08 January 2007

Apparently even the popular kids need Jesus

I found out this week that yet another seminary colleague is leaving his/ her church position for the second time since we graduated five years ago.

I don't know why this distresses me so, or if it bothers anyone other than me that the average length of time for a minister in his/ her first call after seminary is less than two years. (I have no independent confirmation of that figure, fyi -- that's just the casual wisdom cited around the seminary when I was in attendance.) But it really bugs me that my generation of clergy are bailing out on congregations, and in some cases, leaving ministry all together. I've been thinking about why this is a lot and I've come up with one of my theories that I'd like to post here, knowing fully that this probably doesn't make a lot of difference to pretty much anyone who may be reading this, but also knowing that some of you will suffer through my rant just because you're nice people. So thanks.

I want to admit up front before I start said rant -- I am someone who has thought about moving a thousand times and in the last five and a half years of my employment at FCC, Rock Falls, I've had my name in the Search and Call system three times. The first time was when I'd been here for about two years and was prompted, by some miscellaneous discontent -- I think I thought I wasn't being paid enough, the church wasn't changing enough, people actually wanted me to visit their friends in the nursing home -- something like that...

Anyway, by the grace of God, and by the grace of God alone, I was never contacted by any viable options when I put my papers out into the system. And each time, within a couple of months, something happened -- I got a raise, met Dennis, got pregnant -- that would prompt me to return to my belief that God called me here in the first place.

(Point of clarification for those who don't know and do care -- in our denomination, congregations call ministers directly; we are not appointed. Our denominational system to "facilitate" "(whether it actually "facilitates" is an entirely other post/ rant) this process is referred to as "Search and Call" which is a pretty self-explanatory term.)

Here's my experience, that I think pretty similarly echoes the experience of many of my seminary colleagues, if they are honest about it. I'm sure there are exceptions and this really may not apply to anyone out of my denominational circle. You can let me know.

Like many of my clergy colleagues, I grew up in the church. My home congregation was "home" in more than one way. It was the place I felt loved and embraced. It was a place of comfort and nurture. It was also the place that I was adored.

I loved being adored at church. My congregation, like those of many of my clergy colleagues, was one that had been gloriously relevant about 10 years before I was born and was/ is still adjusting to a lack of young families and the whole-hearted involvement of children, youth, young adults, middle aged adults, older adults, etc. in its' programs.

When I was growing up, there were about 10 of us in our youth group. About five of us were die-hards. And we were adored. We were allowed to sit in the back of the church and leave and go hang out in the youth room during the sermon. We were allowed to direct Christmas pageants and present special "Youth Worship" services. We were encouraged to plan all sorts of fun fellowship events. And when we did these things, we were lauded and applauded and smiled upon by our elders.

And I, and most of my seminary colleagues, received our calls to ministry during this time. Usually these calls came at church camp when we were surrounded by other teens in a potent mix of devotion and hormones and exceedingly high humidity or mission trips where we were free of parents and aware in a new way of a world beyond us and the possibility of being part of something larger than ourselves. And we took those calls and earnestly expressed them to our home congregations where they lauded and applauded and smiled at us and directed us towards our denominational colleges, which, incidentally, were coming to terms with pre-ministry programs that had peaked about 50 years before I was born. And when we applied to these colleges, they directed us to the fellowships and scholarships and endowments left by folks who had graduated 50 years before we were born and put us in contact with a Chaplain who encouraged many of us to work with our region in the camping program during the summer or at a church as an intern during the year where we were, of course, lauded and applauded and smiled upon. And when we graduated from college, we went to our denominational seminaries where most of us received free or mostly free tuition and where we remained in the very small world that is our denomination, well-connected to regions and camping programs and pastors who had smiled upon us. And those same people encouraged us to apply near them or for them or to them for positions when we came to ordination and then we ended up in our first churches.
But somewhere along the line, someone forgot to memo these first churches and tell them that we were supposed to be adored for simply being young and at church. For a while, most of us were, of course, adored for just being there, but like all honeymoons periods, eventually the moon waned. And that's when many of us put papers into Search and Call and moved on to a second congregation where we settled for while, though many of us are vaguely or even keenly aware that there MUST be another congregation out there somewhere that is a better fit for us.

