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.


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

The Sin in Our Own House

I’ve been struggling with some thoughts for a couple of weeks, now, on a very controversial theme.  Several recent experiences have coincided to prompt me to think about sexuality, especially homosexuality.   Let me give you pieces and then I’ll try to put them together.  

The Spring Leadership magazine, which I received a couple of weeks ago, deals with various addiction and recovery concerns, including addictions that pastors face, and how the church can deal with them.  This is a really good volume, both for insight into specific addictions, but also more generally for churches who want to think about engaging missionally in our culture.  

The first article especially caught my attention, in part, oddly perhaps, because of an email conversation I’ve had recently with a gay man.   The article features the ministry of Craig Gross, the Porn Pastor, the guy who started XXX Church (an internet ministry to people with porn addictions).  He and his family have moved to Nevada from Michigan in order to work more extensively with sex workers and other people caught in the web of this sin.   

And now to the point: In the interview, he refers to a study which found that nearly half of pastors surveyed (48%) admit to porn addiction.  He then ponders whether this fact is the reason churches are generally not dealing very well with this problem.  

Enter my email conversation with a gay man from Iowa, who is understably following closely the constitutional changes in his State.  The heart of our conversation had to do with gay marriage.  

I hold what would be considered a traditional view of marriage and homosexuality, so I wound up expending a good deal of energy explaining myself to this guy.   I’m often frustrated with the terms and lines of argument (or lack thereof) used to talk about this most difficult of topics.  I always wind up trying to distinguish myself from the hard-line Right Wing stridency while speaking (gently) for a traditional view.  

Whenever I get involved in such conversations, and particularly recently, I become painfully aware of our Christian hypocrisy.  Our inability to deal with heterosexual sin with appropriate love and discipline is perhaps the biggest roadblock of all to working out our differences over gay marriage.  

United Methodist Annual Conferences across the country will soon be voting to ratify a number of constitutional amendments.  There are several good reasons for these changes, but traditionalists are worried about potential impact on the gay marriage questions.  So, we’re starting to gear up for floor debates.  I dread them.  

Straight people, we must make some courageous moves toward getting our own houses in order, if we want to have any moral ground whatsoever upon which to stand when we talk about homosexual practice.  The log is in our own eyes.  Certainly we can’t wait until we’re near-sinless before we engage the issues.  But if the statistic about pastors and porn is true and if we face the fact that very few congregations deal well at all with any kind of sin, much less sexual sin (does anyone remember fornication, adultery and divorce?) then it becomes almost impossible for us not to look like utter Pharisess.

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Watching a Denomination Die

While a grand old institution slowly crumbles, the people who have invested their lives in it look for every glimmer of hope, every shred of evidence to sustain the belief that, really, “we’re doing fine.” Even when we acknowledge trouble, we have an odd way of tipping our hats to it while bolstering – in a form of whistling past the graveyard – our shaky feelings with positive-sounding language about hope and change.

I’ve been a United Methodist all my life. Being a preacher’s kid warped me, but not for the usual reasons; you know, the glass house, the resentments about “being watched,” being moved or just being different because of parents’ profession. I love The United Methodist Church. Pardon the gender specific reference: she has been like my mother.

I entered United Methodist ministry in 1984, the same year Bishop Richard Wilke’s book, And Are We Yet Alive? was published. That book was an eye-opener for many, but the press of institutional survival squashed its impact. We have been in critical institutional decline for 25 years! We go through periodic frenzies of corporate self-examination that turn out to be little more than posturing and hand-wringing. The more things change…

The Church needs leaders. We have some. We need more. I am speaking to my ilk: we pastors have to be more than goodhearted people who work hard and love our flocks. We have to lead. We have to teach! It takes transparency of faith and character. It takes courage. It takes perseverance. We had better figure out how to do our jobs – or we had better quit. It is far too holy a calling to occupy the place without doing the work. God is asking us, “Where is the fruit?” (And I don’t mean just numbers although I’m also not trying to avoid them!)

In “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels,” John Wesley’s lament over the decline of the Methodist movement (mainly because of love of wealth) carries on for several pages. After painting so bleak a picture he then asks, “But have all that have sunk under manifold temptations, so fallen that they can rise no more? Hath the Lord cast them all off for ever, and will he be no more entreated? Is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? God forbid that we should affirm this! Surely He is able to heal all their backslidings: For with God no word is impossible.”

God can create something from nothing and bring the dead to life. This great truth we all know. God isn’t the problem. Our unwillingness to risk real repentance, our unwillingness to take up our cross daily and follow – that’s the problem.

Some reader(s) perhaps will take offense at my words, because she/he/they can think of the exceptions to my “negative” perspective. We have developed quite a perverse penchant for denying a generalization by finding a handful of exceptions. This defense is exactly part of the problem. We gag at a gnat and swallow camel. God is not fooled…or mocked.

March 27, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments