must sell my house, and then another year in temporary quarters, and then finally settled here. 

There are so many kinds of settling: getting comfortable as we did in this house; giving up on getting more; becoming stale and ceasing to move or grow. It's the first of those three I'm seeking, because in settling here we became free to grow and change instead of reacting constantly to loss and transition. That's what I'm hoping for, not to grow stale or to give up and take less but to become part of something, to stretch and deepen myself, and to help make that possible for others. 

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Call, Ministry of the Meantime, The Inner Landscape

Home

This morning Sam and I went walking outside our usual neighborhood and made our way to the street where I lived before my divorce. I wanted to diverge from our usual route in part to see whether last week's storm had damaged trees in the old neighborhood. Sam went along with me cheerfully, sniffing eagerly at message boards he doesn't usually get to read, so to speak. 

We walked past the yellow house where I lived from 1993 to 1997, from soon after my mother died until just before my father did. We circled that block and passed the park where my boys learned to ride their bikes. Then we walked toward the University and through the campus via an unfamiliar route, finally meeting up with the Law School side of the street, a landmark we walk past almost daily. 

Then, and only then, would Sam do his more serious "bidness." 

We might call it his home turf, his territory, his neighborhood, his comfort zone. I wonder if for Sam, as for me, it isn't that he feels better in his particle space?

I wrote about our neighborhood, our street and my sense of gestalt on my previous blog a few years ago. I made a case for this being our right place, and then at the end I pulled out the pavement beneath my feet, suggesting the inner world mattered more than the outer. I wrote the post at a time I was coming to realize I had to leave Small Church, as they were no longer going to be able to support a full-time pastor. I was trying to prepare myself for the possibility of leaving Esplanade Street, as I called it. 

Yesterday after church, Snowman and LP and I walked Sam together, and we talked about our trees, the way we would feel if our street didn't have this esplanade of maples. "It would just be any street," we agreed. We've lost a lot of trees in this neighborhood, many in the Patriot's Day storm of 2007, more this past week. The tree in front of our house, overspreading our yard, helps describe home to us.

As it turned out, we didn't have to move for me to have another job. What had to happen was for me to move, once, twice, now three times. And it's important to me today to remember how becoming settled here mattered so much to us. Would I keep changing jobs every year or so in order to walk on these sidewalks and check in on these trees? 

Do I have to trade one kind of stability for another?

Much as I have enjoyed my interim jobs, and I hope I've done them well, I wish I could have both a settled community of faith and my settled particle space at home. I've come to believe the two don't have to be in conflict, but I haven't seen yet where they might be in relationship. I hope that the way will become clearer, soon, that I will see my way home.

A-Croc-Alypse Now, Call, Chez Songbird, If I Were Preaching, Interim Ministry, Ministry of the Meantime, Preaching

Saturday Night Thoughts

  • Communion WafersIt's hard to know what to do on Saturdays when I'm not preaching.
  • I wonder where I will end up next?
  • When I hear young people singing beautifully, as I did at LP's District Honors Chorus Festival today, I feel hopeful for the world.
  • When I come home and read news about the Tea Party Convention, I don't.
  • Really, it's hard to figure out how to structure my week when I'm not preaching.
  • I fear I sound whiny, which is not nice to some of my pastor friends who are between engagements, so to speak.
  • Leaving is an inevitable part of life, but in Interim Ministry, it comes with alarming regularity. 
  • Maybe I ought to be less mopey and watch TV with LP instead.
  • We have that "What Not to Wear" with the Episcopal priest on our DVR.
  • Next week I'll try to find a writing rhythm, but at the moment it feels pretty pointless because…
  • it's not for preaching or the associated preparation.
  • And maybe I need a writing project.
  • But I don't know what that would be.
  • Except I did suggest to Pure Luck that maybe someone might be interested in the story of a pastor married to an atheist, and he said sure, and I said we could write it together, and he suggested I could interview him, which is to say, do the work myself.
  • Lastly, in response to the ways we have tried to accommodate various worries about Communion (germs, gluten, etc.), LP suggests it's getting to the point we will be handing people a plastic wafer to hold, contemplate, and then return to us.

Ministry of the Meantime, Preaching

Preaching in Context

Three years ago this week, leading up to the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, I was unpacking my books at my first Interim Ministry job, wondering if I would know what to say when the time came to preach on that first Sunday. On Baptism of Christ Sunday I said farewell to Small Church, my first call, a place full of people I loved. (I still do, though I make a point of doing it from a distance.) I learned how to do many ministry tasks there; I'm appreciative of how gentle they were with me, mostly, and how much room they gave me to experiment. When you know the congregation, when you know your context, you can do that. 

In the past three years, I've learned three new congregations, and said goodbye to two of them. The towns, the people, the churches have all been very different from each other and from Small Church. So much of preaching is understanding location: geographic, socio-economic, historical and personal. I suppose I should say theological, too, though it's harder to clarify that sometimes. I know mine, but Congregational UCC people don't tend to verbalize theirs. You have to watch for it in practice.

