sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Category: vocation (Page 1 of 3)

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!

In Memoriam V

Joy comes with the dawn,
joy comes with the morning sun.
Joy springs from the tomb
and scatters the night with her song,
joy comes with the dawn.

(Joy Comes With the Dawn in The Faith We Sing 2210)

“Set” by Todd Rossnagel ©2012

Dear Garrett,

We did not intend for a whole month to be ruined in perpetuity because of your leaving. And truth be told, it was not just your leaving, but a series of events, circumstances, and experiences that began earlier in the month – your leaving was the final act that painfully displayed for us the human condition.

In some ways we still approach each July with a sense of dread. I’ve been wondering why so . . . why the knot in my stomach, the general malaise, and the constant looking at the calendar to make sure that the month is moving along?

Then I realize how much your leaving has marked us, how much it has shaped our lives. Our bodies will probably always “sense” the coming of that fateful month. Our brains wired to dread it, our posture on the defensive; if we are not careful we might have to re-live it?

But then there are the five years since, with their “other” months. There have been celebrations, changes, moves, welcomes, goodbyes, baseball seasons, birthdays and Christmases, Good Fridays . . . and of course, Easters!

Joy has come with the dawn!

It is a joy marked with the tears that still flow from your leaving, a joy marked with the knowledge that the world is not the same without you, a joy marked with the promise that one day heaven and earth will become one and we will indeed be reunited again.

A joy marked with the assurance of my calling to be a stirrer of God’s Spirit, a gatherer of people, a sojourner, and hearer. What a joy it has been and now your leaving is forever marked in me as I continue my work, as all of us who witnessed your visitation have continued to live into our calling.

This last year has been a difficult one. The “busyness” of my work has at times “clogged” my imagination, creativity, and muse. Leading this community that God has given me continues to challenge me in important ways. I often reflect on that voice from long ago and on the events surrounding your leaving, where I saw the “church” truly living into its calling. So I am inspired to continue the ministry that lives in me, the call that keeps me grounded, the work that brings me much life!

On this fifth anniversary of your death – your leaving – I pray for renewed Julys as your mark continues to make a difference in the world. I pray for renewed hearts, as your mark continues to minister to us. I pray for renewed spirits as your mark reminds us that we have experienced and are bearers of Resurrection!

I’ll see you when earth and heaven meet . . .

Sorrow will turn
Sorrow will turn into song
and God’s laughter make us strong.

(Joy Comes With the Dawn in The Faith We Sing 2210)

Peace & much love, Juan+


Be a Hero, Donate Life! If you want to read G’s story click here.

Here are my other four yearly notes to G: In Memoriam, II, III, IV

Becoming A Feeding People

“In short, the presider is a guardian to all those who are in need.”
(from Justin’s 1 Apology 67 in Gordon Lathrop’s The Pastor: A Spirituality)

It has been an exciting day! Tears came to my eyes as I observed all those who gathered this morning around food. Some gathered to serve, others gathered to receive. All shared stories, smiles, and difficulty. A vision, a vision from God, was becoming a reality in our midst.

I am amazed that we are here. It all started with conversation about God and about what God was doing in someone’s life. It all started with the realization that although a ministry had been ended, another one was emerging. It turns out that God was speaking, clearly, about our life together. Little by little opportunities came our way, partners appeared, others called came forth, and preparations got on their way.

A decision was made to become a community that fed people . . .

So I became the spokesperson for this call of God in our midst. Little did folks know at first how close this calling is to those of us who are set apart to be “gatherers of people.” It turns out that this incarnate call to “feed” is truly at the center of our identity as God’s own people. After all aren’t we at our core a people of table?

Time and time again I reminded the assembly that we were becoming a “feeding people.” And so as I headed to the pantry this morning, right before opening time, there were people gathered, waiting. Hungry people, people in need, people wandering what this “place” could provide.

So we said words of greeting, cut a huge yellow ribbon, and then invoked the holy into our space. It was amazing to hear those gathered praying along, giving thanks to God, praising the one that gathered us there. For a moment it was as if we were gathering around the great table, in that moment we knew that the presence of Christ self was there among us.

