Where Will U Go Next?

Nine years ago, Gary and I packed a fourteen-foot U-Haul with the substance of our youngest daughter’s life. After ten straight years of moving kids, furniture, clothing, and “stuff” back and forth, we anticipated being done with college and graduate school—at least for the moment!

As Gary drove the U-Haul from Ann Arbor back to Grand Rapids MI, and I followed in the car, I couldn’t help but notice the slogan splashed across the back of the truck,“Where Will U Go Next?” How well that sentence summarizes the itinerant life of United Methodist pastors.

When elders in full connection are ordained in The United Methodist Church, they “offer themselves without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authority may determine.” (¶333, The Book of Discipline 2016) We sometimes forget that clergy are appointed year to year, even though bishops and cabinets “should work toward longer tenure local church appointments to facilitate a more effective ministry.” (BOD, ¶429)

United Methodist elders and local pastors are sojourners, just as the Bible is full of stories about wanderers and strangers without homes. We are itinerant, which means “traveling from place to place” or “covering a circuit; as in itinerant preachers.” Year after year, the question, “Where Will U Go Next?” is very real in the lives of pastoral families in the Iowa Annual Conference and around the United Methodist connection. Many clergy are packing right now and will soon be on the move.

As with so many other transitions in life, moving always seems to take longer and is much messier than we think. Gary and I had hoped that our daughter would have had everything packed and ready for us to simply throw into the U-Haul. Ha! We ended up in Ann Arbor for four hours rather than the one hour we had anticipated.

As our clergy who are moving are already thinking about building ministry in a new setting, I’d like to share a few tips that I hope will help churches and lay persons support their pastoral family and alleviate some of the inevitable stress and anxiety of moving.

  • Help your congregation understand how pastors are appointed by United Methodist bishops in consultation with the cabinet. Church members from non-United Methodist backgrounds may not know why their beloved pastor is moving unless regularly explain the nature of the appointive system, preferably before your pastor is reappointed. Most times, either the pastor or the church requests a move. Occasionally, however, a move is initiated by the cabinet.
  • If your church has a parsonage, make sure that it is clean and that appropriate repairs and updating have been done or are in process. The condition of your parsonage reflects the value place on pastoral ministry. At the same time, remember that the parsonage is the pastor’s home as well. Please respect their privacy and honor their family time.
  • Plan to have volunteers ready to help your new pastor and family unload the moving van when it arrives. How about stocking the refrigerator? U can do that even if your pastor has a housing allowance instead of a parsonage. Offer child care for young children. Provide a picnic lunch on moving day and dinners for the first week. Have ever heard of an old-fashioned pounding? Why not encourage people to bring a pound of something or another small gift to the house?

  • Give your new pastor the opportunity to unpack and adjust before ask him/her to jump right into ministry. The cabinet has set the last two weeks of June and the first week of July as the primary move window, with six trucks in operation around the state. Of course, there will be other moves before and after the move window as well. You might want to have someone else preach that first Sunday so that your new pastor can focus on saying both good-bye and hello. Pastors need time to get settled so that they don’t begin tired, off-balanced, and cranky.

  • Meet regularly. It’s wise for the SPRC to meet with the new pastor monthly in the first year to facilitate good communication and establish mutual expectations.
  • Recognize the range of emotions that church members and pastors navigate when transitions occur. Just as may be experiencing feelings of loss, separation, fear, and even anger during this transition, remember that your new pastor may have the same feelings. When love someone deeply, also grieve their departure deeply. The congregation celebrates the ministry of their pastor who is leaving. And then, within a few days, they are supposed to be prepared and happy to welcome their new pastor. When I was a district superintendent, I remember the tender words of a SPRC during an AIM (Appointment Introductory Meeting). They were open with the incoming pastor about their grief, but then said this, “Our grief is natural and good. We love our present pastor, but we will learn to love you as well.”
  • Don’t create an awkward situation by asking the previous pastor to come back to perform pastoral functions like weddings, baptisms, and funerals. honor him/her when you welcome the new pastor warmly. Your former pastor can still be your friend but will no longer be your pastor. Remember Paul’s words regarding Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16:10, “If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”
  • Be intentional about caring for your new pastor and family during the first six months. can be part of hosting an all church welcome event in the summer.  Plan small groups meetings where the pastor can get to know people in a short amount of time. Be clear about important events in the life of the church and community and how they are celebrated. Encourage your pastor to engage in spiritual disciplines and take regular time off every week.
  • Allow the new pastor to find her/his voice in your congregation. The strengths of your previous pastor will likely not be the strengths of your new pastor. Empower your pastor to discover his/her greatest assts in your church, then identify lay people with gifts that complement your pastor’s abilities. Remember that even though your new pastor has been called by God and the church to be in professional ministry, she/he is human, just like U. Your new pastor is a servant leader but won’t be your savior. Jesus is your Savior and desires for to work alongside your pastor to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

There was one more slogan on the U-Haul we rented for our daughter, “Your helping hands along the way.” Fortunately, Gary and I had the helping hands of one of our daughter’s friends the day of the move. Otherwise, we’d probably still be packing! Yes, moving companies haul a pastor’s stuff to the front door of the parsonage. But it’s the helping hands of church members like that greet the pastoral family with graciousness and hospitality and enable both pastor and congregation to get off to a good start.

“Where Will U Go Next?” As sojourners, clergy never know when “the call” will come, so we continue to wonder as we wander, amazed at the privilege of our call to itinerant ministry. As July 1 approaches, if are receiving a new pastor, may God bless your congregation and your departing and incoming pastors. If don’t anticipate receiving a new pastor on July 1, please pray for all those in transition. And for all: offer to be helping hands along the way!

Capturing the Energy of Love

The Holy Spirit arrived early! Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gave a stirring sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Saturday at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. He said, “Dr. King was right: ‘We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.’”

Bishop Curry also cited Mark chapter 12, where a scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers by saying that the first is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Curry reminded his listeners, “Love is the only way. There is power in love. Don’t underestimate it.”

At the end of his sermon, Curry referred to 20th Century French Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote that one of the greatest discoveries in human history was the harnessing of fire. De Chardin said that “If humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, and if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.” Curry’s remarks, which reflected the racial, cultural, and religious diversity of the wedding, were followed by a black gospel choir singing, “Stand by Me.”

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.(Acts 2:1-4, CEB)

The fire of the Holy Spirit actually appeared even earlier last week when the appointive cabinet for 2018-19 gathered for an overnight retreat at Honey Creek State Park. Sitting around a bonfire on Wednesday evening, we were about to share our faith stories when the Holy Spirit blew in. A young woman in her early 20’s walked over to join us and asked, “Are you The United Methodist group?” “Yes,” we said. (This was a bit disconcerting. Can people really tell that we are United Methodists by our appearance?)

“I’m on the staff at Honey Creek for the summer, and I saw that a group of Methodists was here. I’m in need of some prayers and was hoping you could help me.” Jodi said that she is a student at Iowa State, where she became a Christian. She loves the way that some of the churches in Ames “cross borders” and work together for the good of their community and the world. “Most important to me is that we are all bound together in Christ,” she said.

Isn’t that the essence of Pentecost? Suddenly, the bonfire exploded with spiritual energy. Jodi said that she is living for the summer in a co-ed dorm where two of the young men are not Christians. Jodi has felt called to be a missionary to them, to share Christ’s love, and she was seeking advice on the best way to do that. Jodi wants to be invitational rather than confrontational, yet she doesn’t want to compromise her faith.

“We are all part of one human community,” someone said. “God loves each one.” Jodi explained said that she is attempting to clarify her call, part of which is to go back to her home town of Council Bluffs. She is committed to cross-generational ministries and believes that it is possible to do ministry together, regardless of denomination. For, in the end, as happened at Pentecost, we all speak the same language of love.

Jodi was delighted to hear that one of our new cabinet members, who is currently serving a dynamic church in Council Bluffs, will stay in contact with her. We circled around Jodi, laid hands on her head, and prayed for God to use her in a mighty way to witness to her dorm friends. We also asked the fire of the Holy Spirit to lead Jodi into the future as she continues to discern her call into professional ministry.

What fascinated me last week was the spiritual energy that was palpable around the bonfire as well as during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Yes, Pentecost Sunday was yesterday, but the breath of God that is the Holy Spirit is always deep inside each one of us and blows where it wills. The Greek word for Holy Spirit is pneuma, translated as “breath.” We breathe in the love of God and breathe out the wind of the Holy Spirit. And wind produces energy, especially in Iowa! The state of Iowa has 3,957 wind turbines and is third in the nation, behind Texas and Oklahoma, in wind energy generation. We know all about wind!

Convinced that energy is a key to vital living, I am constantly aware of my own energy level. Whether we are parenting children, preparing a sermon, participating in athletic events, completing a major project at work, or rehearsing with a choir, success usually demands the careful cultivation and dispersal of energy.

