How Long, O Lord?

May 28, 2013

It’s on the lips of every United Methodist clergy every year.  “How long, O Lord?  How long am I going to remain in this appointment?  Could this be the year?”  The cry is often a lament because we don’t want to move.  But it could also be a plea, “Please, Lord, get me out of here!”


     At the same time it’s on the lips of every United Methodist layperson unless they come from another religious tradition and don’t yet understand the system.  “How long, O Lord, will you leave our beloved pastor here?”  Or “How long, O Lord, will you afflict us like this?”


“How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”  (Psalm 13:1-2a)


     It’s annual conference time around the United Methodist connection.  We’ll be inspired by guest speakers, vote on constitutional amendments and other legislative items, reconnect with friends, and watch our bishops set appointments of clergy for the coming year.  Some clergy are grateful to be moving while others are upset at being uprooted from a congregation they love.  What we all hold in common, however, is a vow to be itinerant, to go where we are sent.


     John Wesley used an appointment system to deploy clergy in order to spread scriptural holiness across the land, make disciples, and start new churches.  In America this system was highly effective as our country moved west and Methodist circuit riders fanned out across the wilderness. 


circuit rider

(Circuit Rider: Illustration from Harpers Weekly, October 12, 1867)


     Clergy were appointed to circuits that might have up to eighteen societies or churches.  They were expected to visit each church at least once a year.  The role of the pastor was to preach, administer the sacraments, and train laypersons to do the work of ministry by forming class meetings, which were small groups that worshipped, studied, served, and witnessed to their faith.  After a relatively short stay clergy hopped on their horses and headed to the next church on the circuit.  Circuit riders never asked, “How long, O Lord?” because they expected to stay in their appointment for just a year or two before moving on.     


     When our country began to “settle” in the early twentieth century, so did the clergy, who began to assume responsibilities that were formerly done by laity: visiting the sick, leading class meetings, and evangelizing.  Congregations gradually grew larger and more stable, and circuits became smaller.


     Today we emphasize longer term appointments in The United Methodist Church in the belief that clergy can do their most effective ministry after four to six years.  It takes time to develop relationships between clergy and laity so that congregations can be equipped and empowered to foster holistic growth and effective outreach.  Pastoral stability is often a sign of vitality and health.            


     At Plainfield UMC, one of the churches I am currently serving, the pastoral record began in 1879.  For the first twenty years the tenure of the clergy was 6 months, 1 year, 1 year, 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, 4 years, 1 year, 1 year, 3 years.  For some unknown reason W.E. Frye hit the jackpot and stayed four years. 


     Despite occasional remarkably long tenures, short term appointments were commonplace into the 1960’s.  Over the years I’ve heard elderly clergy reminisce about the good old days when they would not know what their appointment was until annual conference.  When the bishop read their name and the clergy found out they were moving, they’d call back home and say, “Guess what, honey?  Pack your bags.  We’re moving again.”


     Life is different in 2013, and the needs of families in the twenty-first century are an important consideration in appointments.  Spouses often earn a higher salary than the clergy.  Teenagers may not want to leave their high school.  Frequent moves are not helpful to congregations or clergy families.  The itinerant system is not for everyone.  Yet “How long, O Lord?” is on every United Methodist clergy’s lips because we are still appointed for only one year at a time. 


“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)
      Even today clergy occasionally stay for only a few years in an appointment for various reasons.  After serving appointments of 3 ½ years, 4 years, 4 years, 13 years, and 6 years as a superintendent, surprise!  I find myself serving only one year in my present appointment, just like so many of my circuit rider predecessors.

     My circuit consists of just two churches, but I have discovered that positive, transformational ministry can take place in very short appointments as well as quite long appointments.  Here’s what I’ve learned from my one year appointment.


·         Because clergy never know the answer to “How long, O Lord?” effective short term clergy quickly discern the state of the church, gain a good grasp of current reality, and use their time in a way that will best benefit the needs of the congregation. 


·         Effective short term clergy gain trust early on by building primary relationships with lay leaders, who help clergy establish priorities while they do the rest.  Identifying, cultivating, training, and encouraging lay leadership bears fruit in every congregation, especially in brief appointments where the imprint of effective clergy will be found in leaders who will carry on ministry for years to come.

·         Effective short term clergy know that the conventional wisdom to wait a year before initiating any change does not apply uniformly in every situation.  Comprehensive transfer of information before an appointment begins can prepare clergy to hit the ground running.  Sometimes immediate change is essential and welcomed.