So with that background-- here's what I realized about myself about a year ago that led me to my thoughts on why me and so many of my colleagues have wrestled with our first (or second) callings (or, as I like to call it -- April's Grand Theory on Wussy and Whiny Pastors). Those who know me, know that I have a very annoying habit of thinking that everything that applies to me probably applies to everyone else as well...
I should mention -- I have seen apparent exceptions to this theory and actually am privileged to work with one in my neighboring town. He inspires me. But what I've observed in him also convicts me that I may just be right about this theory.

ANYWAY -- I realized that in all that time of connection to the church, I had developed a strong relationship with the church, but not actually with Jesus. In fact, my spiritual development was about nil. I knew what to say about it to convince my ordination committee that I was sufficiently prepared to lead a church. I knew how to pass off to a search committee my sacrificial love for a potential congregation. I knew how to be indignant about other clergy who didn't share my apparent devotion to some miscellaneous cause/ theology or another. But in actuality, the relationship with Jesus that had the power to sustain me in ministry -- the reason on which I should have based my entire life -- did not exist in any real form. Oh sure, it was there when I was desperate or angry or tired. But it was not an integral part of me.

And though ultimately my spiritual development was/ is my own responsibility, almost NEVER was I challenged about that on the way through the hoops to ordination and my first call. My ordination committee raised a perfunctory question that was sufficiently distressing to me that I should have seen red flags all over the place, but they were easily pacified. And I was/ am one who wears my spiritual disfunction on the outside. When I was in seminary, I was a 350 lb, slobby, and desperate mess of a person and I'd been that mess of a person since my sophomore year of college. I don't know if I would have had ears to hear it, but I do think someone in the church should have said, "You know, going into the ministry is not going to fix this self-loathe thing you have going." And then someone else probably should have said it again. About 100 times.

But they didn't. And seminary certainly did not help it. And though none of my seminary colleagues wore their fear/ anxiety/ spiritual angst like I did, I can tell you -- many of those people had/have BIG issues -- and the most common one that I saw and experienced and shared was the desperate need for adoration from others. And though many of us got that at church growing up, I think a lot of us are in crisis because adoration is much less forthcoming after the first year of ministry and we don't have the spiritual resources to fall back on when the adoration is gone.

In my personal experience, about a year ago, I was once again flummoxed by dissention at church. Some of it wasn't fair, but some of it was and I found myself retreating back to the old "well, maybe it's time to move on" thought process. And suddenly I realized that when God called me to ministry, He called me to follow Jesus. He called me to minister to people. And ministering to people WAS NOT dependent on whether they ministered to me first. When God called me to ministry, He called me to a missionary position. My job, from God, is to minister. And whether I'm ministered to -- well, that's someone else's job. It's real nice if it happens, but my calling -- to ministry and to this congregation in particular -- can't depend on whether they minister to me first. I was called to follow Jesus. And Jesus ended up on the cross. I hope it doesn't come to that, but that's what I was called to do and that's what I agreed to do so that's what I have to do.

See -- the thing was -- the relationship with the church was not enough to sustain in times of pressure and frustration. The adoration was fleeting. And the relationship with the church was not deep enough to redeem me when I'd made mistakes and hurt people. It was usually not enough to redeem others when they'd made mistakes and hurt me. Being lauded and applauded and smiled upon was just not enough, especially when I knew that I didn't deserve the applause.

I've realized that the relationship with the church is a wonderful side-benefit of my relationship with Jesus. And I have to say -- it has gotten 1000 times better since I stopped expecting the church to prove its love for me before I was willing to show my love for it. It's still icky sometimes. Sometimes it's downright shitty (sorry, Gramps, for the curse word). But inevitably there is grace somewhere in the midst of the gunk that arrives when I focus on why exactly I am in ministry.

