Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Ministry’s Paradox and Risk

It’s appointment season again in the United Methodist Church.  (Cabinet members and bishops likely think that appointment season never ends.)  UM pastors are appointed on a year-by-year basis and, though they can serve long, extended years in one location, they also know that every year a move is at least a theoretical possibility.

I probably should not write about this topic, since, as a university chaplain I’m not nearly as effected by appointment season as pastors of congregations, even though I am under appointment.  But I’m prompted to think about it for three reasons: (1) I requested to move my conference membership, “leaving” longtime relationships and beloved friends and colleagues in Kansas, (2) a friend spoke with me yesterday about the anxiety and powerlessness he feels in the appointment process and (3) reading Luke’s gospel in my morning prayer time.

Luke 9 is packed with significance (what passage isn’t?).  Jesus calls and sends out the Twelve to do the work he has been doing – preaching the good news of the Kingdom, healing the diseased and liberating the demon-possessed.  He feeds the five thousand.  He asks the disciples about how people identify him.  He tells them that he’s going to suffer and die (he tells them twice in the same chapter).  He is transfigured.  He heals a demon-possessed boy whom the disciples could not heal.  He listens to his disciples argue about who is the greatest in the Kingdom (showing decisively that they don’t understand Jesus’ destiny).  And we haven’t even covered the whole chapter.

Paradox: Luke indicates how deeply this sense of destiny, this calling to suffer and die, lies within Jesus.  There’s a Plan.  He’s going to live it.  It is set.  Is it determined?  Yet, the developing situation is filled with contingency.  Jesus is spiritually heading one way while his disciples think he’s heading another (they’re going to Jerusalem, Jesus to die, but the disciples think they’re going to take over and set up the Kingdom).  He warns his disciples, in effect, not to misunderstand his Messiahship, but they seem to do exactly that.  Jesus tries to control the “fame factor” that is working in Galilee all around him.  Lots of unpredictability and human agency.  Not determined?

Risk: It makes me reflect on my experiences “under appointment.”  I’m a preacher’s kid.  I spent my entire childhood waiting to learn if we were moving or staying.  We lived in some of the most remote places one can find in rural heartland America.  I was always “the new kid” in school.

As a UM pastor, I did the same, waiting for the call to come.  There has been, at times, deep confusion, worry and frustration, yes even out and out heartache and anger.  Yet, those experiences are not the ones that stand out.  Even in the most difficult of situations, God made himself (pardon the gender reference) known.  And in every case, God provided growth – in me – growth that I desperately needed.

Only hindsight works here and no other kind.  Every aspect of my life heretofore has prepared me for the ministry in which I am now engaged.  I can’t say in a brief blog entry how, but I’m not kidding, every part, every place, every segment of time…

I am praying for United Methodist pastors waiting by the phone – literally or figuratively – to find out where they will be sent.  May the Triune God who in Christ knows it all, who knows exactly the paradox and the risk of ministry, bless and keep your heart strong.

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February 27, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In a Sea of Gray Hair

These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group.  I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces.  I mean no offense.  I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself.   (2)  Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people.  I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people.  And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem.  I don’t know whether to cry or cuss.  Sometimes I do both.  

Did the student misunderstand?  Maybe.  We’d love to think so.  But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding.  Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s.  Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.  

We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were.  We helped to institutionalize the generation gap.  When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry.  We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.  

Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention!   Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words.  The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.  

As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists.  It’s what they know.  It’s the language they use.  But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap.  Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up.  They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.    

I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church.  But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.

How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments