Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm a minister.

My wife, Stacey, and I have a game we like to play at parties. We will get into a conversation with someone we don't know, as normal, and we will wait until the conversation begins to run its course. Once we're ready to get out of the conversation, we direct the line of discussion towards work, and the person we're talking to will inevitably ask us what we do.

"We're ministers," we say, and then we see how long it takes the conversation to completely shut down. On average, it is less than a minute.

Oh, the person will stammer, say something about how they usually go to church, and if it is Saturday night, and they've already talked about their plans to stay out late and sleep in the next morning, they'll say something like, "Well, I usually go on Sunday evening" which, of course, is neither true nor a particularly good lie. I would prefer something along the lines of, "Well, I would go to church, but I think it is stupid." Or "Why on earth would you want to be a minister?" Or "Church? Like the chicken place?"

Inevitably, the person with whom we're talking says, "Oh, that's cool," and the conversation just ends. Nobody knows how to engage after that. And there's no turning back from that kind of roadblock. You can't talk about last week's Mad Men when you've thrown that kind of news on somebody. A minister? At a party? . . . I think I will go talk to someone else.

When I first started telling people what I do, I was really surprised by the response I got. I mean, this is my reality. Ministry is normal to me because it is the life I live. My wife lives it, too, so it is not unusual for us to talk about theological minutiae at the dinner table, or about who is driving us crazy this week, or about our hopes for the future in ministry. Ministry is what I do, and a minister is who I am (in the strongest sense of "am"). I do not look in the mirror and think anything other than "I need a haircut."

But for others, particularly those who are not active in the church, meeting a minister must be like meeting a martian. Meeting a young minister must be like meeting a giant martian, and meeting a young minister at a party must be like, well, you understand.

I suppose part of the surprise is because of my age. I am twenty-seven, and while historically ministers started out much younger than me, the average clergyperson these days is pushing ninety.

I kid, I kid. But you get the picture. Not only are there fewer young clergy, but my generation does not seem to get church. Especially because many of my friends are single and without children, they do not see a need for church. That is fine, I suppose. I mean, I am a fan of church, at least when it is done well. But I understand the apprehension. There have been days when church did not sound so great to me, either.

I understand the hesitation with church, but I wonder if even more than the shock at my profession in general, and my age in particular, it seems shocking to people that they would go to a party and end up talking to a minister. Ministers just do not go to parties, you understand.

Actually, this is probably fair. You tend not to see many ministers at parties. I suppose we are busy with church potlucks and Bible studies and such.

I worry that clergy are an insular bunch. Actually, I know they are an insular bunch, and I worry about what that does both to clergy and to everybody else.

Some of my closest friends are clergy, and for good reason. We share struggles, we understand unique pressures, and we have similar interests. Plus, those of us who are young United Methodist clergy will be colleagues for the next 30 to 40 years. We might as well get along.

Being friends with clergy, though, is not enough. There are plenty of great, non-clergy (and non-church!) folk who make perfectly good friends, I am here to tell you. Miss out on those folks, and you are missing out on some good people.

Now, I am not someone who thinks it is all that great when pastors go hang out in bars "to meet the regular people." That is a little overdone, and I am a little tired of hearing the same old "well, Jesus hung out with sinners" line. When you've labeled them sinners like that, you've already created enough of a barrier that jumping over it is probably out of the question.

I do think, though, that pastors should be intentional--there's that word again--about not limiting themselves to church life. Not only is it not productive to hang out with church people all the time, in terms of my own faith development, but I am pretty sure it is not healthy to conflate my professional life with each and every one of my personal relationships.

That does not mean I am not always a minister. I am. Mine is not a 9-5 calling, and I am Rev. Rushing when I am in the shower and when I am on vacation and when I am at a party, just as much as I am Rev. Rushing when I am wearing a robe or visiting the hospital. But always being a minister does not mean I am only allowed to hang out with people who feel the need for church. Most people, you ought not be shocked to learn, do not feel the need for church. I am missing out on a lot of fine folks if I limit my friends to church people. And I am not doing myself justice if all I do is church-related.

So I will keep going to parties, and I am not going to choose all my friends with a church-attendance litmus test in my back pocket. I hope my clergy friends do the same. It is good, I think, to be in an environment when I am just another somebody in the room. It reminds me that while the call of God is good, it does not make me so special. I need to hear that sometimes.

