The Life of a Pastor

Each week, my office is filled with an assortment of conversations. They can run the gambit from talking about an upcoming ministry to praying for someone who is having a difficult time of life. If anything, ministry has taught me is that you need to be prepared for any conversation that may come your way.

I have to be honest, though. This week a running conversation had caught me unprepared. Not that I didn’t want to talk about the subject, but that it wasn’t something I had ever been really open about with too many people in my ministry before.

It’s that pastors carry more on their shoulders than we will ever admit or are able to share.

Those words came up in several conversations and it has placed me in a reflective mood, which is often dangerous for someone who likes to incorporate writing these weekly reflections as a part of his ministry. Why is it that pastors have a hard time admitting this job is harder, emotionally, than what we often let on? Because let’s be honest and admit that being a pastor can be a lonely life.

One of the reasons we don’t share with our congregations what we deal with is because we are taught not to become too close with the congregants. There are several good reasons for this. You don’t want to build an unhealthy relationship with a member. You want to be able to maintain the proper leadership boundaries and functions. You never know when you might be moving.

All of those are good reasons, and, let me say, pastors must have proper and appropriate boundaries to protect themselves and the congregation. However, boundaries do not prevent healthy and appropriate relationships from taking place. Our congregants need to see us when we are hurting, because they need to know we are human and deal with the same things that they do.

At the same time, sometimes the reason we are reluctant to share with our congregations about the difficulties and loneliness of the pastoral life is because of our own fear. We can carry with us a fear that if we share something we are dealing with, no one will hear us. We also can carry the fear that if we share about a weakness in our leadership, it will hinder our ability to lead or could affect our future appointment.

As a result, we hold our cards too close to our robes. I am just as guilty as any other pastor of doing this, because I have been hurt before when I’ve shared about something I was dealing with or asked someone for an opinion about a problem within the church. The hurts we have experienced in these moments can, like anyone else, lead us to wear a mask in our conversations. We can project that we have it all together when, in reality, we do not.

So, I want to be as honest as I feel I can with you about what the ministry life can be like. While ministry is a fulfilling and powerful life and I would not want to do anything else, it is one of the most emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining jobs I have held. In any one day, you can be in a meeting planning a community outreach, working on a sermon, dealing with an administrative issue, handling complaints about an issue in the church, and offering pastoral care to someone in need. At the same time, you are trying to take care of the financial, physical, and emotional needs of your family and be present within their lives.

There is the old joke that we are forced to laugh at, but is really not that funny. It goes something along the lines of “it must be nice to work only one hour a week.” Worship is the end product of hours of work. A typical “work week” for me is about 60 hours, which includes about 20-25 hours in worship and sermon preparation. It also includes at least one or two nights a week where I am at the church for meetings or other events. What we often see is the end result of hours of work that gets unnoticed in our desire to have a good “show,” which comes at the end of this time.

Ministry is often lonely, because you never feel like you can have true friendships. In my life, at least, I have found that friendships in ministry are for a season, and that deep friendships are hard to find. There are multiple reasons for this, but you can often feel like you are on an island all by yourself in ministry. Pastors who serve in rural contexts can often feel this the most, because you often have to drive longer distances to connect with other leaders.

No profession is without its challenges. No life is without its difficulties. These are just some of the struggles and realities of a pastor’s life. They are some, though not all, of what I’ve experienced. Please pray for your pastors. Pray for the churches and communities they are called to serve. Pray for their families.

We need all the prayer, but also all the community, we can get.

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Reflections from a Day of Prayer

For months, we waited for the Commission on a Way Forward to complete its work.

For months, we waited for delegates to gather in St. Louis for the called General Conference.

And as the General Conference began on Saturday, we waited for the work to begin as we spent the day in a time of prayer of worship and reflection.

We waited. And it was holy.

Delegates to the called General Conference here in St. Louis spent the majority of Saturday’s opening session in prayer for the church. Keep in mind delegates are only here until Tuesday and we spent a day praying for the church and its mission.

And it was holy.

There is a temptation, especially with the time limit facing delegates and the work before them, to rush right in to the petitions and the various plans before General Conference. We want to rush to the finish line without taking care of the important spiritual needs of the church.