What distresses me about my colleagues in ministry dropping off like flies to the left and right is that our denomination is already in decline. Big-time decline. And many congregations have very distrustful relationships with pastors partly because pastors have treated them poorly. And to be fair to pastors, many congregations have treated pastors incredibly poorly, too.

BUT -- expecting that a congregation will understand its calling before we ourselves are willing to understand and enact our callings is reverting back to that adored high-school youth group member mentality. I'm not saying that we offer ourselves up for crucifixion everytime the CWF wants to change the silverware in the kitchen, BUT we MUST be willing to sacrifice more than a commensurate salary in a secular job and a nice house, right?

IT IS OUR JOBS AS PASTORS to be willing to "go for them." And if we don't do it -- who will? Didn't God ask us? Didn't we say, "yes?" So why are we complaining, whining, and wussing out from where we need to be?

Yes, so. That's my rant. It is, indeed, SO one-sided and one-dimensional. I do know that and I continue to remind myself to pray for my brothers and sisters in ministry.

My prayer is that God will raise up in each of us a willingness to be called and to respond to that calling. Sometimes doing God's work seems so exhausting. But I think there are wings like eagles waiting for us if we are willing to set down what keeps us from being lifted up. And it seems to me that believing that promise and searching out the Promiser has made such an enormous difference in being able to hear the call in the midst of frustration. I hope others are renewed and restored. I need them to be here.


Anonymous said...

I've never commented before April, but I read your blog regularly (I found you via Choosing Home) and this has moved me immensely. Keep up the good work!


jim said...

Great reflection. I think you may be dead onto something here. I feel pretty loved in my church, but it's only been a year or so; the temptation will always be there to think the grass will be greener somewhere else.

Makeesha said...

I think that a lot of times people think they want to be pastors but are crappy maintainers and the maintainers needs to be careful not to judge those who aren't but instead encourage the others to do what they're good at - plowing and planting.

I'm just thankful that my husband and I know our calling and don't try to "be pastors" only to get frustrated in 2 years and leave.

April said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
April said...

Ugh. For some reason, blogger ate my long-winded reply!

Anyway, thanks, Annie, for decloaking! It is good to see you here.

Jim, glad to read that you are in a good situation! I pray that you continue to feel affirmed and strengthened for ministry!

Makeesha, I think that's an astute observation. There IS a difference between the gifts of maintainers, the gifts of sustainers, and the gifts of enders. Your comment led me to do some more thinking which I will spew forth here, though these are not necessarily addressed to your comment!

One thing with which my denomination is struggling and needs to address asap is that we are calling some of the people with the most energy and enthusiasm into declining/ dying churches who have little to no intention of embracing the winds of revitalization. Frankly, I believe there are more of these churches than those with vital, Spirit-filled ministries.
On the other hand, those of us who are raised in this church and consciously attach ourselves to the denomination throughout the call to and education for ministry probably need to expect that we will encounter churches who are struggling with being relevant and relational with the changing world. Those who guide our people who are preparing for ministry need to be honest about this situation but those of us in this ministry need to prepare wisely. We should not expect that when we come into these churches as 25 year olds and talk to our congregation of 65-and-uppers about all the things they could do, that they will greet those suggestions with the same enthusiasm we received as youth directing children's pageants. Too often, we are unprepared for the resistance involved in ministering to others and that cuts us to the very quick.
Another observation posted for the good of the order...for the most part, I see my clergy colleagues who are church-jumping and leaving ministry to be very committed to our denomination. I don't see them leaving to be non-denominational or even part of another mainline denomination. I think most of us who have been in the denominational embrace for so long feel strongly called to minister within it, even though it may drive us nuts. And if that's the case ... well, there's gotta be a relationship beyond the human because NO human can do what needs to be done with this church we love!