Plus, if more clergy would bridge those divides, and these kinds of relationships were more commonplace, it would make conversations at parties a little less awkward. So there's that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Pastor's 24 project

My old friend Thomas has some tough words for the Pastor's 24 project. Read them here. He sees the project as the result of some of our worst impulses as clergy, pastors "worrying if our congregations think we are spending enough time 'doing' ministry." He goes on:
We should be about the business of being in ministry with other and with God as the guide. So we create lists in order to prove what he have done. We want concrete measurements of numbers and figures. Instead, we should be planting seeds and fertilizing growth. Those have intangible results from day to day, but over time, it bears much fruit.

I don't think you can argue too much with the notion that pastors--and, well, people in general--often seek validation for their actions at the expense of actually doing what is right. Moving past validation, I think, is part of what separates great clergy from marginal clergy. Figure that one out, and the rest is cream cheese.

But the Pastor's 24 project, as I understand it, looks nothing like the project Thomas is describing. Thomas says that "the main reason given here" is to "show that pastors do more than Sunday things." To summarize his argument--I think I am being fair here--Thomas is saying that the whole enterprise is about seeking validation. United Methodist ministry, he says, should be its own validation. We are sent, and in that sending, we are inherently "given value in that placement."

Thomas seems to see the project as our--and let's make it personal, since I am participating--my need to show the congregation that I do, in fact, work all day. As he said, I think that myth has been debunked. I have no worries about whether the congregation things I work enough. Nor do I have concerns about my value as a pastor. I am humbled with the charge I have been given, and I find worth in both the work and in my relationship with God and people. I do not need validation from the Twitterverse.

I think Thomas is misreading the question behind the project. The question is, "What do you do all day?" The question is not, "Why do you only work one hour a week, you lazy so-and-so?" The difference is in the tone.

There is an aura about ministry. Having not grown up in the church, I can testify to the mystery. Clergy are such public figures--there are perhaps few figures so public, other than politicians--that there is of course some palace intrigue as it relates to what we do during the countless hours we spend in private or doing duties other than presiding in worship. The purpose of the project, as I understand it, is to shed some light on those duties: not for validation's sake, but in order to demystify, and because we clergy often toil alone. As Jeremy says in his announcement of the project, "I wonder what great diversity there might be in a pastor’s daily life." I am excited about today because I get to take a brief look into the ministry lives of those people who are public figures, but who spend most of their time in private.

I would say only one more thing. Saying something "gets it wrong" seems to be pretty common these days: see here and here. But I would hope that those who question the project (and I know that it is not just my good friend Thomas) approach it with the same validated humility with which they call for being in ministry. I want to see the project play out before deeming it a misguided venture.

So I am an eager participant. Follow me at @herevrush, or--better yet--search for the hashtag #pastors24.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pastor's 24

Tomorrow is the Pastor's 24 hour Twitter project, during which various clergy across the US (and maybe the world?) are tweeting every single ministry-related thing they do for a twenty-four hour period.

This is a pretty fascinating notion to me for two reasons.

One, you know the classic question: what do you do all day? I thought this question was passe, until I was asked it twice last week. Hopefully it was less about my work performance than wanting to know how people in ministry fill their time!

Two, I think that the aims of the Pastor's 24 project mirror the aims of this blog quite well: that is, to celebrate the details of ministry while keeping an eye on the Big Picture. There is no better way to do that, I don't think, than to lay out the details as they are.

So I am playing. You can find me on twitter at @herevrush. Wednesdays are pretty crazy around here, so it should be an interesting day.

The project starts, I guess, at midnight, during which time I hope to be asleep. Once I'm up and going, I'll be posting every ministry-related thing I do. I am actually really interested to read through my tweets at the end of the day. You plan out a day, and things just come up. I have not had a good way, in the past, of keeping track of those things. I am curious just how much "ad-hoc-ing" I do during the day.

Check out more information about the project at Hacking Christianity.

You can follow along on my twitter page--or, better yet, follow all those who are participating by searching the hashtag #pastors24 on Twitter.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On Birmingham-Southern College . . .

. . . in which Bishop Willimon BRINGS IT.

On preaching

Gordon Atkinson, who has been better known as Real Live Preacher, recently gave up RLP and preaching altogether. Here are some thoughts that mirror my own about the preaching task:

I loved preaching. I loved the way it stretched me emotionally, spiritually, biblically, and creatively. I loved the high calling of colliding with the scriptures during the week and sharing the results of that collision with my brothers and sisters on Sunday mornings. It was challenging and meaningful to me. But it was also dangerous.

Check out the whole thing. As someone who is energized by the preaching process--beginning to end--I should say that I don't share his particular concerns about the power of the "dark side" of preaching. I hear the concerns, and I recognize they are valid. But I lose him when he says, "if I'm preaching, I will not be fully engaged with worship." For me, preaching in worship is the most faithful, most worshipful witness I can offer.

