Transformation and the Pastor

(From a post to transforming congregations)
As I’ve been listening over the last few weeks [to an ongoing conversation re: the role of the pastor in congregational transformation], three thoughts have come clear from my own ministry that I’d like to share. I’m not presuming to be original, so if someone else has already said this, then this is my AMEN!

1. We are called to be transformed – We are not called to transform congregations. We are called to be open to the transforming work of Christ through the Holy Spirit in our own lives. That means repentance, as Jay has been reminding us, but personal, for me anyway. It means saying, “I have not been faithful in these areas” – and then list them. It means doing a 5th step. ( If God chooses to work in and through what happens in our lives and those around us to transform an entire community (or even just a part) then Yea God! To God be the glory, for it is not of our own doing, that none may boast. But if I am to boast it is in Christ and Him crucified – a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles. For me, a big part of this repentance has been in my theology. I came out of seminary (as several on this list know well) a firmly rooted mainline liberal, essentially a universalist in Disciples clothing, not even believing in a literal hell or literal devil. One day it occurred to me, or maybe happened to me, that God might know more about theology than I do, and so I began praying specifically that God would show me and enable me to embrace the truth. Over time, my theology has been changing. I’m far more evangelical than I was at my ordination, for which I give God thanks daily. I live my spiritual life far less in my head and far more in my heart, which I also celebrate! I’m not what I ought to be, but I thank God I’m not what I used to be. All of this impacts how I do ministry – I don’t actively seek to transform my ministry, so much as the transformation God is bringing into my life is by default transforming my ministry, and that, in turn, is helping to transform the church. So, as has been said by others better, “Its not me, its Jesus.”

2. God-Time. God is not in a hurry. This would seem contradictory, given the eternal nature of the salvation story we find in the New Testament, we might think that God were in a big rush to get things done. Except for in Mark, Jesus didn’t really seem to be in a big hurry to get from one place to another. He never told anyone to hurry and get it done today, or this year, so far as I know. In the congregation where I previously sought to serve Christ, I was in a hurry. I felt a strong sense that I had about 5 years to get something important done, or else… That urgency meant I tried to push people before they were ready, before even God was asking them to move. It also meant that I was getting ahead of what God was asking me to do, or doing things other than what God was asking. When we moved here (Allen, Texas), I had already decided to leave the pastorate, and never again rely on a local congregation for my primary income. I’d been burned twice (much of it of my own doing, its true) and that was enough for me – and I didn’t want to inflict my incompetence on any more congregations of Christ’s body, frankly. We moved to a town where we wanted to live and raise our kids, fully intending to remain here for at least 20 years. At the time, I was 32. Its hard to imagine being anywhere that long, but it has done wonders for our ministry here. I’m not in a hurry. My wife is happy, my kids are happy, I’m happy. How often do we go to a town, and to a congregation, away from family and friends, because we’ve received “a call” and then struggle because so many things about where we are do not really work for our family, we’ve settled for the sake of the ministry, and end up being less than our best, and resenting both God and the church for putting us in this position. When I finally relented and accepted the fact that God might actually still want me in congregational ministry, I knew full well that that was not tied to this congregation, and that my livelyhood is not either. I live in the fastest growing county in the nation. There are 700,000 people in this county alone – surely, God can find something for me to do if I were to leave this congregation. I find great freedom in this knowledge, a freedom that allows me to relax and not be in such an all-fired hurry to get things done.

I’ve also been freer in my relationships – One thing I hate about the way we typically do ministry (and how i’ve done it in the past) is how we spend several years building relationships with people, and then we pick up and go somewhere else and do it all over again. That has been very unhealthy for me. I do not maintain long-distance relationships well, and so there’s a trail of folks from ministries past to whom i’ve given a piece of myself in faith and friendship, and then had to start all over again. WHY? Why do we think that is the way to do things? Why do we think the healthy thing for clergy to do is to pick up their families and leave not only a congregation, but a community, and even a state, 4-8 times during a career (if we’re lucky!) Jesus appears to have remained within 30 miles of his home town his entire life. Yes, Paul and others traveled as missionaries, but they kept coming back, and that was a calling. I for one have not received that calling, and believe the whole church, and clergy families in particular suffer greatly because we do things that way.

3. Hold on loosely – Because my family life would not be completely uprooted if my ministry at this congregation does not progress as I hope, I am able to relax my grip on things. I understand how Sarah felt, after hearing God promise that she would bear a son, and then waiting year after year after year for the promised blessing, finally concluding that God probably was wanting them to take some initiative and do something for themselves for a change. (notice that Abraham did not really put up much of an argument – hmmm, you, my 80+ wife, are telling me that I get to sleep with your fit and trim 30ish handmaid?…. – how appealing are some of the things we do in God’s name to help God further God’s plan…) So, since I’m not in a hurry, I can relax my grip on the ministry, am better able to leave things in God’s hands, and less prone to the fear that haunted my past ministries – “what will happen to my family if things don’t work out?” And we always say in those situations, “well, God will take care of your family” but I’m not so sure that if God tells us to turn left, and we turn right instead, and way down the road end up driving off a cliff, that God actually will catch us lest we dash our foot against a stone – I think that promise is dependent on our being in the center of God’s will for our lives, not regardless of how or where we choose to live. What about that text from Jeremiah where the people were told – your gonna be here a while. Seek the peace of the city, for as it prospers, so you will prosper. Build a house and live in it, plant a vineyard and work it – a vineyard takes years to mature before you get anything good from it. You can’t be in a hurry growing a vineyard. And because I’m not afraid, and because i’m committed to this community first, and to this congregation second, and because of all that God is doing to transform my spirit into the image and likeness of His son (and I’ve got a really long way to go…) because of all that, I’m having a blast. There have been some challenging days, when the church doubled in size in my first 6 months here, and then spent the next two years getting back down to where we started. We’ve lost families, lost staff, made mistakes. But through all of that I have had an underlying sense of peace. My ministry is not wh
at I do in the local congregation. My ministry is a gift from God growing out of the personality, experiences, passions, and gifts that He alone has given to me, and that can express itself anywhere. The fact that I happen to be living it out here in this particular congregation right now is great, but i’m not dependent on that for my identity in any way. 5 years ago I laid my ministry on the altar before God and gave it back to him sacrifically. Since then, he’s given it back to me in a new and transforming way because it no longer defines me – all that defines me at my core is that I am a beloved child of God and disciple of Jesus the Messiah by grace through faith. The fact that I have been ordained by God and the church to the ministry, and not to A ministry, offers great liberty.

That’s a bit more than I planned on writing but the gist is: Be transformed, and let God do the work of transformation in you and your congregation; Take your time; Let Go.

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