I Love My Pastors!

Every Sunday I pray for our clergy in the Iowa Annual Conference as well as for clergy and religious leaders around the world. Answering God’s call to be a spiritual leader is one of the most difficult, gratifying, and terrifying challenges I can imagine. Our clergy in Iowa are amazingly gifted and committed.

I loved and admired all of the pastors I had growing up. No, they weren’t perfect. No pastor is. However, they led my congregation with vision, compassion, skill, spiritual depth, and great love. That’s why you might want to know that this coming Sunday, October 14, is Clergy Appreciation Day. In case you didn’t realize it, you’ve already missed some important days in October:

  • National Homemade Cookies Day                              October 1
  • National Custodial Workers Recognition Day              October 2
  • National Walk to School Day                                      October 3
  • National Taco Day                                                      October 4
  • World Smile Day                                                        October 5
  • National Noodle Day                                                  October 6
  • Bald and Free Day                                                     October 7

I admit that I have never put much stock in days that promote special causes, even if they are worthy. I even recoil from Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It’s not that I don’t love my parents. I just don’t want to be manipulated by businesses and organizations that stand to profit from money I might spend recognizing loved ones that I should be honoring every day, not just one day a year.

The Sept./Oct. 1996 issue of the Saturday Evening Post related the origins of Clergy Appreciation Day. “In 1992, layperson Jerry Frear Jr. was brainstorming with church colleagues about how they might be of help to their minister when he glanced at a calendar and noticed that it was almost Groundhog Day. ‘I thought, if they have a day for groundhogs, there ought to be a day for the 375,000 clergy people in America.’”

All comparisons between groundhogs and pastors aside, some churches do have a tradition of honoring their clergy on the second Sunday in October. In fact, the New Testament contains a number of references to honoring pastoral leaders.

“Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith
as you consider the way their lives turned out.” Hebrews 13:7 CEB

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor,
 especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” I Timothy 5:17 NRSV

Like most pastors, Gary and I have been the beneficiaries of numerous thoughtful gifts from parishioners over the years. I will admit that we regifted the fruitcake and have had a difficult time finding places to display pastor mugs, pen sets, angels, and all manner of crosses. However, it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about the many expressions of love that have sustained us over the years. Several hundred Monday night meals brought to our house, gift certificates to restaurants, invitations to get away for a few days at a parishioner’s cottage, Christmas cookies and fudge, offers of child care, and many prayers when our family was in crisis. We didn’t deserve any of it, but we have been deeply appreciative.

There are four extraordinary gifts, however, that I have treasured the most over 37 years of ministry, and they have nothing to do with things.

  • I treasure the gift of verbal and written expressions of gratitude. I keep them all. Nothing is more encouraging, inspiring, or affirming than knowing that you have had a positive impact on someone else’s life. Why is it that something as easy as saying “thank you” happens so seldom? I stopped buying gifts for my parents many years ago. Instead, on important holidays, I usually wrote them letters, thanking my parents for raising me in a Christian home, modeling unconditional love, and going to church as a family every Sunday without fail. Why don’t you take a few minutes this week to thank someone, including your pastor?

© 2018 by Conception Abbey

  • I treasure the gift of honest, gentle feedback. Each one of our lives is a journey of growth in grace, spiritual depth, self-awareness, and skills. Like all people, pastors feel good when they are affirmed. But it’s equally as helpful for our personal and professional development when lay persons feel comfortable challenging us. I am grateful to everyone who has, in a grace-filled way, identified areas of growth in my life.
  • I treasure the gift of being invited into the most significant events of a person’s life. Births, deaths, baptisms, weddings, confirmations, funerals, graduations, and crises of all sorts: what a humbling privilege it is to be entrusted with pastoral care and represent Christ. Even when pastors cannot offer answers to life’s most difficult questions, we can offer the simple presence of a hug, a tear, or a prayer.
  • The greatest gift I have ever received from church members is their openness to be trained, equipped, shaped, nurtured, and empowered for ministry and leadership. This is the ultimate gift:
  • Seeing people who never grew up in the church develop a deep faith through Bible Study
  • Hearing children, youth, and adults pray in public for the first time
  • Observing the excitement of church members as they discover their spiritual gifts and give themselves away in service
  • Watching laity grow in confidence as they visit in homes and hospitals
  • Identifying future leaders, providing tools for their faith development, nurturing their skills, and then releasing them to lead
  • Hearing the words, “I think God is calling me into the professional ministry”
  • Witnessing the miracle of a life transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ

There is plenty of time left to appreciate your pastor because October is also Clergy AppreciationMonth. You could even combine your celebration with:

  • National Grouch Day                                                  October 15
  • National Chocolate Cupcake Day                               October 18
  • National Mole Day                                                      October 23
  • Haunted Refrigerator Night                                        October 30

My only advice: Skip the fruitcake, hold back the fudge (we clergy are still carrying the extra pounds!), and go make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Every day is Clergy Appreciation Day when you remind your pastor that he/she is a beloved child of God who is called out for set-apart ministry. Thank you for loving and supporting your pastor.