Energy can be variously defined as “the capacity of acting or being active,” “a usually positive spiritual force,” and “a vigorous exertion of power.” Do you sense it when others display an incredible amount of energy?  It’s palpable and almost magical, isn’t it?  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had it. The University of Iowa and Iowa State football teams have it. The Downtown Farmers’ Market in Des Moines has it. The violinist Joshua Bell has it. Tiger Woods and LeBron James have it. Martin Luther King Jr. had it. The farewell concerts of Elton John, Paul Simon, and Neil Diamond have it. Bishop Michael Curry has it. Harry and Meghan have it.

I have this theory that Holy Spirit energy has four dimensions, which, not coincidentally, are described in Mark chapter 12, to which Bishop Curry referred on Saturday. A scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus responds, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

When you and I capture the energy of love, we engage in healthy practices in all four areas. On the other hand, when our energy is sapped in any of these areas through misuse, disuse, or overuse, if affects our overall ability to faithfully and fruitfully model Christ’s love.

  • When our heart is healthy, we are emotionally mature, and our relationships are mutually life-giving. (emotional)
  • When our soul is healthy, we are spiritually formed and connected with God and others through Jesus Christ. (spiritual)
  • When our mind is healthy, we thrive on dynamic and creative intellectual activity. (mental)
  • When our strength is healthy, we take care of our bodies through exercise, sleep, and good eating habits. (physical)

How is this energy supplied to human beings? Through the fuel of the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God’s energy in our world: God in action. I wonder what might happen in our local churches if we were intentional about tapping into Holy Spirit energy. What if our pastors and lay leaders became Chief Energy Officers who are on fire with the Holy Spirit? What if we made it a priority in both our programming and outreach to minister to the four core needs of humans, all demonstrated through the power of love: heart, soul, mind and strength?

How might our churches look different if every child, youth, and adult were inspired to discover the untapped energy of his/her spiritual gifts and use them to inspire the energy of others? What power to love might be unleashed if we could access hidden sources of collective energy in our churches and communities?

Don’t miss out on the fire and power of Pentecost! Can you capture the energy of love? Can you see it and feel it? One thing I do know: Bishop Michael Curry has it and has shared it. Jody has it and is sharing it. What about you?

When Stuff Happens

It was a parliamentarian’s worst nightmare. Last week, three of the five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church were approved by an aggregate two-thirds vote of all the conferences in our global church. However, the first two amendments, which related to the rights of women, girls, and various other groups, were narrowly defeated.

Many United Methodists were both surprised and disappointed in the vote and wondered what happened. Then, last Friday, it was announced by the Secretary of the General Conference that an error in the wording of constitutional amendment #1 had been discovered. A new ballot is being prepared for distribution to all the annual conferences to consider at their next meeting.

I’m glad that the error was discovered but am not too concerned because stuff happens. Yes, this was a whopper. But the human condition is that sometimes we make mistakes. And when we do, we hope that we can learn from our mistakes, make amends, be the recipient of grace, and move on. The funny thing is, I learned about the amendment mistake just as I was beginning to write about another mistake.

The text message came at 2:39 p.m. a week ago Friday. “American Airlines. We’re sorry, but one of your two checked bags will arrive on a later flight in Des Moines. Set up free delivery at aa.com/delaybag/V5QU1CW”.

At least my suitcase disappeared on the way home from the Council of Bishops meeting in Chicago rather than on the way to the meeting. Nevertheless, it was annoying. After all, I was on a direct flight from Chicago to Des Moines. What could possibly go wrong?? Well … plenty!

After vainly checking to make sure that my bag was not on the carousel, Gary and I went to the baggage claim counter at the Des Moines airport to confirm the plan. I had already checked out the “delay bag” website and signed up on www.wheresmysuitcase.com to receive free delivery.

The young woman at the counter said, “Unfortunately, your bag was rerouted to Manhattan, Kansas.” I remembered Dorothy, who said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”Please, purple suitcase, don’t let them take you to Kansas!

“The good news,” she said, “is that someone detected the error and removed your bag from the plane before it actually took off. The bad news is that we couldn’t get the bag back to Gate G-8 in Chicago in time for your flight. But the good news is that your bag will come on the next flight to Des Moines and will arrive at 6:30 p.m. It should be on your doorstep by 9:00 p.m.”

“Who will actually deliver my bag?” I asked. “Oh, we contract with a delivery service. There’s nothing to worry about, and it’s free!” In hindsight, we should have driven a half hour home and then returned to the airport at 6:30 p.m. to retrieve my wayward purple suitcase, but we trusted the system.

At 8:33 pm., I received two identical texts from wheresmysuitcase.com, one again saying that my bag had been delayed. I filled out all the information online, which indicated that my bag would arrive at the airport late in the evening. If I wanted the delivery company to bring the bag to my house by 3 a.m., we could make sure the porch lights were on and sign a waiver (which I did) so the driver would not have to ring the door bell and wake us up.

