Sunday, July 1, 2012

As I Leave This Role....

     Bishop McCleskey will vouch for me.  I was clearly surprised to be appointed as a District Superintendent.  When Bishop McCleskey summoned me to his office in February, 2008 to give me the news, in the course of our conversation, he said three times, “You look surprised.”  Surprised hardly covered it.

     I was not surprised to have a chance to talk with the Bishop.  Due to some painful communication dynamics the year before, my District Superintendent, George Thompson had asked Bishop McCleskey to talk to me directly about my appointment.  Getting the call to come to see the bishop, to tell no one (emphasis on NO ONE) about time with the bishop was not a surprise.  I knew the bishop didn’t have time to talk to every pastor who had an appointment concern.  I was given careful instructions to drive around the side of the building, come into  a side entrance that, until then, I did not know existed.  The emphasis was repeated:  do not talk to anyone about this.   As I said before, I knew the chance for conversation with the bishop was out-of-the-ordinary.

     When I walked into the Bishop’s office and saw that my superintendent was not present (as he would have been for a conversation about my appointment) I had about 15 seconds to figure out that I was not there for what I had expected.  And the bishop was right.  I was surprised.

     I love the local church with all my heart.  I love being a pastor.  I truly never aspired to connectional ministry beyond the local church.  My father—who served as a DS—always said it was a lot more fun to make appointments when you are not on the cabinet.  I have found that to be true. J

     In addition, I have lived in remarkable – but very difficult—times as the church often reluctantly and slowly embraced the leadership of women.  Things have both changed and not changed.  Prejudices have been overcome and prejudice still exists.  And in that rough-and-tumble struggle to be the open, inclusive church which reflects the love of Christ, there have been a lot of disappointments along the decades for women.  Cabinets have been the source of hope and disappointment through the years.  Holding on to hope through the disappointments has been a challenge.  I would not have described the cabinet (as a group or a process) as a beacon of light and hope. 

      I do not remember that I was ever one who said out loud that the cabinet must have gotten drunk and thrown darts at a board to come up with the appointments as they filtered out.  (And, when we are honest, every preacher has had the thought:  how in the world did they ever come up with THAT?)  Certainly I never envisioned myself as part of the company of those who made the appointments.  The shift was head-spinning.  It was exciting and terrifying.  Could I make a difference for clergy and churches who depend on the knowledge and perspective of the cabinet? 

     I also had apprehensions about being able to speak freely.  I knew myself well enough to know that, especially in a place of making decisions about the lives of others,  I needed the freedom to have my say.  I do not need people to agree with me (good thing) and I do not need the final decision to be my way (another good thing).  But I knew that at the core of my ability to serve would be an atmosphere to speak my heart and convictions freely.  Did that happen on the cabinet?  People from the outside can’t know and people sitting around cabinet tables through the years have had different experiences.

     I leave the cabinet with deep gratitude in regard to the two things that mattered the most to me.  One is the first-hand certainty that the bishop and cabinet are committed to a mission-focused, inclusive church where the gifts of clergy are valued, supported and affirmed.  The commitment to support of clergy across gender and racial lines is a foundation of all discussions and decisions.

      The bishop and cabinet would be the first to know I am not criticizing them when I say that appointment-making is not a perfect process, especially with a system swamped with location, family and economic preferences/needs.  There are disappointments and people get hurt (not because, as some speculated, the cabinet got drunk and threw darts at an appointment board).  But I leave the cabinet certain that we are served by leaders committed to an openness that was only a dream when I came into the ministry.

      And as I reflect back across the cabinet conversations, I had the great lifeline of having my say.  I did not always get my way  J  but none of us always got our way.  Because of the spirit of collegiality, a commitment to openness and a LOT of patience, I had the freedom to speak my convictions and observations.  No Christian (in any capacity) has the right to say whatever they want to say.  (Which is a fundamental truth that too many church members have not grasped.  Christ-committed people have a higher standard:  speaking the truth in love.).  So I didn’t say in the cabinet whatever popped into my mind.  But I consistently felt the respect and freedom to speak my prayerful, thoughtful convictions freely.  Our cabinet had a rich diversity of perspective, experience and background.  I believe that because of the respectful expression of different perspectives, we made better decisions than we would otherwise have made.