P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, October 22. On October 15, I will be with a mission team from Iowa at Africa University in Zimbabwe.

15 Tips for the Trail

This past weekend, my daughter and I participated in what is called the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim Run. The Rim2Rim is one of those crazy adventures where you run/walk down the South Rim, cross the Colorado River, climb up to the North Rim, and stay overnight. The next day you run/walk back down to the Colorado River and then crawl back up to the South Rim.

Depending on which trail you take to the bottom, the total distance from rim to rim is approximately 25 miles one way, including 22,000 feet of elevation change.

I became fascinated with the Grand Canyon the summer after 7th grade when my family took a trip “out west” from our home in eastern Pennsylvania. I kept a diary during that trip and wrote, “The Grand Canyon is absolutely breathtaking! I could see the results of many millions of years of water erosion and the many different layers of colorful rock. It is hard to believe that the Grand Canyon is real because it is so majestic! We saw burros and people walking down the canyon. The trails down the canyon are very hard to climb.” We were duly warned!

Our departure was slightly delayed because of a trekking pole malfunction and also because I injured one of my toes when it ran into the hotel mini-refrigerator door. Despite the drama, we had a marvelous weekend, filled with amazing experiences, absolutely gorgeous scenery, and not a little soreness!

Having done a lot of hiking in other places over the past several months, I’ve developed my own Tips for the Trail. While they were originally conceived for hiking, they also apply to other journeys, such as the trail leading to the called Special General Conference in 2019, where major decisions will be made around human sexuality. Wherever you might be walking or running in this beautiful world that God has entrusted to us, these tips will help you to be a conscientious and considerate traveler.

  1. Do your research and be well prepared. Know what to expect.

Will you be attending one of the eight district gatherings in Iowa and other annual conferences around the Commission on a Way Forward? It’s important for every United Methodist to understand what might happen at the February 2019 General Conference.

  1. Bring more than enough food, water, and neutralizing tablets for when the water is not safe to drink.

Wherever the journey takes The United Methodist Church, we won’t get too far unless we place our trust in Jesus, who is the bread of life and living water.

  1. Swallow your pride and let faster hikers pass you.

We are all in different place on our spiritual journey, and that’s okay. We share the same destination.

  1. Keep a single-minded focus. Walk slow and steady, for it’s very easy to fall when the ground is uneven. Trust me. I know.

Local churches function best when they focus on their mission, vision, and strategic priorities and don’t get sidetracked by things that are not central to their core purpose.

  1. Don’t litter and pack out all your trash. Littering is evidence of carelessness and a disregard for Mother Earth and others.

Care for each other considerately, tenderly, and compassionately.

  1. Greet fellow travelers with a smile and a “Good morning!” or Hello!”

Who are the invisible people in your church and community? Will you take the initiative to reach out to them?

  1. Don’t give up too easily when the trail becomes difficult. Take your time and don’t forget to help others because everyone matters.

When I encouraged an 80-plus-year-old woman I met on a trail this summer, she said, “As you can see, I don’t know when to quit! I just keep going!”

  1. Don’t complain about the weather. Respect the power of nature, give thanks that you are able to walk and take nourishment, and don’t forget your rain gear!

When the going gets tough at General Conference 2019, stay steady, hang in there, and be a difference maker for Jesus no matter what.    

  1. Be realistic about your abilities. I’ll never keep up with my daughter, but l know that she’ll always wait for me.

If we are committed to the unity of the church, we will need to be open to compromise, realizing the goal is not “winning” or “getting our way,” but being the body of Christ together.

  1. No going off the trail or short cutting in ways that damage the environment.

One of my prayers for General Conference 2019 is that delegates will not get bogged down by “the rules,” or take the conference down rabbit holes so that we lose our way.

  1. Wear the proper clothing. Dress in layers, and don’t forget your hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, water, and snacks.

How will we prepare ourselves spiritually for General Conference 2019? What might happen if we all clothed ourselves in love? “And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly.” Colossians 3:14-16a

  1. Always carry a compass, a whistle, and a flashlight/head lamp.

I naively thought that we would be done with our daily hikes before dark descended. I was wrong. It’s good I had my head lamp. Jesus is the light of the world, so follow the light and be light for others. 

  1. Pay attention to everything around you. Don’t forget to stop and listen to the trees, the water, the wind, the rocks, and the still, small voice of God.

Listen carefully and prayerfully to the views of others and learn from them.

  1. Expect the unexpected and be quick to adapt to obstacles like mud, steep climbs, rocks, water, or a landslide that covers the trail.

