The United Methodist Juggle

           “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”  When I took my first renewal leave ten years ago, this quote from Andre Gide guided my time away.  In the midst of a long term pastorate at First UMC, Grand Rapids, I realized that it was essential to let go of my ministry for a few months in order to regain a sense of perspective, passion, balance, and call. 

            To this day I believe that losing sight of the shore for three months ultimately saved my ministry.  As I embarked on an interior journey of self-examination, spiritual discernment, and reconnection with God, I experienced terror, agony, doubt, and dark nights of the soul.  At the same time I discovered new lands as my relationship with God deepened, the grace of Jesus Christ sustained me, and the unpredictable fire of the Holy Spirit challenged me to grow.

            Ten years later I again have the privilege of taking a 3 month renewal leave, as do all district superintendents in our conference.  Beginning tomorrow I will be out of the office until Tuesday, September 6.  As I explain to churches whose pastors also request renewal leaves (which are encouraged in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church), this is not vacation time.  It is time for rest, reflection, study, and spiritual growth.  That renewal, of course, can take many forms.  My time away this summer will look very different than it did 10 years ago when I spent most of the time in solitude.  However, my purpose is the same: to renew my spirit, draw closer to God, and seek direction for the next phase of my ministry.

            The words that guide me this time come from Helen Keller, who once said, Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.  Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

            For me spiritual leadership is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.  God never calls us to play it safe but challenges us to risk and even be willing to fail.  Whether we begin a new ministry with the poor, start a new church or revitalize an existing church, plan a second or third worship service, or a major ministry initiative, God asks us to be bold, strategic, imaginative, and visionary.  Our life in Christ is either a daring adventure in faith, or it is nothing. 

            I covet your prayers during my leave, just as I covenant to pray for you daily.  It is essential (and difficult!) for my spiritual health to put down the balls that I am constantly juggling and disconnect from my ministry.  Therefore, I will not be publishing Leading from the Heart during the summer unless the Spirit moves me to share my adventures on occasion.   In this last blog, I offer to you the cabinet dean’s report (below) which I gave to the West Michigan Conference 2 days ago.  May it inspire you to become a daring and foolish United Methodist juggler/adventurer.

Blessings, Laurie

 

THE UNITED METHODIST JUGGLE

 

It was shortly before Christmas.  I went with a few friends to a performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony and Cirque de Noel, which is a group of acrobatics, jugglers, and aerialists who do the most unusual and incredible things accompanied by Christmas music.  As I sat there, grateful for a few hours to relax after a busy fall season of leading church conference and everything else that superintendents do, I watched a man who could juggle all kinds of interesting objects. 

I found myself wondering, “Could this be my problem?  I can’t seem to juggle all of my responsibilities and keep every ball in the air.”  Sound familiar?  That led to some soul searching, “If only I could juggle, I could gracefully handle all of the roles that I play.”  Now I’m only speaking for myself here.  The rest of my superintendent colleagues have it all figured it out.  They’re amazing, but I have great difficulty keeping up with everything. 

I made a decision that day: I need to learn how to juggle.  So I went online, found a 6 minute YouTube instructional video, and here’s the result.  Granted, my skills are very basic, and I’m limited to 3 balls right now, but I find that if I take just 5 minutes in the middle of the day to juggle, it not only relieves stress, and it not only develops hand-eye coordination, but it’s supposed to increase gray matter in the brain in order to help bishops and superintendents make better appointments.   

The primary purpose of juggling has always been to entertain others by moving objects, thus bringing a smile to people’s faces.  In fact the word “juggle” comes from a Middle English word meaning “to entertain by performing tricks.”  Come to think of it, that could be the definition of a preacher, couldn’t it?  “Someone who entertains by performing tricks.”  Is it too late to get in a petition to General Conference?

The earliest known depiction of juggling is from the tomb of an unknown Egyptian prince, dating from the middle kingdom period of 1994-1781 B.C.  That’s around the time of Abraham.  Of course, the first jugglers were Adam and Eve.  “Hm, how can we respond to the snake, eat that luscious fruit in the middle of the garden, and be like God but not upset God?”  Didn’t work, did it?  The next time they had to juggle with their fig leaves. 

The Israelites knew about juggling, too.  Do you remember the story in Exodus 18 where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro takes Moses aside?  He says, “Look, Moses, you’re trying your best to juggle all the responsibilities you have as the leader of the Israelites.  But, trust me, it’s not working.  You need to delegate the smaller stuff to others, and you can take care of the big stuff.  Let others share the burden.  Then you won’t burn out, and everyone will live in peace.” 

Did you know that there is one occurrence of the word “juggling” in the Bible?  Well, it’s only in John Nelson Barby’s 1867 translation of 2 Timothy 3:13, “But wicked men and juggling impostors shall advance in evil, leading and being led astray.”  Actually, there is no evidence that juggling was ever considered by the Hebrews or early Christians to be the work of the devil.  According to some sources, the way David lured Goliath was by his extraordinary juggling.  Once he had Goliath mesmerized, David slung a stone and killed him. 