As I put my “apron” on for a few pictures and some greetings I was told that I was needed to help with the intake. So as I helped to  fill paperwork, ask questions, and help pave the way for food, I was encountered by stories. I was encountered with real life parables, struggles, blessings, and thanks. So my apron was an extension of the stole that I wear around my neck week after week as I lead the assembly into its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

I am sure that there will be many stories to share in the years ahead. We are becoming a “feeding people,” I am becoming a more faithful “presider,” all of us growing together in our discipleship as we allow the Spirit to shape us in the way of Jesus.

Making Home Again . . .

The house embodied for him the general blessedness of his life, which was manifest, really indisputable. And which he never failed to acknowledge, especially when it stood over against particular sorrow.

Marilynne Robinson in Home

It is truly amazing how quickly time goes, and how different life can be in the blink of an eye. We hear this often in times of tragedy, when those affected can’t believe that life has taken a turn. We also hear it in times of struggle when we are trying to make sense of all that is going on around us.

In our life this kind of reflection comes as part of our vocation. Time flies indeed, an in a moment everything can be totally different. Adjusting to the new normal, and settling into it is an important challenge in our lives.

A year ago we were sitting comfortably in our home in Ragley, LA. We had “settled in” living into the patterns of life there and in some important ways becoming a part of the people there, we chose to let life unfold in those ways. Then we came here to Baton Rouge and once again made a decision to “make home again,” to settle in, and become part of the people here, choosing to let life unfold in whatever way it would.

At times it seemed life settling in would never happen, like life as we knew it would conspire against us and not let us change. But we kept at it, we kept living as though this was home and little by little it has truly become that, and quicker than at any other time before.

This year there has been much learning about our life together. Our family has navigated through this transition and we’ve had to learn new ways of living our life. Surprises have come, unexpected realities have surfaced, disappointments have visited us, but we have carried on making home. At each turn we have grown as people and as a family.

This past week we headed on a vacation to Shannon’s grandparents in Kentucky. It was an important journey as Shannon’s mom and dad, brother, and niece, and nephews, traveled up to gather and spend time with “Papa Gene” and “OtherGrandmommy.”

One morning as we were getting ready to head back to the home-place I looked up and saw the sign that said “Home is Where Your Story Begins.” It grabbed my attention as many of those things do and I have spent the last few days thinking about that . . . home, stories, and beginning.

I can venture to say that for us “home” is where we are, together, no matter the geography. Each time our story begins again, a new chapter of the anthology of our life, a continuation, and a new beginning all at once.

It strikes me that this is the way that our spiritual life works also. We must “make a home” again and again in the way of Jesus. At times our own way, our own propensity to sin and death seems to conspire against us, growing in love is difficult work. But we must keep at it, rehearsing our new life, desiring to make life with God our new home, making home in God again. Our story finding a new beginning point, a new narrative, a different center.

As this year of “making home again” comes to a close we look forward to God’s unfolding for us in this new year. We are thankful for what God has done, for the blessings of this year, for the growth in our life together, and for the new home, new friends, and new community of faith that has received us, allowing us to be part of  their unfolding story. There are some things we hope to accomplish in this new year, these are not really “resolutions” as much as they are goal and dreams. We look forward to my sister’s wedding in a few weeks, to Shannon’s return to grad school in the fall, we look forward to celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in May, and to our continued ministry at St. John’s UMC.

We know that surprises will come, that unexpected realities will surface, and disappointments will visit us. We’ll just keep on “making home,” letting our story unfold, trusting God’s presence and power along the way. I’m thankful that we serve a God who allows us to “make home again.”


To know more about our journey read my “Reflections on Leaving” series here & my “Pastoring Squyres UMC” series here.

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+

Leadership as “Story Telling”

In his book One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells us the story of humanity, the humanity of his experience, the primal story of his people. The story is haunting, at times confusing, but it seems so real, the human condition lined out in each sentence, the possibility of grace always around the corner. It’s first lines sets us up for an adventure into our own story:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude

Each time I encounter writings like this I am reminded of the primal stories of the Christian faith. These stories are about re-membering, about home, about promises made and promises broken. At the beginning, like at the beginning of Garcia Marquez epic, the world is recent and we find ourselves having to point, in order to be made aware of the story that is being told.

