It was a stupid thing to do. Ten days ago, upon returning to my hotel room at the end of the first day of a conference, I could not find the keys to my twelve-year-old Honda. Gary and I drove separately, and I hadn’t needed to use my car that day.
We looked everywhere, dumping out the contents of both suitcases and computer bags and checking the pockets of our clothes, all to no avail. I must have dropped the keys outside a side entrance of the hotel as we attempted to carry all of our stuff up to the room. My hands were full, the key card was a bit tricky, and it just happened.
We scoured every square inch of the parking lot and yard, peered under cars and checked at the front desk to see if anyone turned in the keys. No luck. Stupid… Especially since I didn’t have a spare set of keys and there was no Honda dealership within many miles. Not everyone was sympathetic. You live in Detroit country now, Laurie, remember?
That same day I read an article by Dr. Lovett Weems, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, who recalled an address that R. Kevin LaGree gave to the graduates of Candler School of Theology of Emory University a few years ago. LaGree offered two bits of wisdom. The first was “Don’t do anything stupid.”
How can I have made it through so many years of active ministry, and I’m still doing stupid things? My gaffes and mistakes are legendary, at least in my own mind. A month into my first appointment I preached what was evidently a controversial sermon about peace-making to a rural congregation. The district superintendent was called, and I learned a lesson about trust and pastoral sensitivity.
In my next church I tried to institute a new program called “Advent Night,” where families would gather to engage in different Advent activities. It had worked very well elsewhere. After failing to get others on board, I did almost all the work myself, the evening was not particularly successful, and I learned about the importance of contextual ministry.
In the church after that, we initiated a building program to remodel the sanctuary and construct a new fellowship hall and handicapped restrooms. Despite our hard work, the Building Committee was a bit too far ahead of the congregation. They voted against the project, and I felt foolish. Fortunately, we kept the lines of communication open, the proposal passed handily the next year, and we easily raised all of the necessary funds.
Don’t do anything stupid. It really is good advice, but stupid things don’t always have to be bad. In fact, failure is one of the best learning laboratories around. Failure not only keeps us humble, but when we are willing to learn from the stupid things we do, we gain confidence, acquire courage and are not afraid to risk again. So I say to seminary graduates, go ahead and do stupid things, for risk at times invites stupidity, and if we don’t risk, we don’t grow. We don’t grow personally and professionally, and we don’t grow the Kingdom of God. Be bold in your mistakes, but minimize the pitfalls by following these tips.
- Be proactive rather than reactive. People will forgive almost anything if you admit your mistakes, apologize and ask for forgiveness rather than react defensively or blame others.
- Think before you speak or act. Rash decisions, impulsive actions or losing your temper can come back to haunt you.
- Practice what you preach. “I’d rather see a sermon rather than hear one.”
- Remember, the church is not about you. Get yourself out of the way and focus on the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives.
- Take the high road no matter what. When you listen carefully and are unfailingly gracious to those who hurt or criticize you, you model the love of Christ.
- Rely on a few trusted friends to be a reality check and gently hold you accountable.
- Pay attention to your spirit and take care of yourself. Undue stress can lead to irritability and poor decision-making.
LaGree had a second piece of advice for seminary graduates. “Be the person God created you to be.” Whenever clergy are reappointed, whether it is our first or last church, we need to reinvent our ministry according to the context in which we now serve. At the same time some church members will invariably seek to remake us into the pastor they are hoping we will become for them. I’ve learned the hard way that I can only pastor effectively when I am authentic, and I can only be authentic when I know who I am and who God wants me to become.
I remember being appointed to a large church fairly early in my ministry and asking myself, “Why me? I’m not a city person. I don’t come from wealth. I’m not well-versed in the finer points of etiquette. What can I offer?” A wise friend said to me, “Laurie, just be yourself. Remember, your congregation is made up of people with the same hopes and dreams that you have. Just be you, and you’ll make out fine.”
In the end, isn’t that what God asks of each one of us? Spiritual growth is in large part a journey toward knowing not only who God created us to be but who God is calling us to become. At a transition point some years later, I was attempting to discern my future in ministry. After several months of being stuck, I heard a clear word from God, “What you end up doing and where you end up serving is not nearly as important as who you are becoming.”
For many years I had a painting in my office with these words from the 20th century Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Hans Urs Balthazar, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you are becoming is your gift to God.”
How can we continue to “become” as God’s beloved children?
- Be a continuous learner. Read, listen, think critically and engage in holy conversation.
- Be self-aware and transparent. Take time for prayer and self-examination and be willing to change.
- Take regular time away so that you can regain perspective.
- Seek honest feedback from others so that you can grow in skills, emotional intelligence and grace.
- Don’t cling to who you were in the past but empty yourself and seek to be transformed into the person God hopes you will become in the future.
- Pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer regularly.
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Rather than pay $400 to have my Honda towed back to Birmingham because I didn’t have the extra set of keys, Gary drove two hours home and two hours back to get them. Thank you, Dr. LaGree and Dr. Weems, for the gift of your simple yet profound wisdom to seminary graduates and all of us. “Don’t do anything stupid” and “Be the person God created you to be.” Since I haven’t been able to become perfected in either of these areas, however, I’ve had to tweak these bits of advice. “Learn from the stupid things you do” and “Keep becoming who God created you to be.” These are our gifts to God.