We want to debate. We want to deliberate. We want to get on with it.

We seldom want to come together to pray, to be centered, and to hear about the needs of our brothers and sisters. This is not just a problem for General Conference. It is a problem for the entire church.

Our struggles with being the church comes when we want to do the work of the church without being the mission of the church. Part of this is because being is harder than doing.

What do I mean by this?

In doing, we feel like we are accomplishing something. Worship has been held. Food distributed to those in need. Bible Studies were conducted. We can do things for the Lord and on behalf of the church and feel good about ourselves without ever doing the hard things of being the church.

The hard things of being the church take places when we stop, slow down, and are centered to experience the presence of God. The hard things are enhanced when we pray, listen, and talk with one another.

So, today we did the hard things by praying for one another. We did the hard things by not debating the plans from the Commission on a Way Forward, but hearing about the needs that face the entire church. We did the hard things by asking for expressions of peace and forgiveness from one another.

Only time will tell about how today’s prayer session will affect the entire tone of General Conference. The delegates still have to work through difficult and challenging proposals.

The hope, at least for today, is that this called time began on the right foot by slowing down and being the church before doing the work of the church.

Walking into an Unknown Future

Recently, the Commission on a Way Forward, a 32-member team tasked with discerning the future of the United Methodist Church, released its initial proposal aimed at resolving questions within the church regarding homosexuality. This team has worked since the middle of 2016 on a plan, which will need approval by a called General Conference in February 2019.472017_436765336365086_256924354_o

According to the United Methodist News Service, the options on the table include:

  1. Keep the Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality, and place an emphasis upon accountability.
  2. Remove language regarding homosexuality from the Book of Discipline in order to allow for contextualized ministry. The plan would also protect those who would not be comfortable with ordaining or marrying LGBTQ individuals.
  3. Would provide a unified set of doctrine, services, and Council of Bishops, while also paving a way for different groups within the church to have its own values, accountability, and mission.

As is often the case, when receive new information on something that is unknown we want to know more. What does this mean for Ogden Memorial? What does this mean for the Kentucky Annual Conference? What does this mean for the church as a whole?

Many of those questions we cannot answer, at least not yet.

That becomes the struggle of living into the unknown. We want to have all the answers before we take a bold step into an unknown future. The same is true for us, as a local church, as we discern where God is leading us within a changing culture and ministry context. We want to know what will happen, when it will happy, and how it will happen.

I get it, because I am just like that. Sometimes I am more like the Israelites walking with Moses than I care to admit. I want to be like the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. More often than not I ask questions, want all the information, and hesitate to act before I am confident I know what is going to happen and when, just as the Israelites questioned Moses’ leadership continually, in part, because they weren’t sure what would happen next.

Faith, however, is the willingness to see the unseen and trust that God is at work, even when we do not have all the answers. No matter what happens within the United Methodist Church, there are some constants that will not change.

We will love Jesus.

We will love our neighbors.

We will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world here in Princeton.

So, even though we don’t have all the answers we know where God is calling us to go and who to be: love the Lord, love our neighbors, and make disciples. That is our greatest purpose as we walk into a new future.

A Letter to Young Clergy

Dear Fellow Young Clergy,

I write you, today, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was, and is, and is to come. My prayers are with you. The purpose of this letter is to express my anguish of how we often relate to one another and my hope for us going forward.

Perhaps I should begin by expressing how I to becoming a clergy since many of you likely do not know me. I am a lifelong United Methodist. Born in Beckley, W.Va., I was baptized and confirmed at Perry Memorial United Methodist in Shady Spring, W.Va. I left when after high school on what I thought would be a long career in journalism. My own “warm heart” moment at Christ UMC in Chapel Hill, N.C., led me to a life of ministry which has taken me to where I am, today, serving in the Kentucky Annual Conference.