In the middle ages some religious clerics did frown upon juggling, so jugglers would perform only in marketplaces or street fairs, passing the hat for tips.  At the same time we do see depictions of jugglers and jesters in illuminated biblical manuscripts of the medieval period.

I’m afraid that juggling is here to stay, for to live in this world means to balance different aspects of our personal, professional, and church lives.  I would contend that juggling is also part of who we are as United Methodists and is integral to our call to make disciples and transform our world.  United Methodists are a juggling people.  Sometimes we think that if we just put more balls in the air we’ll accomplish more.  If we offer one more class, do one more outreach project, hold only more potluck, then we’ll grow.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way, does it?   

John Wesley was the ultimate juggler, traveling 250,000 miles on horseback all over England at the same time as he was reading voraciously in the saddle.  Wesley preached 40,000 sermons in the mines, slums, fields, prisons, and cities.  He wrote books, practiced medicine, administered aid societies, identified and trained lay preachers, and organized new converts into bands, class meetings, and societies.  It’s enough to make you dizzy just trying to comprehend the John Wesley juggle, let alone imitate it.

But the juggling involves belief as well as action.  As United Methodists we juggle sin and grace; freedom and responsibility; hearing and doing the Word; forgiveness and accountability; faith and works; scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; personal and social holiness; and acts of mercy and acts of piety.

Our clergy spend much of their time juggling the 4 balls of their disciplinary responsibilities: word, sacrament, order, and service.  Should I work on my sermon or visit Suzanne in Hospice care?  Should I prepare for my Disciple Bible study class or meet with Tom, who just lost his job?  Should I tackle all those church conference forms or support the teens in the church by going to the school play?  Should I honor my day off or help with the Gleaners food truck?  Should I entertain the congregation in worship by doing tricks or challenge them to greater depths of spirituality?

Lay persons become adept at juggling as well.  Who needs me more: the church or my family?  Can I take a leadership position this year when my job is so demanding?  Should I allow my child to play sports on Sunday morning at the same time as confirmation class?  Help!  I’m on 5 committees, and I can only juggle 3 balls at a time.

One of the blessings of being a superintendent is that we have a balcony view of the church.  Because we are not in the trenches of local church ministry, we have a more wholistic picture of what’s really happening with our pastors and local churches.  But we superintendents practice the United Methodist juggle as well. 

We are the prime connecting point between the local church, district, and conference.  We travel around the districts with our annual church conference juggling act, bringing smiles to people’s faces (we hope) at the same time as we summon our churches to greater faithfulness and fruitfulness.  We are pastors to pastors, cheerleaders, coaches, consultants, encouragers, hope-givers, light-bearers, motivators, networkers, program directors, supervisors, and trainers. 

In our appointment-making process, we juggle the needs of clergy, their families, and our local churches.  In our supervision of clergy, we juggle support and accountability.  As some of our churches decline, we have to juggle different options.  Does the church need to go part-time, do we need to combine it into a 2 or 3 point charge, does the church eventually need to think about closing, or do we challenge the church to grow?  How can we encourage more of our churches to get out of a silo mentality and juggle together as one body in Christ: to share resources, cooperate, and partner?  How can we mentor, teach, and empower our churches and clergy to be healthy and vital?

The most important work that superintendents do, however, may just be helping clergy and laity to ask the right questions, “Why are juggling, anyway?” and “Are we juggling the right balls?  To address those questions, I want to share 4 observations about United Methodist juggling. 

First, juggling is a faithful act.  Juggling is ultimately not about moving objects for entertainment or sport, it’s about moving churches and people toward the kingdom of God.  Juggling is not about choosing between paying ministry shares or paying the gas bill.  Juggling is about churches that are so passionate about fulfilling their vision and mission that when people see disciples made, lives transformed, and the world changed through the ministries of their church,  they will respond with more financial and human resources than our churches could ever dream.  God has provided us with all that we need.

Second, juggling is a creative act.  Friends, there is no more business as usual in The United Methodist Church.  We can no longer afford fluff in our budgets, lay leaders who are not willing to lead, committees that are non-functioning, and pastors who are not on their A game.  We can’t afford churches that refuse to be in ministry with the poor, lay people who believe that the only reason their local church exists is so there will be a place for their funeral, and congregations who are not in the least concerned that they haven’t had a single member join on profession of faith in 5 years.  We can no longer afford to sacrifice our spiritual lives and the future of our churches on the altar of incessant, unfocused activity.  Neither can afford to refuse to engage in holy conversation with people who think, look, believe, or worship in a different way than we do. 

God has given us hearts, minds, and spirits for creating a new juggling act.  If we are going to change the world, the United Methodist juggle must become one of intentional excellence, specific outcomes, and the necessary pruning that accompanies fruitfulness.  In the words of our denominational Call to Action Steering Report, our call as United Methodists is to “redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That’s our primary goal as the cabinet: to increase the number of vital congregations and pastors in the West Michigan Conference. 