     These are the take-away experiences I cherish.   Living out these realities on the cabinet only deepens my hope for these central dynamics to become intregal to the life of church at every level:  an openness to the leadership God has called (even/especially those other than what we are used to) and the free and respectful sharing of different perspectives as decisions are made.

     I was surprised.

    And, as I leave,  I am grateful – oh, so grateful—and immeasurably enriched for the experience.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cherishing each gift

     Sunday's celebration of the Statesville District will always be a high  moment in my heart.  The thoughtful people in the District went above and beyond in making a memory for us all.  The gifts of a "Day of Tranquility and Peace" at a spa, the exquisite full set of liturgical pottery by a Catawba County potter and, of course, the one-of-a-kind "Email Champion" trophy are all visible treasures of the kingdom-building joy we have shared together.
     These visible gifts will remind me of the many heart gifts that have been exchanged as we have shared ministry together.  I cherish most highly the churches that have found strength through their struggles and health through hard times.  I am proud of the constructive members of churches who braved criticism and conflict because of their love for their church.  I have been so inspired by the ways churches have taken on the challenge to share Christ in new and vital ways:  alliances with schools, community meals, community gardens, bridge events to reach out to people in the community, service projects, wood-cutting ministries, prayer shawl outreach: a multitude of bright spots.
      I treasure all the ways that we have grown -- recognizing imperfections, admitting shortcomings, hungering to learn new ways to share Christ, developing healthy practices for leadership, deepening commitment to stewardship and embracing (instead of resisting) the way the world has changed.
     I appreciate the thanks from laity and clergy across the district for the way God has been able to do a healing, building work among them.  Every time someone said, "Thank you", I knew that other people were really the ones responsible for equipping me to be able to do the work I have done:  my parents who raised me in the church and taught me to stay grounded when people are at their worst;  those laity who encouraged me and blessed me and affirmed me and did what was right for the church when times were tough;  a bishop and cabinet colleagues who have a firm commitment to supporting pastors and laity who take a stand for Christ.  Those are the people who really deserve the thanks for any good I have been able to do.
     Just as those people and experiences equipped me for the work of superintendency, my prayer is that what we have shared together in the Statesville District will continue to bear fruit of inspiration and encouragement and hope and help as new challenges come.  Let us go into life's new challenges with grateful hearts.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Can we freeze-dry you?

Dear Connor,
You are having a special weekend with Aunt Christi and Uncle Will. My house was the hand-off place (a treat for me because I got to see you all!).
Uncle Will and Aunt Christi have been looking for special things to do with you during your big-boy weekend...and one of your activities will be a trip to a tiger reserve. Grrrrrrrrr....
In order for you to go, your Mommy had to sign a permission slip and she jokingly said, "Is this in case Connor gets eaten up by a tiger?" Knowing how protective we ALL are, we all laughed.
Then you said, "Eaten by a tiger? Yay! That would mean that I would go to heaven and get to be close to God."
Of course, I can hardly stand the idea of your playing football (your current desire) or being stung by a bee...much less be eaten by a bear...much less your going to heaven.
While I was catching my breath, I was grateful for your pure heart: going to heaven? Yay! that just means being able to be close to God.
I would like to freeze-dry that profound child's trust.
It tells me that you have been paying attention to one of the church's richest contributions to life: no fear of death. My own parents taught me all my life not to be afraid of death and that is a great, great gift. This faith is one of the unique gifts the church can give and, when we are honest, people of all ages in this dangerous world need this precious, grounding, abiding confidence.
You had better not get eaten by a tiger tomorrow. But for all your tomorrows, I hope you maintain the deep truth that you accessed so easily as we were playfully bantering about your adventure.
Yes, going to heaven is -- as you said--a good thing. It "just means being able to be close to God." I hope that trust can be freeze-dried and cemented in your heart forever.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wishing for just one thing...

If there was just one thing I could do for my recovery, I would do it without hesitation.
Healing is just not that easy.
I would be glad to take a pill if it would take care of the pain. Don't misunderstand me. I am thankful for medication and meds have been a blessed part of healing for me. But only a part. Recovery is more than taking pain medication. Exercise heals. Diet makes a difference. Sleep matters. Drinking enough fluids is a part of getting all systems back on go. Breathing -- yes, breathing--deep, mindful breathing is part of the answer. Routine is a big part of getting the body back on track.
I spend a lot of time balancing all these things. No wonder I long for one simple solution!
Over and over again, I hear this same longing from churches recovering from decline. I hear from people who turn to simple (but not accurate) diagnoses that would, in their opinion, fix the lack of vitality of their church. Most often, in my present work, that is to blame the preacher for the present and fantasize that a new preacher is the answer to the problem. (Usually the simple remedy is a 30 year old preacher with 25 years' worth of pastoral wisdom and experience...)
Sometimes, a different preacher is PART of the answer. But, just like healing the physical body, recovery is not a simple, do-just-one-thing-for-instant-results answer. Recovery is a multi-faceted approach that takes time, patience, persistent practice and constant balance.
Add patience to the list of things that are essential for recovery...undergirding a renewed conviction that recovery and healing requires multi-faceted, balanced vigilance--in bodies, in relationships and in churches or in our world.
One simple thing will not usually fix significant problems and needs.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My joyful hymn of praise

When I was a child, I thought the hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth" lasted forever. It reminded me of a child praying for every conceivable thing to keep from having to go to sleep at night. Every time the one-line refrain came around, ("Lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise..."), I knew we were one verse closer to the end.
Reflecting back on the last two weeks of recovery from surgery, I am caught up in the deeper essence of the hymn: an overflowing grateful heart. My list includes everything I have sung through the years...but my personal application makes the 6 verses of the hymn-in-the-hymbook look pitifully short.
For surgeons, nurses, hospitals and pain medications;
For the marvelous intricacies and healing nature of our bodies;
For the healing presence of loved ones;
For supportive and patient family members;
For help -- and offers of help--in times of physical weakness;
For expressions of love, support and prayers that nourish and sustain a recovering spirit;
For the many ways that pain is ameliorated --
a simple walk; resting in a comfortable chair; slip-on shoes; a warm shower; music; soft
clothes, blooming flowers, the balmy-but-not-hot weather, the clear sunshine.
For going to sleep in the majesty of thunderstorms and waking to the singing of birds;
For healthy food which nourishes and sleep that restores body and spirit;
For the love of others that is not dependent on what you can do for them;
For staff persons who carry on the work and devotedly protect my time to recover;
For the rich privilege of watching my body heal -- a visible, personal hope;
For a beautiful place to call home -- comfortable places to sit inside and outside
to pray and rest and soak in healing grace;
For the prayers of others linking love on earth with the riches of God's resources in heaven...

"Lord of all," this is just the beginning of my "hymn of grateful praise."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Small rearrangement of letters describes it all....

I don't know how those under the care of physicians got called "patients". I'm sure some google search engine could tell me. As I was staying up last night so I would be on schedule for my medications, I was laughing to myself (in a tired sort of way) how much "p-a-t-i-e-n-t-s" need P-A-T-I-E-N-C-E.
A nurse-friend on Facebook had just admonished me to be a good patient. My instinctive reaction was that, to be a good patient, I would need patience. Of all the kind things people have said about me through the years, outstanding patience with myself has never been high on the list. And here I am in a very important time of life where patience is a core practice. Patience for patients is not just one among many attributes. Patience for patients is essential.
Going into surgery catapults normal people into a new realm -- a temporary and healing way of life--but a shift from what is familiar. It requires patience. I didn't say that patience is a happy, optional attribute to have. I'm saying that in recovering from surgery, patience is absolutely necessary. Oh dear.
Recovery is a new routine that requires listening to yourself, following instructions and living with constant reminders of vulnerability. I don't score high on those characteristics either. I do well in listening to others, giving kind and wise advice and gratitude for the gift of each day. So I am finding that it works well for me to just give advice to myself. As it turns out, I have learned first hand that the advice I have often given as a pastor is healing guidance indeed. Nice to know.
"Be a good patient" is not only good advice for me as an individual recovering from surgery. "Be a good patient" is a generally good reminder to all physicians of body and soul -- notoriously the worst of all patients. Wise to notice...
I love to see people live into grace space for themselves. And now, for a couple of weeks while my body requires rest and I am not allowed to drive, I am going to live into intentional grace space for myself--praying that this experience will not only allow for healing--but deepen my heart to be a better pastor. Patients need patience. Lord, I am working on it--or, more accurately, life is working on me to become more patient.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A grateful goodbye? A hopeful hello?

Yesterday, the General Conference made an historic shift for the United Methodist Church in removing guaranteed appointments for elders. Ever since the vote, I have been flooded with memories and emotions.
All through my life in the church, I have seen that claiming the authority of the Discipline rarely is the trump card that changes people's hearts. Especially as a District Superintendent, an important part of administrative ministry is to teach and apply the disciplinary covenant which is at the core of connectional life. When the Discipline speaks, all United Methodists--bishops, superintendents, pastors, laity--are in a good-faith covenant that the provisions of the Discipline are to be the standard of practice in church life. A perfecting process is available every 4 years-- The General Conference-- open for input from all. United Methodists live in covenant to the larger wisdom of General Conference action. So all the General Conference actions are big decisions.
Eliminating the guaranteed appointment for elders was an easy change for some. My heart, however, was remembering that I would not have had the opportunity to answer God's call in ministry except for the mandate of the Discipline. The night before my ordination as a deacon (the long-ago first step to ordination), my bishop resisted. While I was gathering in excitement with my family, the bishop was consulting with the conference Chair of Ordained Ministry to see if the ordination could be avoided. I have never stopped thanking God that the bishop was advised that my approval had been in conformity with the Discipline and that the bishop had no choice but to honor it. So my partiality to following the Discipline has personal roots.
Although the Discipline had specifically included women in all provisions applying to the ministry since 1956, twenty years later, women clergy were rare. As far as I could tell, what was written into the Discipline had not warmed hearts toward the change. Opposition to women in ministry was open and widespread. Adversity did not end with ordination. Time and time again, women had a chance to serve a church only because the Discipline guaranteed the appointment of elders. When I received my first appointment to a church, a District Superintendent from a neighboring district said in a conference meeting: "I hope she falls flat on her face." The experience of serving a church far exceeded the hurt of opposition. The guarantee of an appointment had opened a door and God blessed it abundantly.
I came into ministry in a most remarkable time in history.
I have stories and experiences that younger women will not have. Along with the hard experiences are a treasure trive of heartwarming and hilarious stories. Clergy sisters from my era remember getting chased out of clergy parking spots at hospitals by diligent parking attendants who did not believe that women were clergy. And the big dilemma of how to address a clergywoman -- when "Brother" obviously didn't fit. Every experience deepened my dependance on God's love. Every valley reassured me of God's presence, comfort and calling on my life. Every rejection was a challenge of love and renewed focus on living out grace to everyone.
Now, thankfully, much has changed in the church and in the world. It's been years since I have heard of a female clergy being refused a parking place or admittance to an ICU in a hospital at sheer disbelief that a woman could be a pastor. And for years, the cabinet has said that appointments will be made without regard to gender (or race or age).
In some ways, my heart is cheering that General Conference delegates would think that the church has come so far that guaranteed appointments are no longer necessary protections. That's the new day I have dreamed of and worked toward my whole ministry. That's the grateful goodbye I am glad to say...a hopeful hello to a new future where the mission is more important than traditional barriers that have divided us.
I'd be glad to be at the front of the line to welcome that new future.
My heart, however, is not quite sure we are there.
I am remembering that even this spring, I had a Pastor-Parish Committee tell me that, nothing personal, but they did not want a woman pastor. (How could such a claim be made in 2012? And how could people look at a female superintendent and say that their conviction was "nothing personal"?) I assured them that they did NOT want to continue that line of conversation with me. We worked through it together.
But this is 2012. That conversation -- and similar stories repeated around the cabinet table--nag at my heart. Is it too soon to remove the guaranteed appointment? Is the progress foundational to this vote more illusion and wishful thinking? That's the unanswered question. With all my heart, I hope the answer is yes. That same heart says, "Wait and see..."
One of the greatest blessings of living through these decades of being a first is that I recognize--and appreciate--every small step of progress. I am thankful for things that my father and male colleagues would naturally -- and understandably--take for granted. My heart gravitates to gratitude. I have received every appointment -- even with the guaranteed appointment--as a blessing and with a sense of wonder.
Now, my beloved United Methodist Church will show how far we have come. If, through the provisions the Discipline provided for decades, hearts have been opened, I will be the first one to celebrate. I will not be pessimistic.
I am, however, cautious. And I am praying that God will continue to open our hearts for sharing His love in the most abundant, Christ-focused ways possible.