sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: Discernment (Page 1 of 2)

On Thirty-Four

2012 06 18 13 53 41

Here I am in one of my favorite places Cannon Chapel at Emory University.

Age is such a relative thing. I am older than some, younger than others. There is a continuum and in that continuum we have the opportunity to come together. As a leader of a faith community it is interesting how often my “age” is part of the conversation. At first I was apologetic, then curious, now I am just amused. At 34 I acknowledge my “youth” compared to the average age of my congregants, while at the same time claiming my “adulthood” in life and in faith.

Part of growing up is the recognition that we are always growing in wisdom and love. In the life of faith we call it “sanctification,” growing in God’s love. No matter how “old” we are God is still at work in us, shaping us, calling us, and challenging us. This process is best lived in a diverse community, where people can live life together and learn from one another. The church is one of the places in our society where we can gather accross the generational spectrum and learn what it means to live life together.

In my life I have been blessed to have learned from the wisdom of many. Children have taught me to be silly, playful, and not so heady about God. Older parents help me become a better father and husband, college students have helped me reconnect with my passion for a renewed church and a 97 year old helped me form my pastoral identity by being thankful that her “pastor” came to visit.

Then there is the wisdom learned from life togehter with those you love the most. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a husband, father, brother, and pastor. In this last year I have become increasingly aware of how blessed I am to be living the life that I live. I am thankful for a faithful partner in Shannon, for the joy that our three children bring us, for the support and love of my sister, and for the great honor to be a leader among the baptized. All of these roles have deeply shaped me and will continue to shape me in the years ahead.

In a recent conversation with a church member my age came up again (it seems to come up often). I guess there’s the perception that youthful appearance (or youthfulness) means a lack of experience in life and faith. I heard carefully and responded that the one promise that I could make was that I was getting older everyday. The person laughed and we were both able to walk away better aquainted with one another.

I am blessed to be “getting older” in a community of family and faith. All of us helping one another grow in love of God and neighbor, all of us learning and growing from each other, all of us worshipping, praying, and serving together. All of us with different ages, personalities, and cultural backgrounds. All of us making a mosaic of the baptized in this community.

I doubt that 34 will make a difference to those who still see me as “young.” I have thankfully been blessed with the “youthful look gene” of my mother’s family. What I do know is that I will continue my work, will continue ministering, will continue leading, and I am sure that one day I will walk down the halls of the church and someone will tell me that we need a more youthful pastor  . . .

Here’s to 34 years and to many more!

What Next? – Gospels in 90

“The women went out quickly; and when they were outside the tomb, they ran away trembling and astonished. Along their way, they didn’t stop to say anything to anyone because they were too afraid.”

Mark 16:8 (The Voice NT)

The Gospel according to Mark has three endings: verses, 8, 20, 21 (or later part of 20 depending on translation). All of these possibilities are vying for attention, each of them making a significant difference in the way the story is heard.

I join the group of biblical scholars that believe that verse 8 is the “original” ending to this amazing gospel. It makes sense that this gospel would end as it opened up, fast, to the point, open-ended. It almost seems like the writer wants us to place ourselves in the narrative and come to our own conclusions based upon our own experience with the risen Christ.

As we continue to think about our life together and our way forward we might feel the same kind of whiplash that this gospel closes with . . . we might have many questions, it all might seem “fuzzy,” and we might still be wondering what is coming next.

The most repeated phrase asked of me is: “Tell us what’s next? What is the plan? What are the next steps?”

I can honestly say that I do not know. I stand with you, like the women who came to see Jesus, experiencing the risen Lord. We are wondering together what all of this might mean to us and to our community of believers. There are no clear answers, but there is the reality of what the risen Lord has done, is doing, and will do through us. There is also an awareness that at times the way of discipleship is scary, uncertain, and difficult.

Early Christian communities encountered the abrupt ending and added their own take on what happened next. These were amazing tales of the invincible nature of true discipleship. Today we stand at verse 8 and I want us to ask ourselves, who are we going to be as followers of Jesus in light of our encounter with an empty tomb? What will our discipleship look like? What does that discipleship mean for our life as a congregation?