We called the phone number that was given, just to make sure everything was on the up and up. I like my purple suitcase and wanted some assurance that it would not be lost forever in conveyor belt heaven. Plus, I had a lot of material from the Council of Bishops meeting in my suitcase that I needed ASAP. The rep said the suitcase would arrive at our doorstep at 4:30 a.m. “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

I woke at 6 a.m. and opened the front door. The outside light was still on, but no suitcase. Gary got through to a customer service agent for American Airlines after being on hold for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I received one email, saying that the bag was delivered at 11:55 p.m., and another saying, “Case closed.” Hmmm. The person who finally answered was very pleasant, but when Gary asked why my suitcase hadn’t arrived yet, he said, “We don’t deliver bags during the night.”

“But my wife received three emails, one saying the bag would arrive at 4:30 a.m., and another that it would arrive at 3 a.m., and another to say it had been delivered at 11:55 p.m. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t know, but we don’t deliver bags at night.”

“You mean, it was fake news?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“Don’t you coordinate with the airlines, wheresmysuitcase.com, and the delivery company? Why did we consent online to have the bags delivered overnight when they were not even going to be delivered? And why did we get an email saying the case was closed?”

“All I know is that bags are never delivered at night. Our records show that bag will be at your house at 9:30 a.m.”

“How can I contact the delivery company to make sure the suitcase is really on the way?” “I’m sorry, but there is no one you can contact. The emails are automatically generated.”

Clearly, it’s a deeply flawed system. Sigh. I go out for an early morning bike ride and when I return, there is my purple suitcase, delivered at 10:16 a.m. by Joseph, the driver, safe and undamaged. Gary said, “It’s good I was here. Joseph was driving a car that looked like it was in an accident, with a gaping hole where the right headlight had been. When he came to the door, he gave me a beat-up black suitcase. I said, ‘That’s not my wife’s suitcase.’ He replied, ‘Oh, it isn’t?’”

Evidently, Joseph went back to his car and had to open the front door on the passenger side from the inside because it was too banged up. My purple suitcase was on the front seat. Twenty-two hours after parting with my bag in Chicago, we were reunited. Case closed.

My experience with both the bag and amendment #1 reminds me a lot of the local church. As leaders, we all mean well, but sometimes stuff happens. When we don’t have our act together, it can really irritate others. I’ve heard hundreds of complaints about the church over many years, some of which are amusing, others of which are sad, and still others that cause me to roll my eyes in amazement. And for the sake of full disclosure: I have accepted responsibility for all of the following mistakes at one time or another.

  • Why didn’t you visit Aunt Mabel when you knew she was very ill?
  • Why wasn’t my financial statement correct? It’s missing a huge contribution.
  • Why didn’t you let Johnny go on the middle school field trip? He’s almost old enough.
  • Why are there no safe sanctuary procedures for children?
  • Why did you let the announcements run on for 15 minutes this morning?
  • Why did a stranger sit in my pew today?
  • Why are major decisions made by a few “influential people” and not by the Administrative Council?
  • Why did you let Rachel and Judy get into an argument about who’s in charge of the mission fair without intervening?
  • Why weren’t you in your office when I dropped by yesterday?
  • Why didn’t anyone call me back when I signed up to help at the Wednesday dinner?

Our reality in the church is that when stuff happens, we too often minimize the issue, avoid taking responsibility, or make excuses. Whether it’s constitutional amendments, runaway suitcases, or church goof-ups, the questions for leaders are always the same when stuff happens.

  • What actually took place and how will we admit responsibility?

As leaders, there is no substitute for honesty and transparency about our mistakes, even if we personally did not make the mistake. In my experience, church folks are usually very gracious and tolerant if we admit our gaffes and apologize. When we refuse to admit failure, we project an image of ourselves and the church as incompetent, unresponsive, and uncaring.

  • Where and how did the failure take place in the system?

When stuff happens, it’s critical to humble ourselves and take the time to thoroughly investigate the problem. Hoping it will just go away never works. Carefully and prayerfully examining processes and procedures against our mission, vision, and values is critical. Other common problems include sloppy systems of accountability and lack of clear and frequent communication.

  • What commitment will we make to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

The key to healthy organizations is having the will to change, taking the time to create better processes and procedures, and continually evaluating and communicating our progress.

I have more confidence that The United Methodist Church will “fix” the constitutional amendment issue than American Airlines will “fix” their lost baggage delivery system. But I do know this. The greatest secret to a healthy response when stuff happens is creating transparency, always showing grace, and continually going on to perfection. But I still wonder. Where did my purple suitcase actually go?