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.” 

 

Blessings,

Laurie

 

So What Do You Do on Friday Night?

It’s Friday night all across America.  What are you doing?  Attending a high school football game, going out for dinner and a movie, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or crashing after a hard week?

On the 2nd Friday of every month the tiny congregation of Plainfield UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens its doors to a hundred individuals and families in the Creston neighborhood.  Although the church accepts donations and some put a dollar in the basket, most people don’t have money to contribute.  They simply need a good, hot meal and some TLC.

Jesse oversees the kitchen, and Ray is outside on the sidewalk grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, a last tribute to summer.  Bob and Wanda drive over from Muskegon because they have a heart for this neighborhood and a gift for engaging our guests in conversation.  Craig rides his bike 10 miles one way from another part of the city to help.  Sharon, Marianne, Pam and Gina supervise the food and clean-up.  Theresa serves, and her husband Jim welcomes people at the door.  Their son is getting married the next day.  Where were you the night before your child’s wedding?

Meanwhile I have the best job: introducing myself to our neighborhood guests and listening to their stories.  “Hi, my name is Laurie, and I’m the new pastor at Plainfield UMC.”  Without exception, everyone expresses gratitude for the dinner and is appreciative for the warm welcome they receive.  However, they will definitely not be attending a football game, taking in a movie, or cruising the mall after dinner.  They are simply trying to survive.   Their stories are heartbreaking, but their spirits are not broken.

Joseph, Tony, and Ron are sitting together.  Joseph asks, “What’s the difference between a born again, a Lutheran, and a Catholic?”

I stumble.  “Hmm.  Well.  Okay.  Lutherans and Catholics affiliate with a specific Christian group.  However, born again is not a denomination but describes a spiritual self-understanding that crosses all boundaries.   Lutherans and Catholics can be born again.  I’m born again, and I’m a Methodist.”

“What’s a Methodist?”

“We’re a community of disciples of Jesus Christ that was started by a man named John Wesley.  We believe that God’s grace is free, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love.  We also believe that God calls us to love our neighbors.  That’s why we’re having this dinner.”

“I like that.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve gotten food at the pantry.  I was married once and divorced.”

Tony says, “I go to the Open Door Pentecostal Church on Knapp.  We only have about 20 people.  Our pastor is an African-American woman, and she is on fire.  We have healing services on Sunday evening where people fall under the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am a schizophrenic, and the healing prayers help me.  Do you have Sunday evening or weeknight services?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t.  But we do worship on Sunday mornings at 11:15 a.m. with a free breakfast before.  You are always welcome.”

“What’s the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals?”

“None.  We love Jesus and our neighbors just as you do.”

“Love covers a multitude of sins.  I’ve never been married.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joseph chimes in.  “I’ve had some hard lessons to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” echoed Tony.

Ron, who lives in the same nearby adult foster care home as Tony, finally enters the conversation and says, “I don’t have a family.”

I move to another table where Randy, Jack, and Sam are sitting.  Randy had a kidney transplant a year ago.  He has experienced numerous complications but says, “Somebody always has it worse off than me.  I feel welcome here.  It doesn’t matter what religion you are.  Just love others.  That’s it.”

“Did you get enough to eat?” I ask Jack.

“You bet.  I grew up with hardly any food, so I’ve learned how to make do with little.

“I watch what I eat because I’m on disability.  If you are smart you can make it on a food card.  But I do come here and to the food pantry, and I go to St. Al’s for the free dinners on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Sam chimes in, “I’m a handyman and a painter, but I don’t have much work .  I learn how to be a smart shopper with my food card.”

Jack says, “I had cancer 5 years ago and went back to work as a furniture refinisher, but I can’t do it anymore.  It’s hard to find a job at 60, but I was raised to work.  I’m no freeloader.  I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  I’ve had a lot and a little.”

“I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing,” Randy says.

A family with a husband, wife, and 6 small children settle down to eat.  We chat for a few minutes, but they’re really busy making sure their children eat.

I greet a middle-aged man who is holding a 1-month-old baby and is accompanied by 3 teenagers.  Each of the girls asks me to guess how old they are and who the mother of the baby is.  They are 15, 16, and 19 years old.  The 16 year old is the mother.

Alex and Elizabeth share with me that Elizabeth attended Sunday school at Plainfield UMC until she was 10 years old.  She just got a job in a business across the street, and Alex does electronics and computer work.   “I love to help churches.  If you ever need anything, just call me,” Alex said, handing me his card.

Andrea is eating dinner with 2 small children.  Her husband works in Holland, but they were in the area running some errands and saw the sign advertising our dinner.  “What a godsend this is.  Thank you so much.”

I welcome a few parents and grandparents of our Sunday school children.  Two courageous and deeply faithful young adults volunteer every Sunday to teach anywhere from 4 to 15 neighborhood children.  The children show up for breakfast every Sunday morning and then stay for church school.  It’s extremely challenging ministry, with children who come and go at will, have little parental supervision, and are more hungry for the love of Jesus Christ and the care of this church than an actual breakfast.

When the evening is over, we have 6 hot dogs and a few desserts left and no hamburgers and baked beans.  As we’re cleaning up, a few more young men arrive and inhale the rest of the hot dogs.

Are we making a difference on this Friday night in Grand Rapids?  Are we changing the face of poverty in the Creston neighborhood, or are we simply putting on Band-Aids?  It’s making enough of a difference that the church borrowed from its endowment to renovate the kitchen so that outreach meals can be served at least three times a week in the fellowship hall.  We’re not in it to earn money, but what little we raise goes toward mission around the world.

It’s making enough of a difference that when we smelled gas in the afternoon and a technician charged more to fix the stove than we gathered in donations, we smiled and knew that God would provide.  An unexpected $200 donation was sent the next week by a family from another United Methodist church in the area who could not attend the dinner but wanted to help.

It’s making enough of a difference that even though we cannot fix the lives of our guests, we are connecting with our neighbors.  We are sitting at the same tables together, talking about our lives, sharing in God’s bounty, and giving thanks for simple joys like fresh apple pie and a place to sit for a while.  Plus, we’re offering a sneak preview of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a preview, this was the Kingdom come on this earth: here and not yet.  Kind of like World Communion Sunday.  The menu was different: hot dogs and lemonade rather than bread and grape juice.  The liturgy was different: heart to heart conversation rather than the Great Thanksgiving.  And the setting was different: beat up tables and chairs rather than cushioned pews.  But the same Holy Spirit was present: swirling, dancing, delighting, empowering, encouraging, dispensing hope, and including all at the table.

No one ever gives up at Plainfield UMC.  This small but mighty congregation is convinced that their presence in the Creston neighborhood is leaven, light, love, and hope.  Thirty years from now none of these faithful church folks will probably be around.  Yet there is absolutely no doubt that every person who attends this 2nd Friday dinner and every child who comes to breakfast and church school on Sunday morning will remember Plainfield UMC.  They won’t remember what they ate, but they will remember this:

  • the open doors of this congregation
  • the loving consistency and safety of our presence
  • the stories of a Jesus whose grace won’t ever let them go
  • the sweet, sweet power of the Holy Spirit, which mysteriously blew them in the door and somehow stayed in their heart.

So what do you do on Friday night?

Blessings,

Laurie