Passion & Possibility: Exploration 2011

How did you decide to become a pastor? I often hear this question as I meet people for the first time, especially young people. For me it was this inner voice that has been part of my life for a long time. So many times I tried to ignore it and walk in different directions. Now as I continue my pastoral work I am more aware than ever about the importance of the practice of discernment.

Discernment takes time, it needs a community, and should help us connect with our inner longings to live out our God given passions.

I am thankful for the community that Exploration builds. It provides the space to struggle with and discern what God might be up to in our lives. We gather from different places, we come with our dreams, visions, and hopes for the future. We come wondering what God could do through us. So many possibilities . . .

Much prayer went into my journey. Now I join many others to pray for you and for all of those who will gather to hear God’s voice at Exploration 2011 in St. Louis, MO, Nov. 11-13, 2011. I pray that God will speak, clarify, and direct. I pray for all the small group leaders, plenary speakers, and the staff. I pray for resources to travel and attend. I pray for leaders willing to make this possible. I pray for the many churches that have young people waiting to be told of their gifts for leadership and for those who have already called their own and are sending them out. I pray for the Holy Spirit to go ahead of us and sanctify our efforts to provide a place where God can be heard, seen, and experienced.

God is calling . . . come and see!



2011 Calling Congregations Conference

In the summer of 2002 I had the great honor of being part of the Fund for Theological Education’s (FTE) summer conference. FTE gathered a group of young adults who were eager, passionate, and gifted to lead the church into its future. We gathered to meet each other and learn together. It was life-changing to know that we were not alone, that there were other young people like us who were hearing the call, and who were being called to lead with pastoral imagination.

We had arrived to that place because we had been blessed by congregations where our call was heard, clarified, and put into action.

In the close to ten years since that amazing summer I’ve had the great honor of becoming a pastor. Some of the dreams and hopes planted in me have grown and are bearing fruit, and others are still being watered and cared for, each congregation served adding to my pastoral identity.

It has become clear to me that our work as pastoral leaders can only go so far. Unless there are congregations ready, able, and with the tools needed to be about their work in their local communities, the church will not be able to be about its transforming work in the world. Congregations need to reclaim their identity as places of public proclamation, of teaching the faith, and of mutual care. They need to reclaim their identity as places where God calls.

What are the practices needed in order to sustain churches in their work? How can we help congregations become places where God calls people to deeper engagement in the way of Jesus, to leadership, to discipleship? How can our congregations become a place where people, especially young people, can hear the call to religious leadership?

The Calling Congregations Conference, sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education, provides the space for congregations to wrestle with the important questions that guide a congregation into a “deep dive into communal practices to care for courageous leadership, the next generation, and the church’s future!”

As readers of this blog know I care deeply about the church and its life together. I am thankful to be part of the FTE family and know that the practices that you will engage in and learn about in this conference will transform your leadership, your congregations, and your community.

Peace, Juan+

A Butterfly in the Heat: A Lesson on Reverence

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

©2011 Todd Rossnagel

It was a hot and beautiful afternoon and as we walked,  Katie (friend and colleague Katie McKay Simpson) noticed the most beautiful butterfly! It took her attention and as she pointed, it took mine. There it was, in some ways so out of place in the middle of an urban jungle.

Since then I’ve been thinking about being present. I’m sure that often in my struggle to get things done and be “successful” I miss beauty and the opportunity for awe and wonder. Duty calls and it grabs us so strongly, it demands our attention, and requires our devotion. In the meantime the butterfly goes by . . .

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls us to “reverence” as the “practice of paying attention.” She says:

“From [my father] I learned that reverence was the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.” (19)

Small and curious we can be, if only we took the time. Unfortunately we spend so much time trying to be big and well informed, leaving little room for the possibility of the unknown, mysterious, and surprising to come and visit us.

No wonder so many of us struggle to pray, to listen, and to live in community. It all takes attention, intention; it takes the practice of being present, the practice of reverence.

Until I read Taylor, I would not have called it “reverence.” Then I thought about the title we give pastors, “the Reverend.” I have often struggled with it for I don’t consider myself worthy of reverence. Then I realized that we are to be agents of reverence. We are called to facilitate the ministry of paying attention.

