We are 21st Century Circuit Riders and We Rock

“I really wish I could stay longer for fellowship time, Jim, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late to church #2.”

“At least you don’t have to ride a horse.”

“Does a 1969 Grabber Orange Mustang count?” (my first car)

I honestly thought it would never happen.  I sailed through 31 years of ministry, grateful to have served in almost every type of appointment: rural, downtown, urban, and county seat; pastor, program, and corporate size; associate pastor, co-pastor, solo pastor, and district superintendent.

Oops.  I forgot something.  So guess where I was appointed next?  A two-point charge.  After 5 months I’ve concluded that all clergy should have the joy of serving a multi-point charge.  How else will they know what it’s really like to be a Methodist circuit rider?

Every Sunday morning we wake up not knowing how the day will turn out but simply praying for energy and grace.  We gas up our car rather than feed our horse.  If we’re running behind, we take along breakfast, a snack, a water bottle, and even lunch if there are extra meetings after the last church service.  We carefully lay a towel across our lap so that our clothes don’t get dirty.   Although a clergy robe would neatly hide food stains, most of us don’t wear one.  Who has time to change?

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  If you’re lucky, you’ll be appointed to a multi-point charge someday as well.  I go through the checklist every Sunday before I leave:

√  Cell phone and ear piece (in case the pianist for the 2nd service calls in sick or  construction between churches appears overnight, and you’re going to be late)

√  Food (ever try preaching while your stomach is competing for attention?)

√  Extra pair of hose just in case (does not apply to all circuit riders)

√  Coat and gloves in the winter (if the heat is out in the sanctuary)

√  A fan in the summer (air conditioning is a dream in most multi-point charges)

√  Sermon and worship materials for each church (good luck keeping sins, debts, and trespasses straight)

√  A pen and pad of paper (essential for noting follow-up items in church #1 before switching gears to  give full attention to church #2)

√  A second pair of comfortable shoes (wearing heels for 6 hours doesn’t work for everyone)

√  Patience, flexibility, and good humor (in case the liturgist forgets to show up or half of the already small congregation is gone for the weekend)

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  The genius of United Methodism’s explosive growth in post-revolutionary America was its circuit-riding clergy.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Americans lived in widely scattered farms or remote villages.  Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of early Methodism in America, ordained itinerant clergy who rode on horseback between different stops on a circuit.  The clergyman’s job was to preach, deliver the sacraments, establish weekly class meetings, and train lay people to care for each other in the clergy’s absence.  Because the circuit riders crisscrossed the frontier as America moved west, Methodists were the only religious group to conduct services in many areas.

Bishop Asbury once urged one of his circuit-riding preachers, “Feel for the power.  Feel for the power, brother.”  I now understand what Asbury meant, for the life of a circuit rider was extremely difficult.  Bishop Asbury did not want his preachers to marry lest they choose to settle down with their families and refuse to ride their circuit any longer.

A typical circuit rider was a single young man with a common school education and trained as an artisan (no women clergy yet).  After a dramatic conversion experience he would be appointed to a rural circuit of between 200 and 500 miles, which was normally completed in two to six weeks.  The average circuit rider in 1800 earned $80 a year.

These itinerant clergy rocked around the clock!  They preached almost every day of the week, starting at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, sharing practical religion with zeal and passion to a spiritually hungry young country.  The pace was brutal, with uncertain lodging, uneven food, poor weather conditions, illness, the danger of attack, and horses pulling up lame in the middle of nowhere.  Life expectancies were short.  At the same time the church exploded in membership.  In 1771 there were 600 Methodists in America.  Forty-five years later, when Bishop Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists.

In 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Michigan Annual Conference, which sent a preacher to Grand Rapids every year.  The Grand River circuit was part of the Marshall District, and in 1838 two preachers were assigned to the circuit, one of whom was Allen Staples.

According to the written history of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Staples was licensed to preach in 1836.  “An ‘attractive speaker, unwearying and unceasing in the salvation of sinners,’ he over-worked himself, causing his death at the age of thirty-seven.  He had a revival on each of his charges, and after his death it was computed that he had received over 1,300 into the church during his ministry of a single decade.”  Poor Rev. Staples rocked himself to death. 

Pastoring a multi-point charge is not as grueling today as it was 200 years ago.  After all, our Mustangs are cars, not horses.  Nevertheless, the challenge is enormous.

  • Early circuit riders had very few sermons, but today the same sermon cannot always speak effectively to churches with different needs.  One size doesn’t fit all, but it’s the best we circuit riders can usually do.
  • How do you maximize your gifts in each congregation at the same time as you train, equip, and empower the laity to be the church without your full-time presence?
  • How do you treat your “children” fairly in terms of time and energy without hearing grumbling about favoritism?
  • How do you handle the grind of never having a break from preaching unless you’re on vacation?  Even when one church has a guest speaker, thinking it will help you out, they don’t usually realize that you still have to prepare a sermon for the other church.
  • How does a perfectionist learn to say “good enough,” knowing that it is impossible to give more than one church what they need in terms of pastoral leadership?
  • How do you connect with people in church #1 when you have to leave immediately after the service for church #2 and then maybe church #3?  Forget about teaching Sunday school.
  • How do you cope with the administrative demands of several churches, let alone mounds of church conference paperwork?  You think one church is a handful?  Try doing nominations work for two to three churches and attending two to three Staff Parish Relations, Trustees, Finance, program, and church council meetings.  Got any more complaints?

I often hear grumbling about small membership churches. “If they can’t grow, why don’t they close or merge?”  “Small churches can’t be vital, and their buildings are way too big.”  “Why waste our valuable clergy by making them spend hours every week in the car driving endlessly between churches that are going nowhere?”

Now that I’m rocking in the circuit rider trenches, my perspective has changed.  I love the small churches that I pastor and see their potential.  Some small churches will never grow significantly.  However, vital, transformative ministry that effectively reaches their community is usually possible.  The laity in many multi-point charges step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that are expected of pastors in larger churches.  They are committed, generous, persistent, savvy, loyal, flexible, and spiritually mature.

In addition, the possibilities are great for small churches to engage in collaborative ministry.  It’s the way of the future.  Why can’t we do youth ministry, Stephen ministry, Bible studies, outreach, and small groups together?  Why can’t we share staff?  We can, and we are!

It’s afternoon on the second Sunday of Advent.  I and my fellow 21st century circuit rockers are utterly spent, having prepared the way of the Lord, offering up to God and our churches everything that we have and are.  We are acutely aware that the energy to keep at it day after day does not come from us.  Rather, we preach what the 19th century itinerant circuit rider Henry Smith referred to as an “irresistible holy knock-em-down power.”

We are local pastors, provisional members, DSA’s, retired clergy, elders, and even bishops, and we rock!  We don’t often receive awards and accolades for church growth, but we rock.  Our churches and ministries are usually under the radar, but we are faithful, persevering, and resilient, and we rock.  We are still feeling for the power, but right now we can hardly keep our eyes open, so we rock ourselves to sleep until the Sunday night Christmas program.   



Whose Voice is Missing?

“Hey, Laurie, what’s up with the feature in the paper, ‘Is Religion Sexist?  Panelists Discuss Gender Imbalance in the Church.’ You’ve got to be kidding!  Did you see this article by the Ethics and Religion Talk Panel and that great stock picture of you?  There are all men on the panel, and they didn’t quote you!”  Click here to read the article.

My curiosity piqued by my friend’s email, I found the Religion Section of the October 18 Grand Rapids Press.  There was the article on the front page along with a prominent color photo from 2006 when I served in a previous church.  The Ethics and Religion Talk feature is compiled and written by David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, with readers submitting questions and panelists weighing in on their perspectives.

Since August Krishef and his panel have tackled lively and timely issues such as birth control, marijuana, how to respond to a beggar on the street, depicting God in art, and organ donation.  When the MLive group of Michigan newspapers announced this new interactive feature, however, critics immediately pointed out that the panel included 6 male clergy.  In response the panel added a woman from the Catholic Church, which still does not represent gender equity, especially since that voice comes from a church which does not permit women clergy.  Furthermore, this lone voice for women was not even included in the article.

I have never fashioned myself to be a crusader for women’s rights, although many things were off limits during my formative years simply because I was a girl.  Over 30 years of ministry my primary goals have been excellence, faithfulness, and the kind of spiritual depth and leadership that creates healthy and vital churches.  I’ve always believed that competence speaks for itself.  At the same time I realize that there are still networks of power and status that shut women out of the highest levels of leadership.

Like other women I am acquainted with sexism in the church.  When I shared my call to ministry with my pastor’s wife when I was in graduate school, she said, “If all potential women pastors were like you, I’d support women in the ministry.  But they’re not, so we can’t allow any women to be pastors.”  I was among the first women ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but all of the clergy in the Eastern District Conference boycotted my ordination service.  Eventually transferring my ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church opened many more doors to me as a woman, yet sexist attitudes lingered.

I’ve had families leave one of the churches I served simply because I was a woman, never even giving me a chance.  I’ve heard every argument under the sun for why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors.  I’ve seen women clergy receive lower pay than men of equal ability and be passed over for larger churches for no apparent reason.  My clothes, shoes, hair, and parenting have been freely critiqued.

At the same time I have been blessed beyond measure by countless parishioners who believe that both women and men are called by God into the professional ministry and are gifted with spiritual leadership.  Effective and amazing transformation takes place when clergy and laity, men and women, partner as laborers in the field of God’s kingdom.  I thank God for congregations who do not stereotype women clergy any more than they do male clergy.

I was surprised by the October 18 Ethics and Religion feature in the Grand Rapids Press but not because of the content.  Yes, I disagreed with Rabbi Krishef when he said, “I have to point out that it is the repressive political system – one not open to religious freedom – rather than a repressive religious tradition that has created the oppression (of women).”  I and countless other women have personally experienced repressive religious traditions.

I also took issue with Rev. Christian, who quoted Galatians 3:28, “There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ.”  Then he stated, “Some churches, including ours, disagree regarding women as senior pastors, but not as pastors.”  What is the difference between a pastor and a senior pastor anyway?  If it’s authority, how is the authority of women senior pastors not acceptable while the authority of “ordinary” women pastors is?  And if it’s age, then I guess I qualify as a senior pastor because AARP’s been wooing me for a while.

Rev. Christian’s statement, “In creation, God saved the best for last: women,” strikes me as a sexist statement in itself.  There is no best and worst in God’s kingdom.  We are all equal in God’s sight.  Furthermore, his quote, “There is a godly order in the home, but not for suppression,” highlights the immense gulf that still exists in the perception of women’s roles among Christian groups today.

It’s healthy to agree to disagree and still respect and honor one another.  However, beyond the content of the article, it was the publishing process itself that was troublesome.  Despite a disclaimer with an excuse for why all 3 panelists were male, how could an article about women in religious leadership exclude the voice of women themselves?  The panel’s good intentions are not in question, but the absence of women’s voices is indicative of institutional sexism.

The Press reporter and panel convener could not find even one woman to express her views on this matter, yet a stock photo of a woman pastor was evidently available.  I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for the past 19 years and am readily accessible by phone or email, yet I was never contacted.  Was my picture deemed more important than my words?  If so, what does that say about gender imbalance in the church?  A number of people commented about the article, asking incredulously, “We saw your picture and were eager to read what you had to say about the issue, but there was nothing.  Don’t you think that’s strange?”

My picture was there, but I was invisible, along with the many other women clergy in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area.  The United Methodist Church itself has at least 2 dozen clergywomen within the reading audience of the Grand Rapids Press, yet no one from the Press or the panel thought about publishing a current picture and hearing from a current woman pastor.  Are only males eligible to speak about female leadership in the church?

