Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.

I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.

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  1. Names Are Important

Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.

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  1. God Provides

After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.

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Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

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Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

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If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”

Devotional – Psalm 51.1

Devotional:

Psalm 51.1

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I am asked to preside over a wedding, I take full advantage of the opportunity to share the beauty of God’s love. During pre-marital counseling I encourage couples to find a bible verse that relates to their relationship, we discuss what it looks like to pray for our spouse, and we use God’s love as a lens by which we view the love we have for our partner. During the actual wedding ceremony I am unashamedly open about God’s love being at the center of this relationship, and that only with God’s power can all couples live in harmony and peace with one another.

This past Saturday I stood before a gathered community outside under the hot sun for a wedding. With sweat beading on my forehead I shared reflections on the joy of marriage and how God plays an integral role in all of our relationships. I used stories from the couple’s history in order to make the homily approachable, and I even included a number of lines from famous movies because the groom is a self-avowed movie buff. (For example: “Enjoy this time because life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” –Ferries Bueller’s Day Off)

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Following the ceremony I was mingling among the wedding guests when a young woman approached me and said, “I wish my pastor was like you.” Startled by the compliment, I asked her to explain and she described how her pastor “never connects the scripture with regular life” and that she leaves church feeling like she “listened to a lecture.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and before we went our separate ways she asked where I was a pastor and told me that she would be joining the church for worship sometime soon.

As I stood there taking in the complimentary conversation, feeling affirmed in my words, and hopeful about a new person coming to church, I was struck with the sensation that I had lost my focus. I let myself get puffed up by her kinds words and I recognized that I selfishly wanted her and her family to start attending the church I serve. I like the idea that she wanted to come to the church because of me. It only took a few words to stroke my ego to such a degree that I forgot my place in the kingdom.

So before she had a chance to walk away and disappear into the crowd I asked her to do me a favor and I said, “Before you come to St. John’s, I think you need to pray for the pastor you have. Maybe God wants you to help him grow and learn what it means to serve your church rather than leaving to just try something different.”

The psalmist calls for God to “blot out my transgressions.” In our daily prayers we thank God for our blessings, and we ask God to intervene in our lives and in the lives of others, but rarely do we pray for God to make us clean, to rid us of our selfishness and false pride. This week, let us take time to be honest about our sinfulness, pray for God to transform us, and begin taking steps into a new way of life.

Devotional – Psalm 8.4-6

Devotional:

Psalm 8.4-6

What are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

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I was sitting on an elevated deck looking out over the Great Smokey Mountains when I read the words: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.” I had been placed in Bryson City, North Carolina for my first field-education placement during seminary and most of my ministry that summer took place outdoors. Whenever I met with a congregant for counseling I suggested that we take a hike around Deep Creek, we celebrated worship on Sunday mornings on the banks of the Nantahala River near the Appalachian Trail, and I was staying with a couple who lived on the ridge line of a mountain that overlooked Fontana Lake.

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During the summer, many of us seminarians stayed in contact through email and phone calls as we found ourselves in remarkably different ministerial settings. My best friend, Josh Luton, had been working on a sermon about the creation from Genesis for his field-placement and asked me to read through his first draft before he proclaimed the words. Right there on my computer screen I saw the words that I will never forget: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.”

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Josh’s sermon would go on to discuss how far we have fallen from the idea that we have been called to be good stewards of God’s creation, because we feel entitled to dominate that which God has given to us. Domination would imply that we have the right to control and have influence over creation. Instead God called us to have dominion over the works of his hands, “human dominion over the earth should contribute to the preservation and benefit of God’s creation. Dominion seeks to preserve and even benefit all of creation; not just humanity.”

Up until that point of my summer I had truly taken God’s creation for granted. I was constantly surrounded by the majesty and artistry of the created world, but my vision was limited by my selfish expectations. Creation is not just for us, but it is for all things. We have been called to be responsible for the remarkable gift so that all of creation benefits from our dominion, not just ourselves.

So, in the words of Josh Luton, “Let us recognize our own place within the divinely created world and let us take on the responsibility that comes with it so that we, with our Creator, may see that it is truly good.” Take a look around at God’s creation today, be thankful, be mindful, and be responsible; dominion is not the same thing as domination.