SpiritStirrer

sojourner, hearer, & follower of Jesus

Tag: Pastor (Page 1 of 2)

Very Married: A Review

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The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.

Gabriel García-Márquez

The music begins and the couple walks proudly and anxiously towards the future, a future together. Decisions have been made, preparations completed, and now it’s time for covenant making, vow taking, or maybe just contract signing. No matter what, life together begins.

As one who gets the joy of witnessing and officiating at these public/private, sacred/secular, end/beginning type of events I’ve often wondered if there is something that can prepare the couple for this momentous event. Would this couple take vows if their future life together was revealed to them? Would that vision help them discern or prepare them?

Maybe it’s best that Hallmark cards, romantic comedies, Instagram pictures, and the wedding industry monopolize the marriage press! Or maybe we were just waiting for Katherine Willis Pershey to provide us with the revelation that all engaged and married couples needed, a revelation of the beauty and trials of married life.

Very Married: Fieldnotes on Love and Fidelity is not for the faint of heart. Pershey’s poetic prose leads us openly yet carefully through the landscape of married life. As she aptly tells us the “agony, ecstasy, and tedium of wedlock.” (18) This is not the stuff that we are used to hearing about nor the kind of journey that we expect from one who is both married and who officiates at marriages. Yet Very Married is the book needed to awaken all of us to the beauty, reality, and poetry that is life together.

Very Married sets itself apart in how humbly it speaks to those of us who have ears to hear. Pershey’s tone is rooted in the Christian practice of testimony, the humble recognition of God’s presence in the midst of life. This testimony is not just an individual encounter with God but the result of living life in covenant with another. Her vulnerability and honesty are palpable as she guides us through the inner life of one who desires to live life together with another yet found herself ill-prepared for the reality of what that meant.

As she tells her story we quickly realize that all of us come to life together unprepared and yet it is there, in our willingness to recognize the mystery, that grace comes visiting, that blessing becomes activated.

My favorite part of the wedding ceremony is the blessing of the marriage. As I wrap my stole around the hands of the couple I invoke the Spirit. I ask for the Spirit to make them fruitful, to make them one, to help them recognize, like Pershey, that “I know now, and I am known now, in marriage.”

This knowing comes with joys and sorrows. It tests our capacity to be faithful, to stay attentive to our chosen over the long term. It tests our capacity to forgive, to reconcile, and to begin again. It also tests our capacity to love another as we live life with them.

There is yet more for us to know of each other, physically, spiritually, emotionally. And as husband and wife we have the incredible freedom to explore each other without hesitation or shame.

Katherine Willis Pershey in Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity, 94

The struggles of life together challenge our self-centeredness, immaturity, and desire for control. God uses this way of life to transform us, or as my United Methodist tradition calls it, to “sanctify” us. Pershey’s willingness to share with us her journey in grace allows all of us to identify the God moments in our own relationships and to recognize that “even a family’s sorrows give way to gratitude, eventually.”(164) Pershey’s candor reminds us that perseverance, tenacity, and humility are key components to becoming very married.

Katherine Willis Pershey does not shy away from the difficult topics connected to married life. From pre-marital sexuality, infidelity, and submission to same-sex marriage, divorce, and death, Pershey guides us with humor, humility, and understanding. Like a faithful pastor, she shines a light behind the closed doors of covenant life. Along the way she gives us hope that in the midst of the many challenges that marriage faces today “[t]here’s no shame in needing covenant to live.”(210)

So take up and read! In Very Married we are gifted with an invitation to a new-old way of living life together. Pershey gifts us with a faithful blueprint to the daily rebuilding of this thing we call marriage. Now is up to us, letting our very married life end daily by making love and following the blueprint to rebuild it, again and again, before breakfast!

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Thankful to Herald Press for providing me an advanced copy of the book for this review.

Callers on the Journey

The focus of pastoral leadership is on the people because all Christians, not church leaders as such, are the primary ministers of the gospel. It is the church as a whole that is God’s “chosen race, royal priesthood, and holy nation” (2 Pet. 2:9). Pastoral leaders serve to build up the body of Christ, so that the entire church can bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to a very broken world.

Christopher A. Beeley in Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today 

I was blessed with a childhood church that was fruitful, alive, and making a difference. Worship was vibrant, exciting, and God’s Spirit was palpable. In Sunday School, VBS, and other formational gatherings we learned the story through bible drills, songs, and drama. Our times of fellowship were filled with music, food, and a genuine sense of what it meant to be a community. Our mission was rooted in the neighborhood that we lived in with a clear understanding that there was also a larger world in need of Jesus Christ.