It was particularly telling that of the 20 online comments about the article, not one reader decried either the lack of women’s voices on the panel or the fact that the woman whose picture accompanied the article was never quoted.  Rather, they all focused on their own opinions about what the Bible says regarding women’s leadership in various religions and in our world.

The article, “Is Religion Sexist?” is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the “isms,” those exclusionary and discriminatory practices that have limited the richness of the God-given gifts that abound in our world.

  • Can we talk about racism with integrity without hearing directly from African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups?
  • Can we talk about immigration with understanding without soliciting the experiences of immigrants themselves, documented or undocumented?
  • Can we talk about other religions with respect without listening to the voices of the people who practice those religions?
  • Can we talk about homosexuality with an open mind without having conversation with those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered?
  • Can we talk about disability issues with sensitivity without hearing from those who live with disabilities?
  • Can we talk about the poor and unemployed with compassion without engaging their stories? 

This year, 2012, is the Year of Interfaith Understanding in Grand Rapids.  In one of the churches I serve we have invited people representing diverse religious traditions to preach one Sunday a month and speak to an adult Sunday school class.  We’ve learned about Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, Quakerism, Native American spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Our horizons have been broadened, and we have learned much.  But more important, we have discovered how condescending it can be to talk about anyone without inviting them to the table and allowing them to speak for themselves.

Whose voice is missing at your table?

From whom do our congregations need to hear in order to understand the fullness of religious expression in our world? 

Will you resist making assumptions about others without talking directly with them?

Can you enlarge your borders to include those who can teach you?

I have been silenced before, and I will likely be silenced again.  But this time I speak out not for myself but for my children and grandchildren and all of God’s children in our world.  I speak out for the voiceless, the invisible, the rejected, the forgotten, the abused, the dismissed, the victimized, and all the Lazarus’ of this world who eat the scraps from their master’s table.

May the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead guide our living and serving, “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”



How Should You Give – Ask Linda

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  My friend Linda occasionally helps me with tasks around the house that I can never seem to get to.   Linda has had a hard life, working full-time for minimal wages and also taking care of her mother and another elderly man.  For almost 20 years Linda and I have talked about how dehumanizing it can be to be poor in America, to live from paycheck to paycheck without hope of ever getting ahead.  Yet when I pay Linda for her work, she often gives back part of the money, saying, “Here, give this to someone in your church who needs it.” 

It’s that time, isn’t it?  The vast majority of churches in our country are already planning for 2013.  Committees are hard at work assessing the current state of their ministries and setting goals and expected outcomes for next year.  I am not naïve enough to think that local church budgets are always built around well-thought-out ministry plans.  However, a naturally optimistic faith refuses to give up that hope.      

One of the primary responsibilities of a local church pastor is educating, encouraging, and inviting the congregation to practice joyful stewardship.  I believe that people are generous by nature, but the lures of living in 21st century America have a way of choking off that generosity in favor of excessive spending or selfish hoarding.  Most of us would be better off learning how to give from those who have less than we do. 

Linda’s benevolence is confirmed by a report recently released from The Chronicle of Philanthropy called How America Gives.  Analyzing charitable giving trends at the zip code level, the report chronicles who the most generous givers in our country are and where they live.  Consider these provocative findings using 2008 statistics.

·         People who earn less money give a greater percentage of their discretionary income to charity.  

o   Families earning $200,000 or more represent 11% of U.S. tax returns and 40% of charitable giving, but high income earners give a lesser percentage of their income. 

o   Families earning over $200,000 a year gave only 4.2% of discretionary income to charity, whereas families earning $50-$75,000 a year gave 7.6 % to charity. 

o   Likewise, rich neighborhoods donate much less to charity percentagewise than low income neighborhoods.