That is not to say I don't experience periods of doubt, or of not "feeling it." But then again, is it not the role of the communion of saints to surround me when I find it difficult to worship, holding me up and worshiping alongside me until I am able to "feel it" once again?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On discipline

Well, I shouldn't just leave it there--with those lyrics and the picture from last weekend. It was lovely, of course. We got to relax, and eat--my goodness, did we eat--and play with my niece and nephew, which I don't get to do enough of. And I got caught up on some reading I have been meaning to do. I've had this book for a few years now, and I just got around to reading it last week. It is chock full of great stuff, by the way.

It is funny. I love to read, and I find great peace and pleasure in it, but I have found myself so busy lately--with the stock ticker in my brain running so fast with things to do and people to call and emails to return--that it is hard for me to do any reading unless I am on vacation and purposefully resting. I can decompress enough in those situations to focus on a book for hours at a time, and I find myself reading faster, not getting lost in the prose, paying attention and engaging the material as I read.

This is the dilemma I have: the more I have to do--the more I need to focus--the less I am able. I realize that it is impossible to do everything well, but I also know that as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago (preaching to myself I suppose) if I am in a thousand different places, I might as well be nowhere. So this conversation is not about being good at everything. I am not sure how to label the issue, but words like "balance" and "discipline" come to mind.

Balance is important because I have to be able to rest enough and work enough so that enough gets done, and I do not burn out. Balance is also important because there are so many demands on my time that I can not possibly give all of them the attention they deserve. Balance means I am intentional about what gets my time, and that I continue to tinker with what I am given so that I am always trying to be the most faithful steward of my time I can be.

Discipline is a word that also comes to mind, and I suppose that as I am United Methodist, it is no surprise that discipline is an important word for me. Besides the fact that the Book of Discipline is our (as one pastor has said) "rules of engagement," Wesley talked about discipline so much that his people were called Methood-ists.

I have been thinking about discipline for the last few months, as it relates to the way in which I function as a minister--and how I function in my relationships. Forgive my half-formed thoughts, as I am still working on this, but I am more and more seeing the need for good discipline in my life.

Take sleep for instance. It has become my custom to stay up reasonably late, either trying to read or getting caught up on a TV show I have not yet seen. Once I finally fall asleep, I stay asleep until I absolutely have to get up. I do like to sleep, so my morning is spent hurriedly getting ready for work.

I am thinking about sleep, because I know there is a more disciplined way to function. About a year ago, as I was trying to finish a writing project (which still remains almost done ), I spent a couple of months getting up early, and that was holy time for me. When no one else is awake, when it is still dark outside and there is nothing to do but drink coffee, pet the dogs, pray and read and write--that is my time. I was productive, and at peace, and this was well and good until I decided, for whatever reason, that it was time to go back to the old sleep pattern. My morning time was spent asleep. This is not a new struggle for me. During Lent a few years ago, I decided to wake up quite early each morning for a time of prayer and meditation. I lasted about three or four weeks before I could not make myself get up each morning. The spirit was willing, I think, but nonetheless . . .

But the issue of disciple is bigger than sleep. I have been thinking, too, about clergy health, and how can I not? We talk about it so often, and I have been known to roll my eyes about yet another discussion about maintaining clergy health. Rest is only part of it. I am convinced that if I do not remain physically healthy, there is absolutely no way I can be a faithful disciple, doing the things that need to be done, let alone a faithful minister of the Gospel. I am in fine health now, and yet I find myself often so tired that it becomes a struggle to even engage a book at the end of the day. If I were in worse health, I know that there is no way I could survive in ministry. Discipline demands that I am intentional about exercising, intentional about what I eat, intentional about resting and dealing with stress and maintaining my relationships.

Come to think of it, maybe "intentionality" is a good word for maintaining sanity in ministry. If I am intentional about how I go about my day, about maintaining balance and discipline, then at least I will not be a passive observer of my own life.

Perhaps this is a bridge to far, but I am also wondering if this kind of radical intentionality is a "required" part of what it means to be a Christian. If we can agree that being a Christian requires a relationship with God, and that having a relationship means that both parties give to it, then I cannot be in right relationship with God if I am just letting things happen to me, surviving minute to minute until the next tsunami hits. That is not relationship; that is letting life happen to you. For me to be in relationship with God, I must be intentional about giving to that relationship, on my own accord, on my own initiative. Otherwise, I am just riding the wave until my days are done. You ought not be surprised when I tell you that riding the wave is not why I got into ministry.

If I am going to be about the business of transforming the world--rather than just hopping along for the ride--then God demands discipline.