Third, juggling is a hopeful act.  It took me a while to learn how to juggle.  It’s just not the same learning from YouTube as opposed to learning from a coach standing right next to you.  The late actor Christopher Reeve, who became a champion for spinal cord research after his catastrophic horseback riding accident, once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” 

I’ve always subscribed to the theory that if you can imagine something, and you summon the will, you can do it.  That’s why I’m intrigued by the “imagineers” at Walt Disney Company, who are employed to explore the possibilities and push the limits of reality as they create new rides and attractions.  Imagineers at Walt Disney Company come in all forms; artists, writers, architects, engineers, model builders, construction managers, technicians, designers, and a whole range of others. 

Accomplishing the seemingly impossible is a daily event for this creative and determined company.  So it can be for our local churches, the West Michigan Conference, and The United Methodist Church.  God calls you and me to summon the will to dream dreams, to juggle new balls, and to imagine and execute possibilities for our churches and our denomination that are so great that without God’s grace, we would surely fail.

Fourth, juggling is a foolish act.  Who are more foolish than the clergy who were commissioned and ordained last night?  Did you hear them?  They promised loyalty to The United Methodist Church.  They accepted authority to preach a countercultural word to a skeptical world.  They agreed to make their own ambition secondary to going where the bishop sends them.  To top it off, they gave up a great deal to enter seminary for 3 years, left school with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, went through a grueling Board of Ordained Ministry process, and entered this juggling act of family, income, and geographical location, all to follow the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.  Our Bishop and cabinet yearn for the day when the very best of our youth, young adults, and second career people choose the foolishness of a United Methodist clergy juggler.

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, the things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

When my children were small, I read them a book called The Clown of God by Tomie DePaola.  The book is based on an old medieval legend called The Juggler of Notre Dame.  The Clown of God is about a poor little beggar named Giovanni, who had a gift of juggling. 

Giovanni would put on a clown face and juggle at vegetable and fruit stands and fairs.  He juggled lemons, oranges, apples, eggplants, zucchini, sticks, plates, clubs, and even burning torches.  His last act was always to juggle many colored balls, which looked like a rainbow, with a special golden ball called The Sun in the Heaven that would fly oh so high in the sky.

Giovanni became famous throughout Italy for his juggling.  One time he met 2 monks on the road, and they said to Giovanni, “Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God.  Why, even your juggling.  If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.” 

As Giovanni he grew older, however, people did not stop to watch him anymore.  In fact, one day Giovanni dropped the Sun in the Heaven, the rainbow of balls came crashing down, and people began laughing and even jeering at him.  Putting aside juggling forever, Giovanni began begging for bread again, just as he did when he was a child. 

One cold winter night at Christmas, Giovanni slipped inside a church and watched in awe as a long procession of priests, monks, sisters, and townspeople carried beautiful gifts to an altar with a statue of the Madonna and Child.  After everyone was gone, Giovanni went to the statue and said to the Mother of Jesus, “Oh, Lady, I wish I had something to offer, too.  Your child seems so sad, even with all these beautiful gifts.  But wait – I used to make people smile.” 

Giovanni opened his bag, put on his foolish clown face, and offered his gift of juggling.  When Giovanni got to the Sun in the Heaven, he cried out, “For You, Sweet Child, for You!”  Then, suddenly Giovanni’s heart stopped, and he fell down and died.  When the sexton and the priest found Giovanni, they looked up, and there was the Child Jesus smiling, and in his hand was the golden ball. 

Why are you juggling?  Are you juggling the right balls in your own life and in your church?  Can you lay down the balls of scarcity, fear, and status quo and pick up the balls of abundance, bold leadership, and possibility?  Are you ready to create a new juggling act, which will lead to rebirth and renewal in the life of our local churches, conference, and denomination?  Might the dynamic tension of our United Methodist juggle between the 4 focus areas be our gift to God and to our world?  

My friends, on behalf of the cabinet, I invite each one of you to become a United Methodist juggler.  We challenge you to learn how to juggle, not in order to entertain or become rich but so you may serve faithfully, witness creatively, live hopefully, and become foolish clowns for God.  Juggle so that others will be touched, motivated, and inspired to become courageous, adaptive imagineers themselves.  Juggle in such a way that all people in our world will crack a smile because they have experienced a personal encounter with the love of Jesus Christ through you, and they cannot contain their joy.  Juggle because everything sings of the glory of God.  Juggle so that our earth and its people will be changed and the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness. 

By the way, World Juggling Day is June 16.  It’s coming up real soon.  It’s not too late to learn.  Bishop Keaton, I offer to you 3 balls and a book, The Clown of God.  As chief juggler of the West Michigan Conference, I want to thank you for your unceasing prayer and tireless efforts to lead us in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

Friends, keep up the United Methodist foolishness!  Keep smiling, keep focused on Jesus, keep connected, keep striving for excellence, keep making disciples, keep bearing fruit, keep juggling.  In the name of Jesus, the Christ, Amen.

 

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