Itineracy: Practicing What We Sing
Dear colleagues and friends:
Later this month, I will observe the 42th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. And since that day, I have not chosen any of my appointments. Each of them came as a surprise to me, approached with a mixture of eager anticipation and sheer terror. Over the years, when I became worn out, tired, depressed, or disgruntled I frequently applied for teaching or administrative positions for which I thought I was far better suited: (translate: "get me out of here!"). However, I was always the number two choice for professorships of Christian Education or Field Education at two of our seminaries, and my desires and dreams didn't materialize. Thank God. It took me a long time to realize that I was engaged in exactly what God had in "mind" for the church and for me. I was trying to lead the Spirit of God, while God was waiting for me to be led elsewhere by the Spirit.
Those who know me well wonder what the Spirit was doing at my appointment as a district superintendent. Me, too. This is a ministry of service to which no reasonable woman or man aspires. I can witness that it is not exactly what we imagine when we view it from "the outside." I was looking toward retirement this summer, but the Spirit was leading me elsewhere.
At this time of year "The Spirit is leading me elsewhere" has great significance for both United Methodist clergy and lay persons. When either the anticipated or unexpected phone call comes from the district superintendent, clergy size up the appointment. If clergy are pleased with the church to which they are appointed, they'll usually acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is leading them elsewhere. However, if the appointment does not honor their expectations for salary, status, or location, clergy may well ask the question, "Is the Holy Spirit leading me elsewhere, or is it just the Bishop and cabinet?"
It's in our human nature for clergy to follow the way of the world rather than the Spirit. As our skills and effectiveness grow, we become confident that recognition and reward will follow, just like in other professions. We desire larger and more prestigious appointments. We yearn for more salary and recognition. We want to receive what we deserve.
For many years effective clergy could expect to climb the "ladder," with each succeeding appointment bigger and better than the last. But the ladder has been sagging for the past few years and is now horizontal or even turning upside down.
Since the recession of 2008, more and more churches are unable to afford the compensation package for an elder or even support a full-time pastor. For the most part, salaries are not going up anymore. In addition, in many areas of the United States there are far fewer large churches today than 10 or even 5 years ago. "Going to a larger church" now means, more than ever, growing the church we're in! The truth is that Spirit will lead us elsewhere, but it may very well not be where we want to go, even if we have a great track record.
The flip side of our current appointment reality is our reluctance to acknowledge that United Methodism has a "sent ministry," not a "called" ministry. Just as Jesus chose and then sent the disciples out in ministry, so United Methodist clergy are sent out not for our own convenience or comfort but to accomplish the mission of the church. We promise to go where we are sent rather than where we think we are called. I'm under no illusion that the Cabinet always makes perfect appointments. But if a church is not the "size" we think we deserve, do we automatically discount the possibility that the Spirit is working?
The trade-off has always been that elders would be "guaranteed" an appointment. (Although, I think the word 'guarantee' is not in the Discipline). The report of the Commission for the Study of Ministry said that security of appointment "limits the ability of the church to respond to the primacy of missional needs." The petition passed at General Conference has modified the appointment process by allowing for less than full-time appointments for elders and creating a transitional leave status for elders who do not receive an appointment. This action by the General Conference simply reinforces the fact clergy no longer have a ladder where each rung will go higher, higher. It will be a true test of our mettle and faith.
Ministry is ultimately not about our wants and desires. My 42 years of service evidence that reality. Nor is it about advancement or job security. Ministry is about bringing in God's kingdom on this earth. It's about feeding the sheep and growing the church wherever we are appointed. Ministry is about giving ourselves away by sharing grace, salvation, shalom, and social and personal holiness. It's about practicing what we sing:
- "Trust and obey for there is no other way"
- "Where He leads me I will follow; I'll go with Him all the way"
- "Take up Thy cross if thou wouldst my disciple be; ... for only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown"
- "Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head; Made like him, like him we rise, Ours the cross, the grave, the skies"
The Spirit is constantly leading us elsewhere, whether we are clergy, laity, local churches, or a denomination. The Spirit leads us to fish on the other side. The Spirit leads us to change our mindset about what "success" means for a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Spirit leads us to creatively and expectantly go. The Spirit leads us to a radical trust in a God who lovingly shapes and molds our resistance into joyful obedience and sanctification.
When the Spirit leads us elsewhere, will we say, "The system failed me," or will we joyfully affirm, "God has never failed me yet." Will we bemoan our fate, or will we confess with confidence, "Lord, we are able; our spirits are Thine; remold them, make us, like thee, divine." Will we fold up our tents and curse God, or will we pitch our tents wherever the Spirit leads and bear fruit for the kingdom of God? Will the charge to which we're sent be an affront to our self-understanding, or will we see our appointment as a sacred charge to keep, knowing and believing that we are sent as a blessing to fulfill God's purposes? The Spirit is leading me elsewhere.
Where is the Spirit leading you?