·         Effective short term clergy thoroughly review the mission, strategic plan, and systems of a congregation to determine how they can build upon the church’s strengths at the same time as they address weak links that threaten to derail ministry.

·         Effective short term clergy nip conflict in the bud by practicing open and honest communication and self-integration.

·         Effective short term clergy usually don’t have time to sweat the small stuff, play on the church softball team, or lead the breakfast club because they are spiritually preparing the congregation for growth, health, and the next appointment, which will hopefully be a longer tenured pastor.

·         Effective short term clergy focus their best effort on energetic, creative worship that connects people with God and each other, inspiring them to reach out beyond the church in ministry to the world. 

·         Effective short term clergy can make a huge impact in a brief time by the witness of their life as well as the sound of their words.  They model faithfulness by their encouragement, gentle persuasion, positive attitude, and unquenchable hope. 

·         Five or ten year guaranteed contracts are not offered to clergy in The United Methodist Church.  Therefore, because short term clergy don’t have an answer to “How long, O Lord?” unless we are specifically designated as an interim pastor, we must rely on the intuition of the Holy Spirit to custom make our ministry in every location. 


     The most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year is to live and serve fully in the present moment because that’s all we have.  It doesn’t have to take thirteen years to leave God’s mark on a congregation through your ministry.  In fact, in a span of thirteen years during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, A.D. Newton, S.G. Warner, J.P Force, A.J. Russell, H. Borgelt, L. Dodds, W.M. Puffer, D. Kronk, A.J. Wheeler, and W.D. Frye all served Plainfield UMC, most of them for one year.  And what a legacy they left!    


     Some clergy and congregations can accomplish more for the kingdom of God in one year than other churches can do in fifty years.  God redeems everything, even short-term appointments.  We never know who will be touched by our ministry, brief as it may be.  In the twinkling of an eye, lives can be changed, congregations can be turned around, the Holy Spirit can set a church aflame, and ministry can be revitalized. 


      “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17)  I never dreamed that God would look on my appointment as a one year adventure of faith.  But I thank God for the opportunity to impact the life of two congregations in a short term way that will lead them into a bright future.  Most of all, I am grateful for the long term joy and hope that two congregations have given to me.  “How long, O Lord?  Never mind.  However long you wish.  Where you lead, I will follow.” 





Such a Person is Good News

Last week I had the privilege of preaching at United Methodist-related Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, where many of my early mentors in ministry currently live.  What follows is an adaption of that sermon.

I recently came across a little poster that a seminary friend named Hondi Brasco made for me over thirty years ago.  She’s also an artist, so she drew a picture of a woman playing a trumpet and kicking up one of her legs.  The quote on the poster comes from Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., who died on March 20 at the age of 95.

Laurie Poster

The quote comes from a sermon by Gordon Cosby titled The Calling Forth of Charisma.  There’s one pertinent line that comes right before this quote.  “The charismatic person is one who, by her very being, will be God’s instrument in calling forth gifts.”  Now the rest of the paragraph.  “The person who is having the time of her life doing what she is doing has a way of calling forth the deeps of another.  Such a person is good news….  She is the embodiment of the freedom of the new humanity.”

Gordon Cosby was arguably the most influential Christian activist of the mid-twentieth century.  He called forth the deeps of a social conscience that pre-dated by decades the missional and emergent church movement today.  Based in Washington D.C., Cosby’s church initiated dozens of pioneering outreach ministries.  Cosby himself died at Christ House, a Church of the Savior ministry to Washington’s homeless men that was started in 1947.

I invite you to hold that image while we look at our scripture, Matthew 21:28-32.  I’ve never preached on the parable of the two sons and discovered that it’s not especially difficult to understand, but it’s almost impossible to live.  Matthew places this scripture during the last week of Jesus’ life as he spends his days teaching in the temple and challenging the chief priests and elders.

In this story, the religious authorities question Jesus as soon as he enters the temple, inquiring about the source of his authority.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?”  Jesus toys with them by asking whether the baptism of John came from heaven or whether it was human authority.