I say all this to say that at the core of congregational leadership is story. More specifically story-telling and story listening. We are constantly re-calling, and recasting the great story and it’s pointing towards our world today. We too have a rootedness in this epic, our “Macondo” is the land of promise, our “Colonels” are the story tellers that narrate the story of faith.

We must take this story telling seriously. In conversations, in decision making, in sermon, and in teaching we are to constantly frame and re-frame in light of the great narrative of faith. Constantly pointing towards realities not yet named and asking the community of faith to take ownership and claim the unfolding future, the unexpected turn, and the surprise ending as part of God’s continued story in us and through us.

Leading as a story teller and story hearer can be difficult work. It takes patience, time, and a rootedness in the narrative. It also requires our constant immersion in other stories and those who tell them. From novels, to short stories, from songs to poems, from essays to blogs, the leader as story teller immerses him/herself in the narrative of everyday life. At each turn we as congregational leaders ask the God questions, the questions of the human condition, and begin to exegete these as part of our dealings with the sacred story.

Little by little, each story heard, read, and seen becomes part of who we are as congregational leaders. The stories become the narrative extension of the great story of faith: spoken, sung, & prayed. It is our task to connect the dots and call the community to see their own stories, their own narrative, to be a narrative of redemption, a narrative of grace, to be part of God’s activity in their life, even when God might seem absent, when God’s presence is not “felt,” when life seems to be out of control.

I am thankful for the stories that live in me, for those that I am honored to hold, and for the many that I am yet to hear. I am also thankful for the story I get to share each and everyday, a story that I am constantly pointing towards, a story that reminds the community of its name!

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 “Vision Casting”

"Whitby" by James Whitesmith

I’ve been wearing glasses since the 8th grade. I can still remember attending chapel with my parents during my 8th grade year and having my dad ask me if the preacher always wore the same suit and tie to chapel to which I responded that he was too far away for me to see him, he looked blurry. The next day I went to the eye doctor for the first time. A week later my first pair of glasses arrived and when I put them on it was like a miracle! I could see far away, I could see the leaves on the trees, and the birds flying in the sky. I also could see that the preacher did wear the same suit and tie to chapel every week.

To cast something is to make a copy of it, a representation in three dimensional form, from a mold. The mold is not the actual item, the final product is, but the mold itself has to be made, has to be formed by an original of something.

Another definition of casting is throwing a fishing line. Here the fisherman chooses the bait that will be attached to the line and casts that line with the bait in the appropriate place for a successful catch.

I’ve heard many congregational leaders refer to vision casting as the second definition. Here the leaders chooses the bait and throws out the vision in hopes that the congregation will “bite.” More often than not, like fishermen, the leader finds him/herself bringing the line back and throwing it out there over and over again. Frustration sets in, the bait is changed, but little else does. Is the congregational leader really a “vision caster?”


I’ve been thinking that the casting that we do is not of the fishing type but of the mold type. The mold is the shape of God’s kingdom and we as pastors come with the symbols, images, stories, and gestures (thanks Gordon Lathrop) of the Christian faith and begin to give shape to God’s kingdom in a particular place at a particular time. The vision is cast and if observed carefully and interpreted, the vision will begin to bear fruit in its particular place and time.

The leader is constantly pointing back at the vision of God’s kingdom. Constantly reminding the community of its shared story, of its identity, of its mission in the world. At each turning point there are decisions to be made about life together, about bills, buildings, resources, and relationships. The pastoral leader goes back in each case to the cast vision, to how these characters of life together can best be utilized/deployed for the vision that has been cast, for the re-presentation of God’s kingdom in this place.

Many times as pastoral leaders we find that the vision is fuzzy, blurry, in need of adjustment. Our temptation is to cast it again as in fishing, changing the bait, or maybe changing the location. I am reminding myself that no such movement is needed. Instead I’ll immerse myself in the narrative of faith, in the symbols and gestures of the assembly, and in the life and work of the people of the community around me. Each of these will allow me to help the congregation “see” their way forward, see God’s kingdom made flesh by their life and work.

May God give me the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hands to cast a vision of God’s Kingdom through the people of St. John’s UMC, knowing that

“. . . no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.”

Wendell Berry (Sabbath Poem X 1979 in A Timbered Choir)

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.

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