Thoughts

When Words Hurt

Most people when they see me probably think I don’t care what other people think. I have to admit, I project that. I have gotten better at letting things bounce off me and not stick, but the truth is I am a sensitive soul and I take things more personally than I should more times than not.

But what can really compound the hurt feelings for me is when I don’t know who is saying it. You see if someone disagrees with me or has a critique I want to engage them. I want to understand where they are coming from so I can better understand their disagreement or critique. I want to share with them why I am who I am or why I believe what I believe.

However, anonymity doesn’t allow for that. Every pastor gets them. You know those notes placed in the offering or slipped in the office mailbox. Those notes that critique. Those notes that say someone is not happy with you or the way you present yourself. Those notes that lack a signature or a name.

Those notes that carry with them a deeply cutting arrow that pierces the skin, the heart, the soul and leaves wounds at every level. When a name is attached you know that person. You have an experience with that person that helps you to understand where they are coming from. You can identify what is being said and possibly why it is being said. When there isn’t a name, it is like a buried land mine that you don’t see and all the sudden explodes leaving you writhing in pain. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know how to avoid it. You don’t know what to do with that pain.

People always tell me those notes should just go into the trash can and be forgotten, but even in that action the words still hang. The words have already penetrated and hurt. Even seemingly harmless words carry so much damage when done anonymously.

Pastor Justin-
We have nothing against you as a person, but think more dignity should be shown at the 9 am service. Hanging onto a bottle (as a prop) during the sermon is not acceptable, nor is telling jokes during the service. As a pastor you should be properly dressed (shirt and tie)(no blue jeans) and lets put a little formality into going to church. Could you stand for the sermon?

I shouldn’t be so bothered from a note like this, but the words hurt. Mostly because it conveys a sense that person believes I don’t properly revere God at this worship service. It hurts because I can’t engage the person and explain and ask further questions. I can let go of most of these critiques because some of them aren’t even close to the norm (like what I wear which usually is what that person is wishing I wore (shirt, tie, khakis, and suit coat or sweater). What I can’t let go of is this: why can’t the person sign their name? Why can’t they engage in a conversation by owning their feelings? Why am I the one receiving the note when everything that has been leveled as a critique in this note also applies to the other minister? Why me?

In the end two things help me process these moments. (1) The realization that this person is more than likely writing from a place of uncomfortableness with the way church (and the world) has changed and longs to have the comfortable world they once knew back. This is their way of processing. (2) In these moments I have to remind myself that I serve God and that my faithful following of Christ and leading under God’s guidance is what matters. In these moments I have to remember that Christ looks beyond blue jeans, water bottles, humor, and sees my heart and knows where it stands. I have to remember that Christ loves me.

P.S. It kind of sucks to have this as the beginning of Holy Week sitting in your box, but in a way I needed it to really remind me of how much I depend on God’s love and how thankful I am for the way that God came down to show me and others what Agape looks like.

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The Devil Did It! : Thoughts on the UMC and Guaranteed Appointments.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.  -Luke 17:33 (NRSV)

I was raised by a wonderful woman of faith: my mother.  Over the past 24 hours I have been thinking about the UMC and the hot topic of guaranteed appointments after the Judicial Council ruled against their elimination.  I keep thinking about what my mother would say which would be something to this effect:  The devil is great at distracting us from Kingdom work.

Now, mom and I have some differing opinions on the existence of the devil, etc. but man do I wish I could agree with her that this is something the “devil” did.  It would be easier for me to deal with if I could blame it on the devil. Unfortunately, the fact is we have no one to blame but ourselves for this distraction. We are getting pretty good at it might I say.  If it isn’t guaranteed appointments and ineffective clergy then it is something else, right?  We keep bouncing from symptom to symptom to try and figure out what is wrong so we can save the UMC.

Are we so arrogant as to think that God needs us?  Why are we so focused on keeping the life of the UMC going? I mean it seems to me the more that we are focusing on ourselves and our existence as a denomination the more and more we end up being ineffective for the Kingdom of God.

I probably sound pretty negative so far (whoops), but the truth is I love the UMC and it is the place where I found my spiritual home. However, I remember when I became United Methodist and it wasn’t because of an “effective clergy person” and it wasn’t even because of an abundance of “small groups” or “vibrant worship” offered at my local congregation. No the reason I became United Methodist is because my local church pointed beyond itself to God. (at least in my naive 8th grade eyes of experience) My experience was of a church which pointed beyond itself to something bigger. But now I have to wonder, how often are we pointing to something bigger than the UMC (i.e. The Kingdom of God) and how often are pointing at ourselves?

The devil has gone and done it, like a great “shell game” con we have been duped into focusing on the wrong stuff. Well that is if the devil did do it, unfortunately I think the blame lies square on the person looking back at us in the mirror. (yeah even me)

Image taken from:  http://allegriaimagesbylynn.blogspot.com/2011/01/shell-game.html

expect

Ministry Challenges

I know, I know.  It has been almost an eternity (especially in “internet” years) since I have posted on the blog.  To be honest, I had to take a sabbatical from some aspects of my life and the one of those things that was chosen was the amount of time I was spending on social networking, etc. and when I did that my “blogging” also went out the window.

However, I am excited to say that this weekend I will be blogging like no other as I reflect and post on Exploration 2011 which will be happening in St. Louis.  I will have a mix of posts which will include my own thoughts/reflections but also I am hoping to interview some young adults about their exploration of their call and their expectations of ministry, etc.  So check back regularly starting Friday!