·         Wealthy people who live in isolated enclaves or lower population density areas give less than wealthy people who live in economically diverse metropolitan neighborhoods.

o   When wealthy people live in neighborhoods where 40% of the people earn $200,000 or more, they give just 2.8% of discretionary income to charity as opposed to 4.2% for the general population of those earning $200,000 or more. 

o   As wealth increases, people tend to become more isolated, insulated, and immune to human need, which results in limited engagement with people who have much less than they do. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, echoes these findings after years of his own research on giving, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become….  Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.”  How should you give?  Ask Linda.

·         Religion makes a difference in charitable giving. 

People who live in areas where religion is a core value give more.  In addition, lower income donors tend to give more to religious organizations than high income donors. 

o   Two of the top nine states in charitable giving are Utah (10.6%) and Idaho, which have a high percentage of residents who are Mormons and strongly encourage tithing.  The other top 7 states are in the Bible Belt of the south. 

o   In contrast, New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, has the lowest charitable giving rate at 2.5%.   

o   If religious charitable giving were excluded from this study and only giving to secular organizations was considered, the geography of generosity would look quite different.  New York State would go from 18th to 2nd, and Pennsylvania would go from 40th to 4th.   

·         How does your state or metropolitan area give? 

Check out http://philanthropy.com/section/How-America-Gives/621/.

o   The highest charitable giving ZIP code in the U.S. is 10021 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  This zip code contributed $478-million in 2008.

o   The ZIP code which gave the highest percentage in 2008 was 74103 in Tulsa, Okla., whose residents gave a generous 21.6% of their discretionary income. 

o   Nearly $1 in $8 given to charity in our country comes from California, whose residents donated more than $17.2 billion in 2008. 

Michigan ranks 13th out of 51 states (including Washington D.C) in charitable giving at 4.5% of discretionary income.  Of the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., my home of Grand Rapids ranks 115th with an average giving rate of 5.3%.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  Linda is always looking to help people who have less than she has, but she soured on organized religion long ago.  She said, “My mother tolerated everything in the name of religion.  She would never confront my siblings with their inexcusable behavior and drug use and for scamming her out of her life’s savings.  And here I am, taking care of my mother now because no one else will.  I never had a chance to go to college, I hold down 3 jobs, and have no life. 

Where’s the church in all of this?  All they care about is taking care of themselves or offering handouts without accountability.  Giving money to the church is all well and good, but God calls all of us to be kind, compassionate, and wise, and I don’t often see that in church folks.”

            What does The Chronicle of Philanthropy report mean for the church as we prepare for commitment campaigns and budget-building?

  1. Resist making assumptions about who the most generous givers in your church are.  Who is most generous: the family that makes $1 million a year and gives $50,000 to the church or the family that makes $30,000 and gives $3,000 a year?  Remember the widow’s mite.
  2. Knowing that we rely on more well-off members to provide a good part of the church’s budget and that the average wealthy family in the U.S. gives only 4.2% of their income to charity, gently challenge all people in your church to step up to tithing. 
  3. Be aware that the church is one of the best places for middle and upper class families to be exposed to the poor.  How diverse is your congregation socioeconomically?  Are you intentional about finding ways for rich and poor to learn from each other?
  4. Use mission trips in and outside of the country as opportunities for children, youth, and adults to expand their borders and experience different ways of living, serving, and giving.
  5. Cultivate a holistic, year-round stewardship program of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Statistics show that cities with generous givers also give more volunteer time.  The spillover effect means that donated money goes further. 
  6. Debunk the claim that secular giving is other-centered and therefore more altruistic than religious giving, which is self-centered.  In forming your church’s budget for next year, avoid the pitfall of focusing on institutional maintenance rather than mission and outreach.
  7. Inspire your congregation to give as a joyful response to God’s grace by telling the story in creative and compelling ways of how lives are being transformed through the ministries of your church.

In the thick of budgets, statistics, stewardship campaigns, planning, and a maze of church conference forms, all I can think of is Linda.  I suspect that we need Linda more than she needs us, for she is the expert on generosity.  In addition to being one of the most honest, perceptive, and pointed critics of the church (and rightly so), Linda gives way more proportionally than most church people, she is more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and her grace, hope, and perseverance put me to shame.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.