That’s the short story of a longer story. As I entered ministry, I sought to learn from and build relationships with many of you. I believe the more we build relationships with one another the better our ministry together can be. I also believe this not just about our work in our own churches, but our shared ministry with Christ that we have a part in. We need each other. Continue reading

A Prayer for Unity in Restless Times

One of the joys of being a United Methodist pastor is leading my congregation towards a deeper appreciation and understanding of the sacraments of communion and baptism. I firmly believe that each time we celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism that it gives us a time to reflect on what they mean for us and how they call us to live today.

Our liturgy helps us in this. Each time we gather to celebrate communion, for instance, we do so through a prayer we call “The Great Thanksgiving.” It is a beautiful prayer that reminds us of God’s faithfulness, Christ’s passion, and the power of the Holy Spirit that equips us to be the church today.

There is one portion of the prayer that always seem to move me. A portion that reminds me of the difficult and challenging life that God calls us to in this time we find ourselves.

By your Spirit make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Continue reading

The Church Should Not Be a Place of Polarization

Like many Methodist pastors, last week, I followed from a distance the activities of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. I am not a delegate or an observer of the deliberations that will determine our structure, mission, and purpose for the coming four years and beyond. I am observing the activities through technology and social media trying to grab hold of the latest news and tidbits coming out of Portland.

What I have witnessed, thus far, has made me sad as a pastor, as a lifelong Methodist, but, more importantly, as a follower of God. I have seen the anger of division in our comments towards one another. I have seen the discord of bitterness reflected towards those who do not share the same viewpoint as we may have. I have seen the negativity of ridicule spoken towards those who may share another side of the discussion.

So far, General Conference has become the conference for the angry and the bitter. It has become the conference of the either/or. Our General Conference, which should reflect the best of who we are in our discernment as a community of faith, has become a reflection of the same polarization and disagreement we have witnessed in the public square of the political process.

This should not be a surprise to those who have paid attention to both society and the church in recent years. Society, especially in the United States, has become splintered along ideological and soci-economic lines. Anyone who does not share the same exact – and often extreme view of the world – is seen has the problem and should be defeated and disregarded. This has created the polarization of today. What this does is it pushes the sides further apart and creates a situation where the things we hold in common are less important than where we disagree.

In this, the voices of those who find truth in the middle are silenced. There is little room for moderating voices in our society today who seek to find truth in both positions and find a workable way forward. They are denounced as part of the problem.

I fear this same scenario is happening in the church, today, especially in The United Methodist Church. For several General Conference seasons now, groups representing all theological viewpoints have created a dividing line between “their” side and the “other” side. Only “their” side is true to the movement of the Holy Spirit, to the church, and the people we are called to walk with. It is the “other” side who are harming the mission of the church, its people, and are not hearing from God. Through this, much like society at larger, what we find in common with one another is silenced in the face of what we hold in disagreement.

There is not much room, in this current make-up of the church, for those who believe that the church and society should not be an either/or, but a both/and. Our theology and practice of ministry is at its best when we do not initially seek out polarizing responses, but responses that captures the heart of Scripture and God’s love for all. We are at our best when we hold together the truth of holiness and the call to justice.

The church should never be a place of the extreme. It should be a place that sits where Jesus comfortably sat. We often ascribe to Jesus as being on “our side,” yet Jesus often found himself in the middle of the conversations willing to challenge the extremes and to bring both sides together towards a deeper engagement of what it means to follow the Lord. We see this in how Jesus held firm on the importance of the law while holding to its deeper, and more difficult rendering, while also honoring the importance for seeking justice and caring for the least of these.

Jesus never called us to one side or another. He called us to a faith that is both/and and not either/or. Jesus calls us to honor both the need to be “holy as your heavenly Father is holy” while also seeking to care for others in the name of Jesus. When we try to say that the church has to be one or the other, and only that which is defined by our own viewpoint, we miss the depths of what Jesus calls us to be about as a church and a people who seek to follow the Lord.

There is no path forward for a church, so long as it seeks to be defined by the same either/or tendencies of our polarized society. There is a pathway forward to honoring God, reaching people, and sharing the same love of God that Jesus calls us to have on our hearts, if we seek to be the church of both/and, of both Scriptural holiness and the call to justice and mercy.

That is my prayer and hope for this General Conference as the second week commences today.