In one of my favorite bible stories a blind man “hears” that Jesus is passing by. In the midst of the loud crowd Jesus “stands still,” hears him cry out and calls on him. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks, “. . . let me see again,” says Bartimaeus. The bible tells us in the Gospel according to Mark that “[i]mmediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.” (Mark 10:52b)

So let us stop and pay attention, pay reverence. Let us be surprised by butterflies on a hot and humid afternoon in the middle of the city. Let us be agents of this reverence so that many can find healing of body, mind, and spirit.

“Glory be to God for dappled things . . .”

Leadership as “Decision Making”

©2011 Todd Rossnagel

I know I might be stating the obvious but leaders “make decisions.” Everyday a variety of choices and options come through our lives. These choices and options do not just impact us but as congregational leaders they impact people given to our care. Our decision making affects a whole community.

We make decisions everyday. Most of these might have little to do with what we normally might call “pastoral” responsibilities. These decisions are about roofs, staff sales calls, other leaders, opportunities, and room assignments.

Then there are those times when the “decision making” is serious. People’s livelihoods are at stake, the state of their inner lives is on the line, the reputation of the body could be damaged. In these cases decision making matters and not making a decision could be even worst than making the wrong one. The leader must lead, must decide, and must carry the burden of the community’s life together.

How does the leader make such decisions? Does “decision making” matter?

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola tells us:

By the grace of God, we are meant to recognize the influencing powers by evaluating those motions which are good so that we might let them give direction to our lives and those which are bad so that we might reject them or turn aside from them.

David L. Fleming from Draw Me Into Your Friendship – The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal translation & A Contemporary Reading

Decision making in the Christian community is not done alone. As a leader we lean on the practices of our community. We lean on discernment to help us “lean into” what God might be inviting us into through our decision making. The community story and its participants are also guides. The leader must surround him/herself with wise counselors and advisors to help “think through,” to assist in “testing the spirits,” to help “see God’s vision” in the decision making.

It is easy to want to do it alone, to carry the entire burden and to desire to be the savior through our decision making.

It is also easy to not want the burden of the decision making. To hide, put off, minimize, or ignore. Here we wish it would go away or we ask another to make the decision for us.

Both extremes negate the power of the Spirit that moves in each of us and in the community we call the church; the power that connects us to one another and has been called upon the ordained for the task of leadership in the Christian community. The power of the Spirit gives us the wisdom to evaluate the spiritual motions in the everyday decisions of pastoral ministry.

Decision making matters! I am learning to lean on the Spirit, to continue praying for clarity and to be willing to engage those “wise sages” that form the inner circle of my relational life. I am learning to test the spirits and make decisions with confidence, boldness, and humility.

Leadership as “Space Making”

I join the many others in church circles who are reflecting, talking, and gathering about leadership. It seems that the more that we recognize congregational reality the more that we talk about “leadership” as the key factor in helping congregations become fruitful again. Strategies are many, actual evidence of those strategies working, few. It seems that what works is an intentionality and an ability to interpret, read, exegete the congregational and communal culture of a place and begin to ask questions about what God might be up to in that place.

So as I begin again, we are always beginning in some ways. I am recognizing that a key aspect of my leadership is to “make space” for discernment, story telling, and conversations around what God might be doing in our midst. What is God calling us to? What are the gifts we bring, the passions that fuel us? Why are we here? Why do we worship like we do? Go to Sunday School? Attend the administrative meetings? Who is our neighbor? Why does it matter? What are we working towards? What does it mean to be the church in this place at this time?

These are only some of the questions being asked. I rather not get quick answers, instead I want all of us to think about it, to reflect on it, and to begin to “make space” for the answers to emerge among us. As we look around and recognize our “place” many other questions arise, we begin to see our corner of the world in a new way.

There is also much hesitation. Space making makes many of us uncomfortable. How “large” is this space going to be? Who will it include? What about us, are we going to be cared for, nurtured, be primary to the emerging vision? What about our history, our traditions, our ways of living life together, will those have to change? If they change is it still us?

Making space allows for the question of identity to surface and I think in the end this might be the most important to the life of the church. Who are we as a gathered body? Why do we exist? What does it mean to be present in this place?