My prayer for General Conference 2019 is that every delegate will be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, wherever it may take us. May God grant us stamina, perseverance, patience, discernment, and hope.

  1. Hiking transcends differences and brings people together because the trail is for all people. So many different languages, ethnicities, cultures, and religions. They are all on the Way, just like you and me.

One of my favorite African proverbs is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” May our shared journey of faith as disciples of Jesus Christ and our commitment to bring in God’s reign of grace, justice, and mercy to our world lead us home. Let’s go together!

Come Upon These Waters

Gracious God, holy and wholly living, there is much still to be decided as The United Methodist Church moves into the future, moves toward General Conference 2019. Even in the unknown, even where there is chaos and confusion, remind us again and again of the power of your love, which ripples through history, changing lives, transforming the world, and creating new possibilities for kindness, compassion, caring, and connection. May these ripples of your love and grace flow freely out of us. May these ripples of your love and grace flow deeply in to us. Enlarge our hearts. Enliven our minds. Expand our imagination. Make gentle and generous our spirits. In Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.

Last Friday, the General Conference delegates, alternates, and bishops of the North Central Jurisdiction met in Chicago for a 24-hour period of worship and prayer, holy conversation, discernment, and relationship building. The prayer above was suggested for our various group conversations.

During opening worship, we read Ephesians 3:14-21. We then shared in small groups a word, phrase, or image that stood out as we prepared our hearts and minds to participate in the 2019 General Conference.

For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

This is what God spoke to me.

  • When we speak, discern, and vote, we are standing on holy ground because we are rooted and grounded in love. We are called to take off our shoes in humility.
  • The love of Christ is far greater than the knowledge that each one of us has.
  • We can only grasp the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love when we love one another.
  • Every single child and family in heaven and on earth takes their name from God. Every one.
  • Who is God calling us to be at this moment? Who are we? Whose are we?
  • We can tap into the power of the One who works within us far more abundantly than we can imagine when we humble ourselves, admitting that we are not always right and that we don’t have all the answers.

We were then invited to ask ourselves the question, “What does God invite me/us to do, be, or change through this passage? This is what I heard from the group:

  • We are invited to give up being right.
  • We are encouraged to see people as precious children of God and not as causes.
  • We are called to acknowledge that “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.”
  • God is challenging us to change. personally and corporately as a denomination.

As we concluded worship with the renewal of our baptismal vows, I was taken back to May 15, 1970, the date of my baptism as a teenager. Mennonites practice “believers’ baptism,” so children were not baptized in my church until they went through two years of study in middle/ high school and were ready to declare their own faith.

I vividly remembered my baptism at the large wooden font that was directly in front of a tall, red stained-glass window. In my classes, I was taught that the red color represents not only the Holy Spirit but the many Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) in the 16th century who were persecuted and even martyred for their faith because they refused to go to war and would only baptize upon confession of faith. The towel on the baptismal stand was a symbolic way of saying that while baptism may not always be baptism into suffering and death, it will always be baptism into service.

Reflections of the window splashed across the floor as my pastor said, “Laurie Ann Hartzel, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” My life has not been the same since that day.

This past Saturday, I offered myself anew to God as the Thanksgiving over the Water bathed my spirit in grace.

Your healing river flows.
Your Spirit blows where you will.
We cannot stop you, God!
But sometimes we try.
We try to block the flow,
We redirect the winds of the Spirit
Or we walk so far away from the life-giving Stream
That we do not hear its sound,
And we forget its power.
We parch ourselves.
We are dry and thirsty, O God.
Come, refresh us!
Come upon us Holy Spirit!
Come upon these waters.
Let these waters be to us drops of your mercy.
Let these waters remind us of your righteousness and justice.
Let these waters renew in us the resurrection power of Jesus.
Let these waters make us long for your coming reign…
Spirit of fire, Spirit over the waters, Spirit of Holiness
Glory to you.

As I came forward to dip my fingers into the water, I remembered again with gratitude and hope my baptism. I remembered the reflection of the sunlight on the bare floor of the church, creating a mosaic of color that represented the glorious diversity of our world. I remembered the warmth of my pastor’s hand on my head and felt the water running down my face, drops of mercy. And I remembered the corporate call to discipleship, as my church family renewed their vows to mentor and care for me as I grew into adulthood and into my own call.

Holy Spirit, come upon these waters, as we approach the 2019 General Conference.

Holy Spirit, come upon these waters, as we drink deeply of your grace and see in every person a reflection of your resurrection power.

Holy Spirit, come upon these waters, as we listen without judgment, pray without ceasing, and discern wisely, that you might be glorified in the decisions we make.

Holy Spirit, come upon these waters as you give us the courage to model for the world what God requires of us: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God.

Holy Spirit, enlarge our hearts. Enliven our minds. Expand our imagination. And make gentle and generous our spirits.

Come upon us, Holy Spirit. Come upon these waters.