Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Be who you are.

I am a provisional member of the North Georgia Conference. For those folks who aren't in the United Methodist world, that means that I have miles to go before I sleep in terms of making it to ordination. This is a provisional time, a time of learning and growing and determining fruit for ministry. As it is, I am actually appreciative of this time. I am allowed to test and learn and discuss in an environment that is especially conducive to growth (that is, surrounded by folks in the same boat, at the same point in their ministries).

I am serious. This time is good. I hope you can get enough of a sense of my temperament in this blog to know that I have no problem pointing out when I have a problem with something. And perhaps this time is too long (we have a three-year process in North Georgia, whereas many other conferences have gone to a two-year system), but I really do find it to be useful. Test, try, do, pray, discuss: all in a safe environment.

That said, I have thought long and hard about whether even blogging during this time of provisional membership is worth it. The more public writing I do, the more there is with which to indict me, I suppose the thinking goes. I have been advised to keep my head down, to know my place, to keep my mouth shut.

And while I understand the importance of, well, not outgrowing my britches, I also know that "keep your head down" is probably great advice for war but terrible advice for ministry.

It's not that I want to start a revolution or anything. I am not intending to strike up the band and parade into the conference office wearing a sandwich board declaring something-or-other. I am not advocating an Occupy Methodism movement. But I wonder where this "keep your head down" advice comes from, and what its effects are.

Is that really the point of the provisional process? To keep my mouth shut and my head down? Of course it is not, at least as it is intended. But there seems to be such a fear of the Board of Ordained Ministry that folks decide to spend three years toiling in quiet, keeping silent about any problems--especially as they are unique to young or new clergy. I just want to get through the Board, we say. I just want to pass.

Because provisional members are so consumed with simply passing--that is, not simply consumed with bearing fruit in ministry or serving God faithfully--we are perhaps doing in ministry what we are doing in public education: teaching to the test. I know of one seminary that regularly hands out answers to the Board of Ordained Ministry questions and then asks students--as the final paper in several classes--to rephrase the answers in their own words.

If the point of the provisional process is to help provisional members demonstrate fruit in ministry--but what we are actually doing is teaching provisional members to keep their heads down--how can we possibly be surprised when the church loses its former relevance? We are learning to shut up rather than to speak out!

This may be a good strategy for making it through the Board, but it is a terrible strategy for building up the Church. The problem is that for new ministers--and especially those of us who are young--these first years in ministry are very formational. I suspect I'll carry the things I've learned here at Johns Creek UMC with me throughout my ministry. I bet I will catch myself saying things like, "Well, at Johns Creek, we . . ."

This is a formational time, and if I am taught to keep quiet during this time, I may well carry that lesson with me, and rather than speaking truth, I may just keep my mouth shut to avoid rocking the boat.

So, here is my plan. I will think and pray before I speak, but not because the Board is coming up. I will think before I speak because words matter and are important.

I will sometimes censor myself, but not because the Board is coming up. I will censor myself, because I am called to be a part of the church, and part of what it means to be the church is to recognize that the wisdom of the whole is greater than the wisdom of the individual. This does not mean I will keep quiet. It simply means that I will be respectful of the fact that I am but a small part of the church.

I will listen to others and do my best to grow, to allow the Holy Spirit to work within me and teach me the ways of God. I will think and talk about ministry in terms of how God is working in my current appointment, and how God is working in the UMC (and the Church) as a whole. I will take what I am experiencing in my first years of ministry and seek to place it in a greater context.

And I will keep communicating, keep praying, keep blogging, because this is now I process and learn and grow and respond to God's call. I will do all that I can to be who I am.

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