Leading into discernment takes time, presence, and as Edwin Friedman puts it, it takes nerve (I’ve been reading his book A Failure of Nerve). There is no “quick fix” that can turn our mourning into dancing. Pastoral leadership relies on relationships that need the strengthening of time, shared stories, and of “walking with.” Shining a light and “seeing” what others might not see demands action that at times might be unpopular but in the end necessary to our life together.

It is easy to discern what is comfortable and familiar. It is extremely difficult to be open to adventure, dream, visions, risk, and the possibility that we as a community of faith need to be converted to our baptismal call. That somehow we must be re-shaped and born again into a new vision of life together.

Making space for this way of life together takes leadership that is willing to de-clutter, to re-arrange, and to prioritize. When leadership moves in these ways it can be unpopular. Most of us are happy in our clutter, used to our arrangements, and comfortable with our priorities. Yet the Christian narrative calls us time and time again to examine our lives, to let go of the old self, and to be open to the Spirit that makes all things new.

I pray for wisdom as I continue the work of leadership in a Christian community. I pray for clarity that I may shed a light on what God is doing around us, that I may have the “nerve” to call the church to its mission time and time again. I pray that I can be a faithful interpreter, reader, and exegete of the gathered baptized community called the church. I pray that through my leadership space is made for God’s work in creation to be made present through our ministry together.

Embodying the Practices

It seems like talk of “practices” is popular again. People and groups both inside and outside the church are re-discovering that our faith is not just about beliefs or intellectual affirmation but about a way of life, a way of living, that connects us to one another and to God. These are not in and of themselves “salvific.” In other words, practices for practices sake, for getting our own spiritual fix, are not transformative, are not converting. But if we engage them with the purpose of connecting with and being transformed by God, then we are living their purpose in our lives.

We have been blessed in our time here to have an opportunity to be grounded, rooted, and founded in the practices of life together. We have committed to creating spaces to explore vocation as a community, to ask self-awakening questions, to reflect theologically on ourselves and our community, and to envisioning and enacting the next faithful steps. These are deep and important commitments that we have made, commitments that if kept can change the face of the communities of faith that we are leading and will lead.

To embody these practices means to engage them to such an extent that they become part of who we are. They no longer serve as checklists in our life together, or requirements for faithful conversation, or program for a new way forward. Instead we become the space makers for faithful listening, intentional speaking, growing self-awareness, and passionate makers of the destiny that God is unfolding for ourselves, our congregations, and the community around us.

Embodying requires us to live actively. We can no longer make excuses, skirt responsibility, or blame other. We must become active participants of our own baptismal call to be about God’s kingdom in the world. To be “called” is to acknowledge that the divine is still creating, renewing, and transforming. To “practice” is to try again and again, no matter how many times we think we have failed.

As we have gathered in this city we have been forced to embody what we proclaim. We have entered with care into a space that groans with new life. We have been able to hear stories, to ask the questions, and to reflect on how our story, relates to the story of this city, and to God’s call for the renewal of all that is broken, all that misses the mark, all that necessitates renewal.

I pray that we carry this way of living and believing when we go from this place. Let’s embody, let us not fear, let us proceed boldly into the enacting of God’s kingdom through the people called the church.


Originally appeared in the Fund for Theological Education “Next Narrative” Blog.

Getting Out of the Boat – Pastoring Squyres UMC: Part 2

The congregation itself in its persistent gathering and working was the centering force in my scattered efforts. The congregation itself gave me the compass points for my journey in ministry.

Thomas Frank (in The Soul of the Congregation, p. 12)

"Lady Jackie & her Heifer Calf" from Boggy Creek Farms

Three years ago there were two cow related words that I was extremely familiar with: steak and milk. Yet there I was standing in the middle of the Beauregard Parish Fair, holding a cow. I was holding it because I was trying to connect to my congregation, I was trying to learn about the culture of this new place that I had been called to, so after saying yes (to holding the cow), I began wondering what I was doing?