This is not to conflate who I am with what I do. I am a deep believer that you should be who you are, recognizing that you are a child of God as you are. But all the same, if I am to be my best self for God--if I am to be the most authentic disciple I can be, with the rest of the mess stripped away--then I must be disciplined.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Satisfied Mind

How many times have you heard someone say
"If I had his money, I could do things my way?"
Little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

Once I was winning in fortune and fame
Everything that I dreamed for to get a start in life's game
Suddenly it happened, I lost every dime
But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind

Money can't buy back your youth when you're old
Or a friend when you're lonely, or a love that's grown cold
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind

When my life is ended, my time has run out
My trials and my loved ones, I'll leave them no doubt
But one thing's for certain, when it comes my time
I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind
("Satisfied Mind"-Rhodes & Hayes)

Thursday, October 21, 2010


One of my traits about which I am most proud is that I know my limits. I tend not to over-extend myself, and I know when it is time for me to rest. When that happens, I pull myself away for a little while, scrape a few things off my plate for the time being, and take some time to recover.

I am a few days past that point. It has been a very busy few weeks, and I have a busy few weeks coming up. I am so happy with how the process of building a mission program at the church is going, but there is more work to be done, and I am just tired.

So it is time to rest. Stacey and I are off this morning to see her dad and step mom for a couple of days. They have rented a lake house in Cordele, GA, and we are off to sit and visit and fish and rest, which are four of my favorite things to do.

It is a welcome rest, believe me. There was a time in my early twenties when being around family was anything but restful, but I am reaching the point where I cherish that time with family, which is good because it seems as if we have a lot of family time coming up. More on this later.

I am just getting used to the rhythms of ministry, of the time to work and the time to rest. It will take me a couple of years to get my sea legs, and then a lifetime to master. In the meantime, I am understanding more and more why we harp on sabbath and clergy health so much. It is possible--even likely--for a minister to work herself, literally, to death. There is so much to be done, and while I have never been one to believe that I--and I alone--hold the key to the world's problems, I nevertheless find myself saying things like, "just one more phone call" or "let me just send this last email" or "I just need to go visit these people one more time," instead of acknowledging my limitations and taking a breather.

A minister I know recently told her husband: "You are not indispensable." This is good advice. And so, not being indispensable, I am off to the lake.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Barth on Integrity

It is as the persons they are that preachers are called to this task, as these specific people with their own characteristics and histories. It is as the persons they are that they have been selected and called. This is what is meant by originality. Pastors are not to adopt a role. They are not to slip into the clothing of biblical characters. That would be the worst kind of comedy. They are not to be Luthers, churchmen, prophets, visionaries, or the like. They are simply to be themselves, and to expound the text as such. Preaching is the responsible word of a person of our own time. Having heard myself, I am called upon to pass on what I have heard. Even as ministers, it matters that these persons be what they are. They must not put on a character or a robe. They do not have to play a role. It is you who have been commissioned, you, just as you are, not as minister, as pastor or theologian, not under any concealment or cover, but you yourself have simply to discharge this commission.

On Mentors

Later this morning, Stacey and I are off to Candler to attend the seminary's Distinguished Alumni Banquet. This year there are three recipients: Gilbert L. Schroerlucke (for service to community), Herschel Sheets (for service to Candler), and Bishop Bob Morgan (for service to church).

As it tends to be, all three of these men are old. I just don't know how else to say it. A lifetime of service is what usually garners such an award, so naturally the people who receive such an award have had long ministries. Bob Morgan is the youngest of the bunch, and he graduated from Candler in 1958. I think he just turned 78.

So while I am not ordinarily one to go out of my way to celebrate old white men--though I do hope to be one some day--Bishop Morgan was a mentor to me, and so I am excited to be present today.

The Bish, as we all called him, retired from sixteen years of active episcopal service to a life of teaching at Birmingham-Southern College (my alma mater), as the Bishop-in-Residence. I was among the group that traveled with Bish and his wife, Martha, to Greece and Italy in 2004 for one of his "Footsteps of Paul" trips. I also worked in BSC's Church Relations office my senior year, and my office was two doors down from his. You would have never known that this sweet man had been the President of the World Council of Bishops of the UMC by the way he took time to speak with me.

I am not someone who can point to a whole host of mentors in my life. I did not grow up in the church, so in ministry, there are only two or three people I can say really took the time to mentor me. And chief among them is Bishop Morgan. I know for a fact he secured my scholarship to Candler--and I needed all the help I could get. And he encouraged me throughout the ministry process, checking in every now and again to make sure I was keeping up with my responsibilities.