Love without Bias

It is not always easy being a West Virginia alum and fan in Kentucky. Sometimes people come up to you and make some jokes that is all in the good-natured fun of being a sports fan. Sometimes people ask me if West Virginia University is located in Virginia. Sometimes, though, the joking goes too far and crosses the line of making a transplanted resident of the state feel unwelcome.

Let me give you a couple of examples. In 2010, a couple of weeks after one of the darkest moments in Kentucky basketball lore and one of the greatest upsets in West Virginia basketball history, Abbi and I went to Fayette Mall to walk around and do some shopping. Of course, I wore one of my WVU hats, as any proud alum would. After a few minutes, we began to notice that people were glaring at us, especially at me, everywhere we went. It was as if people were saying, “You’re team won. You’re not welcome here.” Even a manager at Chick-Fil-A asked us, that afternoon, if we felt safe. We did.

There’s more. A couple of weeks ago, Abbi, Noah, and I decided to go to the state fair to enjoy the atmosphere. Again, I have on my WVU hat. A gentleman decided to ridicule me as we were walking around claiming, essentially, that I needed to buy some Kentucky gear if I wanted to live in Kentucky. There have been other cases like that.

Now, I understand all of that to some degree. Kentucky and West Virginia are very similar in that they both have fan bases that dominate their respective states. To be a fan of Kentucky in Kentucky, much like being a fan of West Virginia in West Virginia, is an important part of the culture and identity of Kentucky. Even if you never attended a class on campus, to root for Kentucky is to be accepted and to be part of the culture and mystique of the Bluegrass State. Those wearing anything except Kentucky’s blue and white are seen as different, odd, or, perhaps not even a true Kentuckian.

I mention all of this because, I believe, we will see something similar in our passage today from James 2:1-10 and 14-17. James describes a situation he wants the church, and each of us, to avoid. James uses an analogy of a rich person and poor person, who are both visitors to a service and are being escorted to their seats. The rich person is directed to a great seat and is given special attention, while the poor person is told to stand elsewhere and is not given the same level of attention. (James 2:2-3, NLT) James invites us to look at the difference in treatment between the rich person and poor person and to consider how we might act today. James wants us to see that if we truly want to love like Jesus then we cannot play favorites in the church or in our personal lives. If we want to love like Jesus, then we are called to express a love that knows no biases and treats all people the same.

James expresses this through an example of a rich person and poor person who walk into a meeting. There are two important things we need to understand about what James describes before we can move too much further. First, he uses a word that can be defined as a meeting or assembly. What James likely describes is a worship service that is attended by both this rich person and poor person. Second, it seems that James is talking about people who represent different levels of economic means. There is a bit of that, but at a much deeper level James speaks of people who represent two distinct cultural statuses in the Roman world.

In James’ time, much like our own day, status and how someone was viewed in society meant everything. There were several different societal orders in the Roman Empire, such as the senatorial and equestrian orders. James’ rich visitor, who comes dressed to the worship in expensive clothing, was likely an equestrian, which was the second highest societal order in Rome. Members of the equestrian order were mostly people who worked in trades and were seen as having “new money.” They were also a highly honored group of people in Roman society.

That wasn’t the case for the poor of the Roman world. They made up about 90 percent of the population. If you were not a member of the top two orders then you had to struggle to survive. The type of person James describes is someone who has come to the worship in extreme poverty. A vast contrast from the affluent person from the equestrian order. He paints the picture of two groups of people who come to this worship service who could not have been more different.

The way they were received, as well, could not be any more different. When the rich person enters, this person is given a prime seat in the worship service and the poor person is directed somewhere else. The rich person is warmly greeted, welcomed, and given all the important information about the service, the church’s ministry, and where to find the necessary rooms in the church. That is not the case for the poor person. James essentially tells us that this person is given the worst seat possible, away from everyone else, was barely greeted, and was ignored for the most part. The rich person was accepted, while the poor person was not.

There is a tendency for us to live into the scenario that James’ describes. Our natural tendency is to accept the person who is more like us or who makes us feel better about ourselves and community. Imagine if the scenario James’ describes were to play out here. What if two people visited us next Sunday? First, that would be completely awesome and I hope and pray every week that it happens. But, what if one of those visitors was someone who was highly regarded in our community? Maybe this person is a banker. Maybe this person is a teacher. Maybe this person is someone with obvious wealth. How would we treat this person? Now, imagine the second person being someone who came in wearing torn clothing? Maybe this person has an odor. Maybe this person says inappropriate things. Maybe this person has no money. How would we treat this person?

Our first inclination would be to say that we would treat each person the same, but when we dig down deep within ourselves we begin to recognize that our basic tendency is to surround ourselves with those who seem more acceptable. In doing so, we violate God’s law that calls us to see every person – no matter who they are, what they look like, how much money they have, or where they come from – as being a person of worth and value.

What we violate is God’s royal law that calls us to express the love of God towards all people in the same way. That royal law, James tells us, is found in Leviticus 19:18 where we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a word that should be very familiar to us, because Jesus gave it a place of special importance saying it is one of the greatest commandments. What this “royal law” meant is that, as followers of Christ, we cannot show favoritism in how we engage and interact with others. We are called to treat all people the same and to love others as Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us unconditionally and freely. He loves us without bias or discrimination. As we following in Christ’s footsteps, we are called to express that same kind of love as we seek to love all people as ourselves. To do anything else is to fall short of what it truly means to follow God’s love and desires.

We cannot be a true witness of God’s love in our world if we play favorites as to who can receive our love. The challenge for us is to turn away from wanting to be aligned only with people who are like us or who make us feel better about ourselves, but to see the value and worth in loving and interacting with all people the same. Our world teaches us that we are only to associate with people who agree with us or who share our values. We want the honor that comes with more attention, more acclaim, and more money. We give more attention and honor to those we find acceptable than those who are different than us or who are in a different financial position than we are. The church that favors one over another is the church that struggles in its witness of Jesus Christ in the world. The church is for all and we are called to share the same love of Jesus Christ with all people freely no matter who they are, how much money they have, how they vote, or any other line of status that we can create. If we truly want to be a witness of Jesus Christ in the church, then we must see that everyone is made in God’s image and are worthy of our love and care.

When we do this, we are able to live out James’ calling for each of us to have a faith that “produces good deeds.” James is on to something here. He is not saying that we are saved by our works. We are saved by receiving the free gift of faith in Jesus Christ. What James does say, though, is that our faith must be lived out. It cannot be something that we hold onto. It must be something that is expressed in how we live and interact with the world around us. A faith that is not expressed through actions and deeds is a faith that does not make a difference in our lives or in our community.

Loving people without bias and in the same ways that God loves us and that we love of ourselves is an example of a faith that “produces good deeds.” Imagine what this could look like here. What if the people in our community knew us as a place where everyone was welcomed, everyone was treated the same, and everyone was loved in the same ways? What if we were a place that anticipated visitors coming and made ourselves ready for them by creating a space that was inviting, welcoming, and loving not just for a few, but for all people? Even more, imagine if we lived this kind of love out in our community as a living witness of the royal law. What if we treated our friends who are Republicans and Democrats the same? What if we loved African-Americans and Hispanics the same way we do Caucasians? I just imagine what our community would look like if we loved freely and without biases like that.

We can begin to live into this kind of love today. In a moment, we will gather around the table to share in communion and are reminded of God’s love and the love we are called to share with the world. As we gather at the table, we are reminded that God does not look at us differently. God sees us all the same. We are all God’s children who are redeemed by his love. It is a love given to us no matter who we are, how much money we have, or where we have come from. It is a love given to us freely through Jesus’ actions for all people on the cross. As we take the bread and drink from the cup, we are reminded of this great love and are called to leave this table changed and motived to share the same love of God with others through our words, actions, and deeds.

So, as we come to this table today and depart from this place shortly, let us do so with a commitment to be people who seek to love freely and without bias. There is no room in the church, today, for favoritism or discriminatory actions. Where there is a tendency to show favoritism, let us move towards the love that Christ calls us to share as a response to our faith in the Lord. Let us be people who love all people – no matter who they are – in the same ways we would love ourselves. Let us be people who are known for having a love that has no biases.