It was an inauspicious beginning on January 3, 1982, exactly 30 years ago today. Appointed to Ogdensburg United Methodist Church on the Old Mission Peninsula outside of Traverse City, I was eager to start my ministry in the West Michigan Conference. Unfortunately, a blizzard forced us to cancel worship my very first Sunday. Undaunted, I looked forward to the next Sunday and was raring to preach, but, alas, another blizzard swept over the peninsula, closing everything. My youthful enthusiasm still intact, I continued to tweak my sermon, but on Jan. 17 a third blizzard roared through. The Finance Committee began to panic, we decided to hold worship on Thursday evening, and the church remained solvent.
30 Years and Still Learning
Ogdensburg UMC: January 1, 1982 – June 30, 1985
- Year 1: Listening to the hopes and dreams of the congregation develops a solid foundation for effective ministry.
- Year 2: Don’t preach on controversial issues until getting to know your parishioners, developing relationships of mutual trust, and providing avenues for dialogue. I figured that out the hard way.
- Year 3: Simple presence is more important than any words. I learned that lesson the first time I was awakened in the middle of the night to be present at the home of church members who had not yet learned that their teenage son had died in a car accident.
- Year 4: Never underestimate your role. Parishioners see you as Christ’s representative, whether you are technically “on duty” or not. Love all people at all times.
Ludington UMC: July 1, 1985 – June 30, 1989
- Year 5: Every appointment is an amazing learning laboratory, especially being an associate pastor on the staff of a larger church.
- Year 6: Become involved in the community where your church is located. Volunteering as the Personnel chair on the board of a local non-profit enabled me to serve the community as well as gain invaluable HR experience.
- Year 7: Don’t become stale. Working with a clergy mentor prompted me to experiment with and ultimately change my preaching style.
- Year 8: Be flexible. More than once, my children escaped from the nursery and ran down the center aisle to sit on my lap in the chancel. Of course, this was before the advent of child protection policies, which mandate that at least 2 attendants be in the nursery for just such a time as this!
Hart UMC: July 1, 1989 – June 30, 1993
- Year 9: Visiting almost all church members in their homes during the first year of a new appointment reaps enormous benefits in certain ministry contexts.
- Year 10: Effective spiritual leadership usually dispels concerns that church members have about the gender, ethnicity, age, or handicapping condition of their pastor. The vast majority of churches simply desire good leadership.
- Year 11: Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow and is a prelude to future success. The congregation voted down an ambitious building program, only to approve it overwhelmingly the next year.
- Year 12: Listen to your parishioners when they offer kindly advice. After 4 bouts with strep throat in 3 months, I decided that an 80 year old parishioner was right when she said, “If you are going to work that hard, at least take vitamins!”
First UMC, Grand Rapids: July 1, 1993 – June 30, 2006
- Year 13: People will give and churches will grow when they observe and participate in transformative ministries that change lives.
- Year 14: Bible study can alter the culture of a church. Disciple Bible Study, in particular, feeds our hunger to apply scripture to our everyday life and develops mature spiritual leaders.
- Year 15: Be a permission-giving church. Encourage church members to create new ministries that align with your mission, invite champions to find others to join them, and get out of the way!
- Year 16: Change your style of ministry according to the size and type of congregation you serve. Be proactive in seeking out coaching and mentoring.
- Year 17: Surround yourself with staff and lay leaders who are more gifted than you are, equip and encourage them, and then partner with them in ministry.
- Year 18: When we sit at table together, invite the Holy Spirit to be present, and talk honestly and respectfully, we can solve any problem.
- Year 19: Don’t use a bully pulpit to force your theological or social beliefs on others. If your focus is on Christ and the mission of the church, you will likely be able to serve any church well.
- Year 20: Don’t pass up the privilege of active involvement in the confirmation class. The youth will never forget your influence and the fact that you value them and know their name.
- Year 21: Don’t neglect your spiritual life. Protect Sabbath time, take periodic retreats, consider renewal leaves to prevent burnout, and continually reinvent yourself in ministry.
- Year 22: If you don’t preach for response, why bother preaching at all?
- Year 23: People are desperate to have a spiritual encounter with God on Sunday morning. Put your whole heart into leading creative, excellent worship.
- Year 24: By not holding others accountable it is possible to show too much grace. Since the welfare of the congregation is paramount, resist the temptation to cater to the whims and demands of a few power-seekers.
Grand Rapids District Superintendent: July 1, 2006 –
- Year 25: Professional ministry is an extremely challenging vocation with high expectations, incredible responsibility, and relatively low pay. My respect for the clergy in the district I serve is enormous.
- Year 26: My respect for lay people who serve their local churches diligently, faithfully, selflessly, and generously has increased exponentially.
- Year 27: The connection inherent in The United Methodist Church is the source of our power. Why, then, don’t we take advantage of that connection in order to cooperate, partner, and share resources?
- Year 28: A non-anxious, self-differentiated presence can defuse almost any situation.
- Year 29: Churches become vital and healthy when clergy and lay leaders work strategically to develop a plan for ministry that is unique to their context and is focused on spiritual formation, mission and outreach, and evangelism.
- Year 30: Each day is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of heaven as we lead from our hearts.
After 30 years in ministry, I am still learning new things every day, but my faith remains quite simple. Convinced that what we believe is not nearly as important as how we live, I weary of theological snobbery, dogmatic assertions, and intellectual sparring that separates rather than unites. Christian belief is only relevant as it is expressed in humble service, patient encouragement, and living witness.
Certainly, it is incumbent on clergy to teach our parishioners to think more deeply and independently about theology, especially the unique emphases of our Wesleyan heritage such as the means of grace, the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the order of salvation, our Social Principles, and the General Rules. But theology is simply a means to an end, which is loving our world and its people so completely that we give ourselves away.
Our beloved United Methodist Church will grow again when we embody the simple teachings of Jesus by offering physical and spiritual bread to a hurting world. Jesus calls us with just two words, “Follow me.” As a new year begins, I invite you to ask yourself:
- Will I unconditionally love and serve every person that I encounter by setting aside my fears, prejudices, and rigidity of belief?
- Will I love God by growing in knowledge, faith, and grace?
- Will I love God’s world by nurturing and protecting creation and transforming systems and institutions that oppress others?
- Will I love myself, take care of myself, challenge myself, and be honest with myself?
“For the love of Christ urges us on…” (1 Corinthians 5:14)