To each preaching relationship, I bring my own locations, my own preferences, my own stories, and I have to hope they work together for good.

This week my personal location includes:

  • just back to work after almost two weeks away
  • colleague away on study leave
  • son still home from college
  • lots of program details to oversee or carry out myself
  • haven't preached in this church for over a month

One of the challenges of an Interim Associate position has been preaching less often and also feeling less empowered to speak to the transition from the pulpit. I'm not saying anyone told me not to, but rather that I don't feel I have that position in this case. Or I haven't felt that way.

But this week, we have the gospel lesson about Jesus turning water into wine to keep the party going, and this church has been talking since before I arrived about how to be more welcoming, and while I was away a piece I wrote that included thoughts on hospitality was shared at a congregational meeting.

So I think it's possible my context for preaching this week is more like Interim Ministry and less like the Associate's "turn."

I'll keep you posted.

Interim Ministry, Ministry of the Meantime

Ministry of the Meantime

I've been at my current job for six months now, and it was great to meet with the Pastoral Relations Committee tonight and have a wide-ranging conversation about the job, the church and the preparation for a settled Associate Pastor. My work as a consultant to the Search Committee will soon be over, as they get closer to running an ad and beginning to look at candidate profiles. Although I continue to leave open the possibility of seeking a settled call myself when this job ends, I *love* working with search committees. It's exciting, challenging and creative work, helping the committee to paint a picture of the church that will speak to the heart of the pastor who will be the right match.

When I shared this with the committee, the Moderator of the church pointed out the cost at which doing this very gratifying work comes: the wrenching nature of the goodbyes that come at uncomfortably close intervals.

He's got that right.

Call, Midway, Ministry, Ministry of the Meantime, New Church, Preaching

Mind, Fully

(Thinking about Proper 18B, Mark 7:24-37)

Even though I used to say I was a "writer who preaches" rather than a "preacher who writes," I find without the deadline of preaching I did not write much this week. That may be in large measure because it was a busy week with a lot of meetings and conversations and the beginning of high school, which in itself was a source of things about which to write.

Maybe those things would have found themselves in a sermon, some of them, anyway. I try to live mindful of Sunday, sorting what might work from what will not.

Even though I wasn't preaching this week, I read the scriptures for tomorrow, studied them with my preacher group and used one of them at a gathering of Sunday School teachers on Thursday night. We used the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman as an opening for talking about times when we didn't want to listen to or talk to anyone anymore, a time we brushed someone off and later wished we hadn't.

I met with people to talk about trying to do church in different ways, both within an existing church and in potential new communities of faith.

I met with my successor at Small Church. He has been there for a year, and we both had a sense that the timing was finally right to compare notes.

I watched "For the Bible Tells Me So" with Y1P's ONA committee and attended a workshop sponsored by the MCLU and put on by HRC on how to talk about Marriage Equality.

I also watched a video clip that made me wonder if I should call myself any kind of a preacher.

I met with two candidates for ordination at different points along the journey, read and discussed one ordination paper and one senior project (Hi, RevDisco!).

Really, it was a full week even without a sermon to prepare. And I had a great, quiet Saturday, spending lots of time with Pure Luck, who leaves in two weeks for a two month job in the Southwest.

But. I miss it. I miss the feeling of completion when various threads of the week weave together into 1500 or so words with (hoped for) meaning.

So instead of a sermon tonight, I'm posting this somewhat self-serving recitation of the week's events, to make a shorthand record of them. I suspect it was a week that I will say mattered, when I look back from some distance, but in the midst of it there was no room to review what happened, what was said, what was heard, what was felt.

Which brings me back to Jesus. He wanted to get away, to be alone, perhaps to pray or to process or just to stop thinking and giving for a little while. LP read somewhere that Jesus was an INFJ (her Myers-Briggs type, too, as it happens), and if he was an introvert, then I can understand his need. But I am not, and what I need is a friend, or friends, who will let me talk it all through until the pieces of whatever it is I need to learn will fall into place.

And really,that's what happened to Jesus, too, one of those moments, except the conversation took place with a stranger and he figured it out faster than the ordinary mortal bird seems to be doing this week. It's Chapter 7 of 16 in Mark's gospel, and the man who works wonders, then escapes to rest and recuperate, will be pushed to the next level of his life and his ministry and his self-understanding. He'll heal a little girl at a distance, and she will represent his recognition that God's love is for everyone, not just Israel. He will hear, I believe, what God wanted him to hear all along, and he will go right on to help someone else be able to hear, too.

If this were a sermon, I would be asking where the Good News is in this story, but it seems to tell itself: there is more to learn, to realize, to internalize and metabolize and embody and enact. We're not finished yet. I am grateful for that, even as I struggle to sort through it all on a Saturday night, late, mind and heart full of possibilities.