Makeesha said...

yes, certainly. If one is committed to a denomination with certain expectations of "ministry" and those expectations limit a person to "pastor", then the expectation needs to be commitment to the congregation not just taking flight when the fancy hits and certainly not a love affair with the congregation but rather the ONE who sent the person there in the first place.

"Too often, we are unprepared for the resistance involved in ministering to others and that cuts us to the very quick."

most assuredly, I think we all have felt that.

I just ache for people who are in a position where they're really not fully using the graces and strengths God has given them because of their denominational constraints. "tough it out" just doesn't ring well for me in those cases.

elizabethanne said...

this was a lovely post. i'm kind of wishing i was a member of your church. :)


April said...

Thanks, Liz. I assure you, I'm not outstanding at all in person! :)

Makeesha... I responded to your comment over at Jim's blog. Again, want to state here -- I'm responding to a VERY specific context with this post. Honestly, it may not apply to those outside of the denominational structure, or even outside of our denominational structure. For us, pastors and congregations both discern a calling. I just can't buy into the idea that one could discern a calling and then a year later, decide that calling doesn't exist anymore. We owe our congregations and ourselves more than that.

dawn c said...

April, as usual, your words just grab me by the shoulders and shake me! What a challenge to stop and assess - is my relationship with Jesus strong enough to sustain me? POWERFUL challenge - thank you!!

Makeesha said...

I agree april - and I understood what you were saying. I was just bringing my pov to the table :)

Tripp Hudgins said...

Wow. Powerful stuff. The Honeymoon period is a strange beast to be certain. When will the fact that I can play guitar and sing no longer "cover a multitude of sins?"

Thank you!

Backwoods Rev said...

Hi, found your post from the RevGals- I've thought about this alot as well- here are some of my thoughts from the past.

The other issues I've encoungered from collegues in thier first calls is trying to keep a family together. Right now my husband lived 100 miles away M-F and comes back for the weekend. I wrestle with how this fits in with my call to this church, and a call to my family!

Thanks for your post!

Anonymous said...

As a denomination, as church people, I think its also interesting to note that the ones calling for newly ordained pastors aren't always the healthiest congregations.
-a regualr reader but today I think I'll be anonymous

April said...

Makeesha... Thanks for sharing your pov! You always provide lots of thinking material!

Dawn, Tripp... Thank you.

Backwoods... 100 miles!?! Yikes! Young clergy often find ourselves dealing with balancing our calls to minister to a congregation with our calls to minister to our husband and children in the midst of a first or second call. I personally think that ministry to one's family trumps all else. There are, indeed, legitimate reasons to seek another calling and family, I think, is the most legit. Although, I have to say -- I've tried to use family as an excuse to leave/ receive another call even though my family wasn't, honestly, the reason I felt the need to move on...

Anonymous, I agree with you that many of our congregations calling young pastors are not the healthiest, and (I don't know if you are a Disciple or not, but..), the regional ministers and search and call system is not one that encourages young solo pastors to find dynamic, healthy congregations right out of seminary UNLESS they happen to be denominational stars.
HOWEVER, I would also say that more -- vastly more -- of our congregations are unhealthy than not and those of us in ministry need to be prepared and equipped to deal with a congregation that is unhealthy and more importantly, with ourselves while ministering to an unhealthy congregation. And I'm concerned that if we expect congregations to do the hard work of health before we are willing to do it, nothing will every happen for us! Honestly, I don't see how we can expect that we will go into congregations where we will find a greater degree of health and vitality than decay and I'm not sure it should be any other way. I don't see Jesus calling disciples to go to the people who have mission and ministry all figured out. If we are only called to places that are healthy, then for God's sake, let's wait until a really healthy congregation offers us a call before accepting one elsewhere. Or, since the odds of that happening are pretty unlikely, maybe shouldn't be in ministry at this time -- or maybe not in this denomination, anyway.

April said...

