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)
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 . . .