All of us who worked with the Bish have a favorite Bishop Morgan story--I have so many--but my favorite involves an exam we had in his Parables of Jesus class. The test was as you would expect: some multiple choice, some short answer, a couple of essays, and a map.

Now, I hate filling in maps. I hate it. I have never been any good at geography. Maybe my spatial reasoning is just not up to snuff. I don't know. But I have never been any good at maps. I avoided taking geography in high school and college because I knew I was no good at it, and I avoided taking classes where I knew I would have to mark up maps.

Or, at least, I'd thought I had successfully avoided taking those classes, because here I sat in Bishop Morgan's Parables class, staring at a map that I could hardly make heads or tails of. We were to mark the major cities in Jesus's life, and draw the boundaries of his ministry, or some such thing. And, for the life of me, I just could not get it right. I put the cities down that I could remember, and tried to place them on the map, and started marking the boundaries as best I could.

Maybe I looked confused. I would not doubt it. But Bishop Morgan got up from the table at the front of the class, walked to the back row, past the 40 or so other students in the classroom, and proceeded to actually give me the answers to the map. In the middle of his exam. I could almost hear the ears of the people sitting around me perk up as he started quietly pointing to places on the map and telling me what to write.

You'd better believe that I remembered the appropriate places from then on. You do not have the professor give you the answers in the middle of the exam and proceed to forget them. So if the point was to learn the map, well, I did. And if it required the Bish to actually give me the answers, so be it.

This is the kind of man Bishop Morgan is: willing to work with nobody college students, mentor them and encourage their gifts, and give them the answers in the middle of the test if necessary.

That kind of life is unnecessary, of course, at least in the eyes of most folks. Here we have a bishop, who does not need to do anything but retire and have a happy life. And yet, seeing the need in the church--and seeing the need in the students with whom he works--he continues to mentor.

I am excited to celebrate him today. I just hope that some of that caring spirit has rubbed off on me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Losing the Big Picture

I am new to this ministry thing, so bear with me.

I suppose an introduction is in order. I was commissioned a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church at the annual conference session of the North Georgia Annual Conference in June. That commission, for the uninitiated, means I am a Rev., but I am not done with the ordination process in the UMC. It is a long road, and I have come far, but there are miles to go before I sleep.

I am serving as an associate at a large United Methodist church in north Fulton County, GA, in a suburb of Atlanta called Johns Creek. My wife, who is also a minister (and who was commissioned with me this past June) is also serving as an associate at the same church. It makes dinner conversation interesting, and I do love having a partner in crime.

My portfolio includes several groups, but my main task is mission and outreach, which at Johns Creek UMC means building a mission trip program and getting folks fired up about mission. I do have a little background in this; I worked for three years at United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, the short-term, mission-sending agency of the UMC, and I wrote the manual that is used to train mission team leaders in United Methodist churches in the southeast. So this charge is nothing new.

What is new, though, and what I am finding to be my biggest struggle in ministry, is the fact that my day usually consists of eight thousand very specific tasks, many administrative, and it tends to be that you could probably divide my day up into five and ten minute increments, with a staff meeting or two thrown in for good measure.

There are days when I feel as if I am drowning in details, and details are important. I have seen those ministers who ignore details, who walk, bumbling, into a church and knock over the altar candles and the altar guild--and just about everybody else, to boot--because they ignore the details of ministry. So for as much as I am doing my best to hold on to the big picture, I also want to make sure I do not lose sight of the details--God works within the details, too.

But It is hard to hold on to the big picture when you do something new every five minutes, and in ministry, the big picture is actually the Big Picture, so you can't just ignore it and move on. I suppose that in some ways, the Big Picture is something like the floor: you go along not noticing it until it is gone, and then you've really got nowhere to go.

So this is my attempt to both be reflective about being a millennial in ministry (I am twenty-seven) and to hang on to the Big Picture.

I find myself in the church at an interesting time. The United Methodist Church in the United States is losing members, even as it is growing in Africa. There are those who claim wayward theology as the reason for decline, and while I believe theology is vital to knowing who we are as people of faith, I am not ready to blame this loss of members on the church's theological stances.

The church is graying, as well. The median age of United Methodist Elders stands at 55, the highest in history. Half of elders are between 55 and 72. While the number of young clergy has grown marginally in the last ten years, we remain a very small percentage of the overall United Methodist clergy. And the church's demographics mirror those of the clergy.

It is an interesting time to be a young clergy person, but--if you will pardon the cliche--I am convinced we stand at a crossroad as a church. God is doing something new, and I am excited to see what that looks like.

There are exciting things happening in the church, and I am determined not to so drown in the details that I miss what God is doing. This is my attempt to keep an eye on that Big Picture.