Advent, Call, Church Life, Ministry

Words of Assurance

On a frigid December 23rd, so cold my gas cap froze, I drove hours on Maine highways to a denominational meeting. Imagine scheduling a meeting for the 23rd! I was feeling pretty glum about my ministry in my first call; the small church I served had serious budget issues, and I felt like a failure. A much older pastor sat next to me and listened to my story at the lunch break. He offered a kind word; I wasn’t the only person responsible for the situation.

I hesitated to believe him.

I loved church, and I loved the church I served, but I started the drive home wondering whether I had misheard God’s call on my life. Did God really want me to be a pastor? Did I really want to be a pastor? And if that wasn’t who I was supposed to be, who was I?

Winter road leading into snow-covered trees with the following words: Did God really want me to be a pastor? Did I really want to be a pastor? And if that wasn't who I was supposed to be, who was I?

In this year – this second year – in which loss and frustration and disappointment have swirled together, many pastors have asked some version of these questions, and we are not the only people of faith wondering what God really wants for us and from us. Who are we supposed to be?

A recording by the choir at my home church was in the CD player that afternoon, a program of the music for Christmas Eve when I was still a seminarian and sang with them. As an organ piece ended, I heard the opening bars of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” I had loved processing with that large choir on Christmas Eve, experiencing the joy of being an alto who joined the sopranos for the descant on “Sing, choirs of angels.”

I began to sing with them. I couldn’t help myself.

We reached a verse sung a capella.

Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?

In that question, I sang the answer to my questions. It didn’t balance the budget, but it consoled me, reminding who I was and whose I was. I could not trust it in the words of my colleague, but I could not deny it in the verse I had forgotten. Those words re-membered me; they put me back together.

May the coming days offer each of us such a numinous assurance. God who loves us is God-with-us.

Blue image with winter flowers and the following text: God who oves is is God-with-us.

(Choral nerds might like to know that it was the Willcocks’ Carols for Choirs arrangement.)

coaching, Discernment, Ministry

When it’s time to make a move

As coach, colleague, and friend, I’ve been in many conversations about when and whether to seek the next job, the next call, or the next appointment. While most of my experience around this has been with other pastors, anyone can find themselves wondering if it’s time to make a move.

How do you know when it’s time to make a move?

For me one of those moments felt like restlessness, with a metaphor that paralleled my personal life. I had served in a very hands-on role as pastor of a 100-member church. It’s possible my excitement about finally being out of seminary and serving in a local congregation exacerbated my natural tendency to do things for others whether they needed me to or not. In the years I served there, my children grew older and became more independent. When I listened to my internal monologue carefully and heard myself saying, “I’m tired of tying other peoples’ shoes for them,” I knew it was time. After a conversation with my denominational leader, I moved to an intentional interim ministry position with a congregation that expected me to facilitate leadership rather than performing all the tasks of ministry myself.

What can you learn from your inner monologue?

Sometimes the feeling is not restlessness, but rather inertia. We may have a sense there’s nothing more we can do in a particular place, or see in ourselves that we’re no longer inspired as we once were. I think a lot of pastors are feeling that way as we shift from phase 37 of the pandemic to whatever phase is coming next, contending with the latest iteration of congregational and community anxiety and complaints. I would suggest this is a time when all clergy should be examining whether they still feel called to the place where they serve now. It’s a question we cannot answer by looking back to the church we served two years ago; instead we have to look at what the needs are now and what they may be in the year that is to come. We may have the skills to serve in this place, under these circumstances, but do we have the desire to use them? If not, it might be time to consider what’s next.

How would you gauge your energy for the work you are doing?

I want to acknowledge that making a move is complicated for some of us by our circumstances or our identities. Our possibilities may be limited by family commitments and geography. For women, People of Color, and LGBTQIA+ people, there may be limitations due to the theological, social, or political stances of congregations or denominations. That may mean our discernment is less about how to move and more about how to stay put while still acknowledging the truth of our yearning to lead and minister in a different space.

Both kinds of discernment can mean saying no to one thing in order to make the space to say yes to what’s next. You’ve probably heard the story of a woman who wanted nothing more than to find a partner in life. She could not figure out why the connection she desired was just not happening. A friend pointed out that her closet was so full that there was no room for anyone else to take up residence in her space. She emptied half the closet, and soon after, she met the person who would become her significant other. I share this not as a “law of attraction” type of illustration! Instead I find the richness of this story in the work of looking through what we keep stored inside us. What can we take off the shelf or pull off the hangers and let go? How can we make more space for what matters to us? Or simply make more space so our spirits can breathe? What would it be like to stop maintaining everything we have assigned to ourselves?

What could you say no to and make space for something new?

Wherever you are on the continuum, reader, whether starting something new, or ready to make a move, or content where you are, I’m praying for you.

Ministry

Minor Cracks

Every Monday I get an email from our CSA with a list of the fruits and vegetables we will receive that week. One recently included this wisdom:

Some of the blueberries have a little crack in them – they are still OK. They were just picked. Sometimes when the weather is very dry and then all of a sudden you get a lot of rain fruit will crack because it is trying to absorb so much but it can’t grow fast enough. It’s like blowing air into a balloon and it eventually pops. They’re minor cracks and the berries are definitely good – I just wanted to explain why it happened. 🙂

Relatable, isn’t it? I feel a little like this every day, trying to absorb what is going on in the world and expanding my mind and heart to process the current troubles.

I can’t always grow fast enough; maybe none of us can. And so we feel the cracks developing in ourselves and see them in others, too.

A resource that has helped me in recent months is the book Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, written by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I read it in 2019 and then read it again this summer for a book discussion. It meant more to me the second time as I was reminded that conversation with people we trust is one of the most important tools we have for healing and thriving. We may not be able to solve what is overfilling us, but knowing we are not alone and that others care, too, helps us move stress through our bodies.

We may show some minor cracks, but together, we are still okay.