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Me in Cannon Chapel at Emory University – A “place” that still calls me to this journey!

This is not to say that it was perfect. As the “son of the pastor” I knew well the struggles of what it meant to lead into that kind of community. But I would say that it was that community and my father, their pastor, who first “called.”

Dad called ministry “out of me” in the ways that he lived his own pastoral life. In his commitment to leading God centered worship with integrity & passion. His hunger to help the congregation and the community find healing, wholeness, and love. He “called me” by taking me with him when he did his visitation rounds or went to help someone in need.

He modeled a “way” of being “pastor” that still guides my way today.

When dad’s ministry brought us from Puerto Rico to Louisiana I was blessed to find others who continued “calling.” My now father-in-law Ron Perry, helped shape me in the importance of discipleship, prayer, and ministering to those who could easily be forgotten. He gave me opportunities to preach, teach, and lead. He too believed that at its core pastoral leadership is about “building the body.”

In college when I was ready to leave God and the church behind dad again reminded me of my call. I needed desperately to be reminded and dad’s “contact” with a United Methodist pastor began to shape the final stages of my “surrender” to this vocation.

Don Ross taught me to persevere, to lean on God’s love, and to be a humble servant to God’s people. He called me to gifts I did not know I had, and if he would not have “pushed” me to preach and called that a gift in my life, I would probably be a professor now, not a pastor.

At the time it seemed like I had enough “calling” and I had said yes! But God had other companions in my journey of faith to continue “calling:” Donn Ann Weber who believed I had the gifts to pastor the “real church” with its struggles, challenges, and possibility; Don Saliers, Barbara Day Miller, Steffen Losel, Tom Long, Tom Frank & Gail O’Day who were more than “seminary professors” but truly challenged me and called out of me this pastoral life through their example, questions, and teaching; Francey Hooton, Carole Cotton Winn, John Williams, Craig Gilliam, and my peers in my ordination process who continued shaping my call through their witness, counsel, and patience; Kami & Casey Scarbrock, Larabee and Patrick Thompson, and Heather and Danny Smith, who have been with me for over a decade and have put up with the early bumps on the journey; and Garett Thompson, who in joining the communion of saints, kept me on the right path.

God is still calling me. In fact he calls me each and everyday to this way of life, to this service to the church, to this “building up of the body.” I live out this journey with key partners in this covenant life: my wife Shannon who reminds me everyday of what it means to love, my brother Josh Hale who still pushes me to be a pastoral theologian, Sarah Shoup, Katie McKay Simpson, Donnie Wilkinson, Brady Whitton, Leslie Stephens, and Stephen Fife who are faithful covenant partners, friends, and “guides” in my continued journey.

This fall at Exploration 2013 we are gathering in Denver to discern. God has been calling all along and has given you partners in the journey. As you hear their voices know that it is God who is using them to call you to communal discerment through communal life. If those witnesses see gifts of “building up the body” in you, join us this November as we continue hearing God “calling us on the journey.”

We Are A Thought in God: A Christmas Eve Reflection

This is the Christian’s joy:
I know that I am a thought in God,
no matter how insignificant I may be –
the most abandoned of beings,
one no one thinks of.

Today, when we think of Christmas gifts,
how many outcasts no one thinks of!
Think to yourselves, you that are outcasts,
you that feel you are nothing in history:

“I know that I am a thought in God.”
Would that my voice might reach the imprisoned

like a ray of light, of Christmas hope –
might say also to you, the sick,
the elderly in the home for the aged,
the hospital patients,
you that live in shacks and shantytowns,
you coffee harvesters trying to garner your only wage
for the whole year,
you that are tortured:

God’s eternal purpose has thought of all of you.
He loves you, and, like Mary,
incarnates that thought in his womb.

Archbishop Oscar Romero from The Violence of Love

Nativity with Mary, Joseph and the New-Born Christ by J. Le Breton 1933

As a pastor I have the honor and privilege to walk alongside people at different times of their life. There are times of celebration – baby’s being born, the news of a promotion, graduations, and weddings. Then there are the difficult times, when life seems to be going downhill, when it turns on us and our hearts are broken, when illness takes over, despair comes near, sin and death knock at the door . . .

It is at those times that the good news is most needed.

Christmas in the Christian tradition is the answer to the good news needed in our broken world. It reminds us year after year that sin and death is no longer our inevitable path, the child born in Bethlehem becoming the sign and symbol of God’s purposes for the created order.

Gift giving becomes the reminder of God’s gift of his Son. At its best it should become a catalyst for our difference making in the world. Like God gave us his Son, we then give of one another to the work of salvation, to the world of justice, peace, and hope.