They’re trapped.  The Jewish leaders huddle together, “If we say John’s authority is from heaven, Jesus will ask why we didn’t believe in him.  But if we say his authority is of human origin, the crowd will be angry because they regard John as a prophet.”  So they answer, “We don’t know.”  “Okay,” Jesus says.  “Then I’m not going to tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Then Jesus tells a story.  A man has two sons who are expected to work in their father’s vineyard.  He says to son #1, “It’s time for work.”  The son says, “Nope, I’m not going today.”  But later he changes his mind and goes.  The father then goes to son #2 and says, “It’s time for you to get to work, too.”  The second son says, “Sure, Dad,” but then he doesn’t go.

Jesus turns to the chief priests and elders and asks, “Which of the sons did the will of the father?”  “The first son.”  “You’re right,” Jesus says.  “Unfortunately, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom before you.  John the Baptist came to show you the way of righteousness, but you, who claim to have faith, didn’t respond to the new thing God was doing through John.  By contrast, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who were sinners and didn’t follow the law, did believe in John.  They heard John’s pronouncement of judgment, repented of their sins, and changed their lives.”

What ultimately matters?  It’s not what we believe about our faith, it’s what we do about our faith.  It’s all about discipleship.  What I want to say to you tonight is “Thank you.”  Almost every one of you here tonight is part of the generation that preceded me.  I am now around the age that you were when I first entered ministry here in the West Michigan Conference.  Whether you are lay or clergy, you modeled for me the truth that Christianity is much more than words.  Christianity is transformed lives in action.  Even though as United Methodists we believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone, God expects, even requires, us to put our faith in action.  Otherwise the faith means nothing.

For those of you who are retired clergy and clergy spouses, the bishop said more than once to you, “You’re appointed here,” and “You’re appointed there,” and you went.  You pastored every church to which you were appointed by following the way of righteousness with the very best ministry you could offer.  By your very being you became God’s instrument calling forth gifts.  I know that to be true because I was watching you.  I learned from you, and I modeled my ministry after yours.

You made disciples by sharing the good news and giving yourself away in sacrificial ministry.  You sometimes went where you didn’t want to be appointed, but you didn’t throw a fit about it.  You didn’t always like the parsonage, but you made do.  You didn’t earn a lot of money, but you earned the respect and love of your parishioners as well as people like me who followed in your footsteps.

As Gordon Cosby wrote, by having the time of your life doing what you were called to do, you called forth the deeps of me and many others.  You are all good news, for you are the embodiment of the freedom of a new humanity.  And what is that freedom?  It’s the freedom to give ourselves away.  It’s the freedom to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  It’s the freedom to shine like stars in the world as you give off light and love and hope to all.

You are good news because good news is more than saying the right things or engaging in the proper rituals.  Good news is living the right reality.  Good news is embodied by the one who acts to bring in God’s kingdom.  Every time you call forth the deeps of another person, you are good news.  I do need to point out, however, that embodying good news and calling forth the deeps in others is a bit more challenging than it used to be.

  • Whether we like it or not, the church is no longer the center of most people’s lives.

Unlike fifty, forty, or thirty years ago, many Christians today who claim to be active come to church maybe once a month.  They can’t even imagine being in worship every single Sunday.  After all, there are kids’ sports, travel to visit parents or grandchildren, the coffee shop, or just relaxing at home.  In order to embody good news we have to think creatively about planting new faith communities in other locations, worshipping at times other than Sunday morning, and offering Bible studies and classes in places we never dreamed of before.

  • The church building is no longer our primary mission station.

In today’s world we have to go to where the people are.  We have to stop idolizing our buildings and move outside the church if we’re going to have any impact on our communities and do the will of God.  But when we reach out in mission beyond our walls, we must act out of a pure heart that embraces all people because non-Christians are always looking at us, checking to see if we’re son #1 or son #2.

  • We have to return to fundamentals because many of our congregations have become complacent and lazy. 

What does Jesus ask us to do?  Go and make disciples.  Tell the story.  Live the story.  Embody the good news and call out the divine in others.  The church is not a social club, and our purpose is not to spend all our time making pancakes, barbequing chicken, playing bridge, or going to movies together.  Prayer, Bible study, meaningful worship that connects people with God, empowering and equipping lay leadership, reaching out to our neighbors with grace and compassion, and seeking justice for all creation – that’s what will grow Christ’s church today.

  • We have to be flexible and savvy, adapting our ministry to our specific context.

There is no longer one-size-fits-all ministry.  What works in one place doesn’t always work in another.  If pastors try to come into a church with our own “dog and pony show” rather than listen to, walk beside, and work with our lay leaders, we won’t be able to call out the deeps of others.