Backwoods... just re-read my comment and wanted to be sure to state -- I'm not saying that YOU are trying to make an excuse to leave (since I don't know you at all and that would be very rude!), but just wanted to share my experience with wrestling with call to family vs. call to church. Sorry if that was affronting at all! :)

Sally said...

First calls are notoriously tough- there is often insufficient support given to pastors/ ministers in these situations. Also I wonder if more could be done at seminary to combat rosy images of ministry.... yes we will seek vision and fall on our knees in prayer- but sometimes it is plain hard and we need to acknowledge that before we can decide to stick it through!

Backwoods Rev said...

No offense taken whatsoever- I appreciate your thoughts, and it is true, sometimes an issue of family can be a good excuse not to deal head on with an issues at church.

I do love my call, and the people here- not to say I don't get frustrated from time to time. However, the distance tends to magnify the frustration sometimes.

The trick is recognizing the source of the unease- can it be calmed by looking in myself first? Or is it an outside factor? Always good discernment questions...

PPB said...

interesting post. you've clearly thought about this for a long time. I'm doing some research on this general topic right now, and it's an interesting tangle. You are sort of an exception. The majority of young seminarians come from large urban and suburban churches, and usually intern in relatively vibrant mid sized and larger churches---and small churches are the most likely places for first calls.

more cows than people said...

April-- this is my first stop at your blog thanks to the Wednesday festival at RevGalBlogPals and wow! What a great introduction. I resonated with so much of what you are writing. I was adored youth with more of a relationship with church than with Jesus. I was ordained at 25 and have been serving the same church for nearly five years now and I have had many, many, many moments when I contemplated bailing... I do think the next stop for me will be at least a brief detour out of the parish for further studies, but I doubt I'll stay away forever. You offer great food for thought on this matter. Thank you.

A clergy book group that I participated in briefly was working on reading "Under the Unpredictable Plant" by Eugene Peterson. If you haven't read it I recommend it- I haven't finished it, but just the first few chapters would create some good conversation with the thoughts that are rolling about in your head about vocation, and the spirituality of pastors, and staying vs. leaving...

more cows than people said...

exceptions of the world unite! i came from small churches, and interned in a smallish church, and am serving a slightly larger church than either of the preceding, though still small.

April said...

Hey, all... thanks for joining in this discussion. Sorry it's taken me a while to get back to it!

PPB... Just curious -- where I am I the exception? In how long I've stayed? My home church was a pastor-sized congregation in a small town with our denominational college. I served a slightly smaller church as associate for three years in seminary. This church averages about 80 in worship. I don't know where that fits in with your figures, but a lot of my colleagues at my denominational seminary come from similar backgrounds. That may be because our denomination has few multi-staff churches in KY, where I attended seminary, but I would say, more of us served as seminarians the types of churches we now serve than not.
Also, I would state for the record -- there are some darn vital, vibrant, and energetic small churches out there and some large churches dying by self-strangulation. (I'd start naming names, but since I don't post anonymously, that would just be stupid... :))

Sally... I agree more should be done at seminary and at every step of the discernment process for young clergy. As I've indicated, I believe we have a system going that implies that a certain amount of entitlement will follow a pastor out of seminary into the pastorate.

Cows... Thanks for stopping by! We are probably right around the same age (I started here at 26 and will be 32 in May). Glad that this resonates with you. I keep hearing about The Unpredictable Plant and keep forgetting about it when I place my Cokesbury orders, but this time I'm writing it down and will get to it by this summer! Thanks

more cows than people said...

thanks for coming my way, april! i'm honored to have you reading and commenting.

i think we're just about a year apart. i turned 30 in september. i turned 26 in september the year i started here in july. so you've got a year and a half on me, about, and the blessing of motherhood, but otherwise i think we may be serving similar sized churches in similar sorts of communities. its always good to meet other first call solo pastors in my age bracket. so glad we've met!

Anonymous said...

Just have found your blog. Love reading it.

My daughter is in seminary now--25 and single, but someday she may be dealing with the issues you are.