Christmas is most understood by those who long, hunger, and desire for a better day. What a gift it will be to them if something changed, if there was hope after all, if justice would come; as Romero reminds us “God’s eternal purpose” thinking of them.

As we gather in our churches tonight, as we gather with family, around trees and gifts, may we not forget the message of salvation to us and to the world. And may that message become incarnate in us; incarnate – an essential aspect of our identity – so that we can become difference makers in our world.

We are a thought in God so the savior we have been expecting is here!

Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (CEB)

Advent: We Are Not the Light

A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light.  He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. John 1:6-8 (CEB)

As a pastor I often remind myself that I have been sent. Although in our tradition we are indeed sent to places of service by the bishop, I like to remind myself that in the end I have been sent to serve and lead by God.

It started long ago when my parents brought me forth and made the claim that I belonged to God. The prayers of a community of faith, the waters of baptism, and the many voices that helped me clarify my vocation. Each of these moments were “sent” centered as these varieties of people helped form me as a fellow “sent” one.

To believe in being sent is easy, what is difficult is to recognize why we are sent. I’ll have to admit that at times I have forgotten. My passion, my dedication, and my ego have gotten in the way. It is almost as if my mantra needs to constantly be “I am not the light, I am not the light, I am not the light.”

We are called, empowered, sent . . . to “testify to the light.”

It is easy to believe that we are indeed the light. How many times have I spoken of My church, My ministry, My calling? It has taken many wise sages in my life to remind me that is God’s church, God’s ministry; God’s calling in my life. These fellow sojourners have called me back to our shared vocation, to our baptismal call, to the light.

Here comes Advent again, getting us down from our high horses, pushing us to recognize our desperate need for God, getting us ready for God’s in-braking in Jesus Christ. Here comes Advent with its call to reality and new life. Here comes Advent with its proclamation of promises to be fulfilled.

This Advent I am keenly aware of our search for answers as a church. We hear the reports, the statistics, and calls to action. Many of our congregations are trying to survive, in the midst of economic uncertainty and a shrinking pool of resources.

I struggle with many of these conversations because at times they seem to be self-serving.  I hear a fear of our “demise” as a denomination, a fear of closing churches, a fear of losing “market share.” Could we say that we are living in the darkness, in the shadow? Could we say that we are groping for our way forward? Maybe a mantra is needed, “We are not the light, we are not the light, we are not the light!”

I pray that John’s proclamation helps us focus our attention to our light proclamation, to reminding God’s people of their God given mission, to tell the world that

“the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.” Matthew 4:16a (CEB)

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!

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FOR MORE INFORMATION & TO REGISTER CLICK HERE:

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+

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 . . .

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Read Part 1 & Part 3

Reflections on Leaving – Part 5: Grief

The work of ministry is intimate work. We walk alongside people during key moments in their life. We are conversation partners, shoulders to cry on, and receivers of anger, disappointment and pain. We are also hearers of joy, a new baby born, good news from the doctor, weddings, a deeper sense of God’s presence, an “aha” moment in their life of faith. The curing of souls takes this kind of intentional closeness for it to help people grow in God’s grace.

Title and position does not guarantee our role. Curing of souls takes relationship, trust, it takes time. You quickly learn the boundaries when first arriving in a place. Some aspects of our work are given to us from the beginning, others we earn with our witness, attention, and intention.

When we have become the curer of souls for those given to our care it makes it difficult to leave. The excitement of new beginnings quickly gives way to the sadness of departing. Deep work has been done, companioning has taken place, stories have been shared. We become the hearer of stories, we have had the great honor of pointing where God has been at work in people’s lives.

The congregation itself has given of themselves to us. We too have been ministered to by them in deep and meaningful ways. In sharing their life with us they also shared with us the gift of friendship and companioning. We learned the rhythms of life in this community and although it took us time we learned to appreciate its slow pace and easy going attitudes. During difficult times, God’s people in this place supported us and reminded us of God’s love daily. God was truly present in surprising ways in these people, a people that became “the church” to me and to my family.

A wise friend and mentor told me to leave room in my heart and soul for grief. Much joy and growth has happened here, relationships have been built, ministry has been done, God has been present. You can’t just walk away from all of that without pause.

As I continue packing I realize how hard it will be to say goodbye. It hit me at Easter that it would be our last Easter together. Now there is a real countdown, just three Sundays left. Three more opportunities to gather this community around table, three more times to tell them the story of faith, three more chances to welcome them into God’s place in the name of Jesus.

No matter how exciting the journey ahead, leaving is difficult work. Letting go, moving on, real leaving requires walking through the valley of the shadow . . . I am thankful that God walks alongside us through these important times!