  • Finally, to have the time of our life building the kingdom of God means that we are going to be different than the rest of the word. 

The percentage of the American population that self-identifies as Christian is getting smaller and smaller, and that trend will continue.  And among Christians, the truly faithful who say “yes” to the radical discipleship Jesus calls for will likely continue to shrink as well.

Jesus doesn’t just want part of us and our lives.  Jesus demands all of us.  Jesus needs us to be “all in.”  God can do immeasurably more than we can even imagine, so we need to expect and ask for more of others who follow Christ.  That’s why Gordon Cosby was such an influential Christian in our country for seventy years.

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine wrote a few weeks ago in a tribute, “Gordon Cosby never needed or wanted to be out front or become a famous public figure…  He instead decided that his own vocation was to stay with a relatively small group of people trying to ‘be the church’ in Washington, D.C.: the Church of the Savior, which has produced more missions and ministries, especially with the poor, than any church I know of anywhere in the country – even the huge mega-churches who capture all the fame.”

Wallis continued, “He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world.  He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more.  And the world came to him.”  As one person said to Wallis that night, “You knew Gordon loved like Christ, and he made you want to love like Christ too.”

My friend, Hondi, wrote on the back of this poster, “To Laurie, May God bless your ministry and fill the days to come with great joy.”

Because each one of you loved and still loves like Christ, you make me want to love like Christ, too.  You don’t just say the right words, you do the right things.  Your actions still call forth the deeps from others, including me, and give me great joy.  You are good news.  I can only hope that someday the next generation will say the same of me and my generation.  God bless you all.


Sacred Swag

I’m sure people noticed, but they were mercifully discreet.  It was an unforgettable wardrobe malfunction, at least for me.  I dressed in my best clothes for an important meeting, hoping to impress, only to discover when I arrived that the top button was missing from my suit jacket.  Having just picked up the suit from the drycleaners, I never dreamed they would lose a button and not even tell me.  So much for my attempt at sacred swag.

After thirty years of ministry I’ve made a startling discovery.  I’ve been focusing on the wrong things and going about my ministry in the wrong way.  Oh, I’ve learned the jargon and played the game.  Healthy, vital churches; adaptive change; spiritual leadership; making disciples for the transformation of the world; rethink church; radical hospitality; missional church; open hearts, open minds, open doors: I’ve tried it all with varying degrees of effectiveness.

I have chosen to remember the fruit that my ministry has produced rather than the disasters, heartbreak, stupidity, foolishness, dumb mistakes, and messes I’ve made along the way… and had to clean up.  Somehow, though, I missed the key to unlock my pastoral success.  The secret is fashion.  Sacred Swag – and I don’t have it.

I finally got the hint when a friend gave me a precious gift, a What Would Jesus Wear Magnetic Dress-up KitThe kit includes a large magnet in the likeness of Jesus and a tasteful selection of magnetic mix ‘n match clothing and accessories.  As I began dressing Jesus in surfer shorts and tie-dyed shirt as well as a white robe and cross, with accessories such as loaves, fishes, chalices, hats, and tools from his carpenter years, I made the connection.  In a non-threatening way my friend was encouraging me to upgrade my wardrobe.

sacred swag 1

I think I need a new clergy robe, so I browse the web.  I had already looked at clergy apparel at General Conference last year, but the choices were so overwhelming that I shut down. carries a wide variety of “anointed custom ministry attire for women.”  Probably not my style. is a little more conservative but not me. has some nice robes like “Quick Ship Martha,” “Ruth without Lace,” and “Esther with Full Sleeves.”  C.M. Almy, “Outfitters to the church and clergy since 1892,” has a classic line of robes and stoles.  They even sell a clergy cloak to wear over your robe for outdoor ceremonies in the snow: only $443.  Nothing strikes my fancy, which isn’t surprising since I’m really not into clothes in general.  My lack of swag extends beyond the sacred.

My present clergy robe is a hand-me-down from a dear clergy sister who died of cancer.  It’s simple as simple can be, which I know because at the ordination service at annual conference, I check out the robes of my clergy colleagues.  Unlike their robes mine has no lace, no trim, no collar, no full sleeves, and no swag.  I’m out of their league.

What really sets clergy apart, however, is their stoles.  Everyone breaks out their most swaggerous stoles at the ordination service: gorgeous, handmade, custom-designed, colorful, can-you-top-mine stoles.  By contrast, most of mine are rather plain, like my Mennonite upbringing among the “Plain People.”  I did splurge once and bought a stole with two tiny bells dangling from one side, but I save it only for very special occasions.