But now on to topic of this post: ministry challenges.  There are many challenges to ministry but one that might seem debilitating to some I find rewarding and a great challenge and that is the tired cliche:  “Expect the Unexpected.”  My placement in Winona has been an adventure in the unexpected.  You see I was placed here under one set of expectations:  to help the church connect with young adults and young families.  To be honest that is what excited me about this placement, but as I have discovered in ministry what we often expect does not always align with God’s purpose.

You see within months the ministry setting began to change as two of the United Methodist churches here in Winona began to discuss what United Methodism in Winona should look like and began the process of merging.  Within one year of my placement I found myself the associate pastor of a newly merged congregation moving towards rebirth.

Mergers and rebirth take energy and time and because of this the original expectations of my position had to switch and work to help the church accomplish what it needed (a process that isn’t over yet).  As I have reflected on my ministry here I have seen how the “unexpected” has actually been a real blessing (a challenge but a blessing).

The “unexpected” can be accepted as a gift or blessing or it can be rejected and seen as a hindrance.  I choose the former because I have seen how God has often worked in the lives of so many through the “unexpected.”  Perhaps it has been my own experiences that have been most formative in my attitude towards the unexpected.  In the fall of 2004 I began my first year of seminary at Duke expecting to dedicate my time and energy fully to my studies.  It was going to be a time for my wife and I to grow in our marriage while she started her first teaching job and I prepared for my career in ministry.  Then the “unexpected” happened and we found out we were expecting a child within the first month of school.  Through the unexpected there was challenge in balancing parenting and school (especially since I did the full-time care for Micah) but there also was extreme blessing to see how God moved through the community of professors and classmates in our lives.

It was a lesson in how the “unexpected” can be a true blessing and I think that is a lesson that can apply to anyone heading into ministry:  “expect the unexpected and accept it as a gift and blessing.”

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Leadership Summit Reflections

*image via virtualschooling.files.wordpress.com

The United Methodist Church held a webcast yesterday to discuss our latest commissioned study that resulted in the Call To Action Report. I watched the webcast from my office while interacting with others on twitter via the tag #umclead. The reaction to the report/presentation I think is best summed up this way: the twitterverse wasn’t to sure that the “drivers” and statistical accountability is the answer to our problem.

To be honest I understand many of their sentiments. I don’t believe the presentation was meant to be taken this way, but it really did come off as an institutional survival presentation rather than a call to be a movement. (even though this was explicitly stated by Bishop Palmer within the Q & A portion)

Here is what I think most people heard: Dashboards are the key. Now I know that this isn’t want the report or the presenters are really saying, but that is what many people heard. I have to admit it did seem that we were being told the problem is that we haven’t been accountable to the statistics and if we were we could address the problem and that is where I have a slight pause. The problem is still there. The statistics might help us recognize a problem exists and try to address it, but the “Call to Action” then just ends up telling us what we already knew: there is a problem.

The telling moment came when a question from the Congo was shared: “What is God’s vision for the UMC?” That was the heart of the matter that people were looking for and that was still left unanswered. I think Bishop Palmer and the others hinted at an answer with the assertion to return to being a movement, but there was no direction/vision for how to do that. I was left asking this question over and over in my head: “Is the UMC willing to die for the sake of the Gospel? If not we may have a disconnect?”

If our questions continue to center around the UMC and its survival, I feel we will never return to a movement. I don’t believe movements are about creating an establishment/institution and then making sure it survived. A movement, in my estimation, is willing to do anything, even cease to exist, if it can accomplish its goal. Which brings me to my question again: Are we willing to let go of our own survival as an institution and focus on what God has called us to do? What if we trusted that God would provide and looked instead on what we have been given and how we can best be stewards of those gifts?

What if we stopped asking what was wrong or what is missing and instead focused on what is right and what we already have (which is enough in my estimation)?

My parting thought is this: The UMC needs God but God doesn’t necessarily need the UMC and until we recognize that I think we will continue to struggle and fail to be a movement.

redemption

Redemption Reflections

So yesterday my wife and kids were outside playing in our driveway and my wife took some wonderful pictures. I looked over the pictures after uploading them last night and some of my youngest son Kai caught my eye. It wasn’t the inclusion of my son that caught my attention but rather the other subject of the picture: the beaten up and used trike.

You see that trike has an interesting story. It was almost six years ago that I was taking our trash out to the apartment complex dump when I noticed some cast-off “kids” stuff. We were new parents and didn’t exactly have tons of money living off a teacher’s salary and student loans, so I did what my mother would have done: I looked it over to see if we could use anything. I took two things back to our apartment: a toy guitar and a trike. The trike was missing its handlebar covers and was pretty worn but it rolled on the ground nice and we figured our son Micah would enjoy it. He did and so it made the trip back to MN with us when we moved home and has stayed with us. Now it is being used again by our youngest son and he is getting joy from rolling down the driveway through the power of his two legs.

As I sat and reflected on the pictures I couldn’t help but think about redemption and the life of faith. In a small way this trike is a reminder to me of my own life in God. God saw something in me when others couldn’t; namely my father. God took me in and said I had value when others didn’t; namely my father.

I think about how easily my life could be defined by the initial rejection of my father and how my story could have had its end there: cast-off and rejected like the trike sitting in the apartment dump. That easily could have been my story. A story of rejection. But just as that trike was redeemed from the dump by me because I saw value, so my story has also been redeemed by God.

Sometimes I wonder if we miss that good news: our rejections don’t define us. we are redeemed.