Cow holding is not bible study, is not preaching, is not curing of souls. Four years of college, three years of seminary, and three years of residency and there I was holding a cow. It was almost like God’s self spoke, I felt like Balaam, with God having to resort to a cow to get my attention. This is the ministry that I am calling you to . . . ministry where people are!

As I said in my previous post I was used to the kind of ministry that sought to attract people. We spent a considerable amount of time creating opportunities for people to walk through our doors. Days were full of these preparations and on an average weekday I rarely left the four walls of the church. Being in this new place forced me to get out of my shell, out of my comfort zone. No matter what seemingly exciting things we tried to do (and we did try to do some of those) it seemed like we were not attracting anyone new. In fact it was the same small group who would show up and after a while it was obvious that it was more out of a sense of supporting the new pastor and not out of a real desire to be there.

As I began to make these connections outside of our walls it became clear how plentiful the harvest was in our community. I would stop to get a Dr. Pepper across the street from the church and I found myself having very important conversations with people about God, the church, and their lives. Some that I talked to had churches that they called home, many others did not. Along the way I realized that little by little the community was becoming my parish.

This rhythm of life did not translate into explosive growth for the people of Squyres UMC. In today’s ecclesial world with our obsession with markers of success this important fact becomes extremely difficult. You work so diligently at your vocation and you do have expectations that it will bear fruit, fruit that you can quantify, that you can track. Could we be growing in ways that were not measurable? Are we becoming more faithful to our calling, more open to God’s movement among us? These are only some of the questions that I began to ask myself as the beginning of my second year approached.

I went back again and again to the image of the cow. I was being asked by God to be present, to be willing to step out of my comfort zone. To go where people were. Yet when my second summer came to a close and an initial growth spurt began to turn into decline (and I have the spreadsheets to prove it ;-)) I began to doubt my call to pastoral ministry, my ability to lead a congregation, and the possibilities for a church to be renewed.

Like Frank I was being held up in my scattered efforts by the insistence of this community in its meeting, in its pattern of being together, in its way of being the church in this place. I was indeed developing some new compass points that no longer depended on a spreadsheet but on leading by shining a light on what God was doing all around us, even without our knowing.

Cow holding called me to risk-taking but not in the ways that I originally thought, this is what I will turn to next . . .


Read Part 1 & Part 3

Reflections on Leaving – Part 2: Stuff

You would have thought that by now we would be deep in boxes. Packing takes time and time is running out. We have done some light packing but before we could really get going on it we had to purge the house of stuff.

We have moved many times. As Shannon and I approach our 9th wedding  anniversary (on the 25th of this month) I am reminded that this move will be the 6th move in our 9 years of marriage. Our first apartment (where we lived for 2 months) was around 700 sq ft, followed by our seminary digs where we lived in a 400 sq. ft. of space.

There was little room for non-essentials in our little apartment. We had a few chairs to sit on, a small dining room table, a small desk, and the chest of drawers also served as an entertainment center. In the bedroom all we could fit was our bed and two end tables. This small place became a home to us during these important days in our lives. All the furniture in that place had been given to us, or we had bought it at the church’s garage sale. We had what we needed in that small place.

Yet each time we moved we purged, we found ourselves with more stuff than we really needed. This time is no different and in fact I think we have collected more since this is the longest we have lived in one house.

It is embarrassing to acknowledge how much stuff we have accumulated. How did I end up with 5 winter coats? Where did all those TV’s come from? How come my kids have so many toys? Why did we keep x (kitchen appliance, old bag, electronic) if it did not work?

I am sure by now you get my drift, we all could live simpler than we live now. When the moving company came to give us an estimate they were surprised at how little we had, I told him about our purging and he told me stories of people who had not just their home belongings but storage unit after storage unit full of stuff. I can’t imagine!

My prayer is that we become more intentional about what we obtain. Do we really need it? I also pray that we are more willing to part with things that are no longer used, or worn, or needed. I am sure that there are people who would be blessed to get it.

I am one of those people who strives to live simply. I encountered this idea some years ago as I read Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. One of his quotes has stuck with me since then and it speaks perfectly to what we have felt as we have been facing our “stuff:”

We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. ‘We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like’ . . . it is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.

It turns out that leaving is an opportunity to grow in grace!

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