One reason clergy wear robes is to cover their street clothes so that parishioners pay more attention to their words than their apparel.  Yet a dark secret of the clergy and church world is the hidden desire to exhibit sacred swag.  I wonder what would happen if I walked into the pulpit on Sunday wearing Justin Welby’s get-up as the new Archbishop of Canterbury?

sacred swag 2

My professional clothes are as undistinguished as my robe.  Even I find them so boring that within minutes of arriving home for the day, I’m wearing the same sweatpants and sweatshirt I’ve had for 20 years.  Comfort clothes, that’s what they are.  But did Jesus ever preach about being comfortable?  Well…

The solution has got to be swag, which is the current generation’s version of “cool.”  Swag is the online personification of “swagger,” which refers to a style of walking or presence that conveys an overbearing confidence or arrogance.  Clothes, of course, play a big role in a person’s swag.  You either have it or you don’t.  I don’t … yet.

How should I clothe myself?  Or how does God want to clothe me?  Colossians 3:12-14 says, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

I get this.  Jesus doesn’t really care about our clothes.  And he doesn’t want us to swagger around the chancel like Jimmy SWAGgart when we preach, dispensing pearls of great price to the faithless masses in our spectacular duds.  No, Jesus would prefer us to display the qualities of graciousness, generosity, humility, reconciliation, and shalom, which are all wrapped up in one word: love.

My fashion/theological worldview says that clergy should not draw attention to themselves with their attire.  In that sense I’m like President Obama, who has been mildly criticized for his lack of swag.  Whereas First Lady Michelle Obama generates much attention for her fashion choices, (including new bangs!), President Obama almost always wears a traditional-cut suit, a red or blue tie, and black shoes.  Obama told Vanity Fair that he almost always wears gray or blue suits because that is one less decision he has to make in the day.

The President wears his cell phone on his belt, which is not really a fashion faux pas but does not evidence swag.  Esquire’s senior editor Richard Dorment said a few months ago on National Public Radio, “The best advice I can offer the President is to make sure that nobody’s talking about what he’s wearing, because the last thing we need in the current political rhetoric are armchair fashionistas commenting on what he’s wearing on any given day.”

What we wear when leading worship, whether a robe, suit, jeans, or t-shirt, makes a statement about who we are and the values we hold dear.  Clothes can express our individuality, and some clergy have a great fashion sense.  Of course, what we wear needs to be contextual.  Tweaking our fashion to fit with our particular ministry setting is important.  The bottom line, however, is that Christian worship is not about us, and when our clothing draws attention to us rather than God we need to rethink.

I’m convinced that clothing wasn’t a big deal for Jesus because he told us not to worry about what we wear (Matthew 6:25-34).  Instead, God will clothe us with righteousness.  Jesus’ wardrobe evidently didn’t stick out because the gospel writers make no mention of his clothing except the outer robe he took off before washing the disciples’ feet, the purple fake-royalty robe in which the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus after flogging him, and the seamless tunic Jesus was wearing when he was crucified.  It did not escape notice that the first thing Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires wore last week when he greeted the crowd as Pope Francis was a simple white cassock rather than the traditional red ermine-lined cape.

What does it mean to give our best to God as far as dress goes?  If you’re in need of fashion tips and feel called to be a model example of sacred swag, why not check out  Created by Ed Young, founding pastor of Fellowship Church with four campuses in Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, and Columbia, South Carolina, this website offers frank and hip advice on how to show sacred swag.

According to the website, “ is designed to have some fun with fashion and put it in its proper perspective – it’s a relevant tool in reaching the world with the hope and love of Jesus.  This is a place where pastors (and anyone who shares that perspective) can get some tips on what to wear, how to wear it, and when to wear it.  But the ultimate question isn’t ‘what,’ ‘how’ or ‘when’? It’s ‘who?’

“Our fascination with fashion is really just a microcosm of our desire to be clothed in the ultimate designer – Jesus Christ.  Until we put on the grace and mercy of Jesus we’re all stitched in sin and cut up with compromise.  But in Jesus, God has provided us a seamless garment; a perfect wardrobe so that we can discover what true fashion is really all about.”

I sewed a new button on my suit as I “put on Christ.”  Do I qualify for sacred swag now?