Reflections on Leaving – Part 4: Forgiveness

It’s amazing what you find when cleaning out your office: messages, meeting minutes, worship bulletins, things done, things left undone. It is hard to pack and clean up an office when every other piece of paper is an opportunity to stop and reflect on your pastoral ministry.

I pride myself in my hard work. I love being a pastor: preaching, teaching, leading, gathering, sharing good news are the highlights of my pastoral life. I get up every morning thinking about my calling and how to be faithful to its rhythms. Then I find the evidence as I try to pack . . . maybe I did not work hard enough, try enough, take enough risks, maybe I could have done better.

No wonder the short Order of Farewell to a Pastor in the United Methodist Book of Worship includes these words:

I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I have made.
As I leave, I carry with me all that I have learned here.

Admitting our pastoral failures is hard. There were visits forgotten, phone calls not made, classes not taught, sermons not prepared for, and meetings not attended. There were also unkind words said, people ignored, and soap boxes preached. There are signs and symbols of all of these in shreds of paper and notes all over my office. Each of them a reminder that God’s grace is truly sufficient, that in the end the Spirit of God was at work through my humanity.

Then there are those unfulfilled plans and broken dreams. Expectations were high, mine and many others, forgiveness of ourselves is also needed.

Although difficult cleaning out is needed. It helps heal the wounds, however small, of life together. As I throw away, pack, and give away, I am reminded of the landscape that I have walked. Each moment becomes a confession, each moment a prayer, each moment provides a new awareness of God’s grace.

Reflections on Leaving – Part 3: Itinerancy

According to A Dictionary for United Methodist by Alan K. Waltz, itineracy or itinerancy is:

The system in The United Methodist Church by which pastors are appointed to their charges by the bishops. The pastors are under obligation to serve where appointed. The present form of the itineracy grew from the practice of Methodist pastors traveling widely throughout the church on circuits. Assigned to service by a bishop, they were not to remain with one particular congregation for any length of time.

(from Glossary of Terms at umc.org)

Early North American Circuit Rider

Some see a commitment to itinerancy as a central aspect of being a United Methodist Elder. Some describe this commitment as being willing or open, others describe it as being obedient. Elders speak about it in a variety of ways: part of our identity, openness to the Spirit, career opportunity. Churches have mixed reactions depending on their experience, some see it as a curse “each time we get a good one they take them away” others see it as an opportunity “we’ll have a chance at another preacher sooner or later.”

There seem to be a variety of ways that itinerancy is practiced. Some churches (some say that it is mostly the larger ones) seem to have more input on their pastor staying or leaving, and are given longer pastoral tenures. Other congregations tend to have a revolving door to pastors. Some Elders serve in places a long time, while many Local Pastors are constantly on the move.

I do not believe that itinerancy should be seen as equal to an appointive system. I see the two as related but not the same. Pastors do not have to be itinerant to be appointed to their place of service. In some ways this is what we have in place already in some of our larger churches. Pastors are appointed there but are expected to stay for a long time. This does not take away the authority of the bishop to appoint to another place, it just makes “staying” the default understanding.

The work of pastoral leadership requires time, and it requires a long time. Like any other covenantal relationship it truly matures and improves with time. Rhythms of pastoral life, caring, life transitions, teaching and preaching, leading, necessitate a settleness that the anxiety of possible move cannot provide. Add to these rhythms the rhythms of family life (in itself another covenantal relationship) then the importance of being in one place for the long term becomes even more important.

As I prepare to leave in response to the itinerant system I am fully aware of the tensions above. I understand being “itinerant” in terms of my willingness to go where the mission of the church needs me the most. This could mean one place for the rest of my pastoral life, it could mean a variety of places. As I go again I do not go to leave, I go to be fully present, to grow roots, to be with those I have been asked to be in ministry with. “Staying” has become my default position.

I remember arriving at Squyres UMC to find that, after so many pastors, they were already preparing for my departure as they helped me unload the moving truck. I found these ways of thinking frustrating and hard to listen to. Yet little by little we were able to get over our fear of another change, of another move, of another relationship lost. We were able to focus on our ministry together and not be anxious about the itinerant system.

As I enter a new congregation it is clear that I do not enter it to leave but to live. To live my pastoral life with attention and intention. To live into the many relationships that God will send my way. To live in raising my family and growing in grace. To live into the Spirit’s continued work in my call to discipleship. To live in the midst of the many uncertainties of life.

At the center of “itinerancy” is the idea of journey. Sometimes the journey takes us to other places, most of the time the journey is found right where we are!

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