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.

The Advent of Paul – Sermon on Acts 9.1-9

Acts 9.1-9

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church community in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. We began with Abram being called to go to a strange land, and then we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Paul.

Most pastors love to talk. They spend their Sundays standing before the gathered people proclaiming the Word of God with the hope of it becoming incarnate. It takes hours of preparation, study, and prayer to craft a sermon and many pastors find excitement and fulfillment when they are speaking. Whether they are preaching from a pulpit, leading a bible study, or huddling together in prayer, words are at the foundation of what we do.

Most pastors love to talk, and when you get a group of us together, sometimes the talking never stops…

I was at Licensing School, a required element to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church, but frankly it could’ve happened at any clergy gathering. The routine is typical, everyone tries to size one another up based upon appearances, we try to guess what kind of churches are represented; Is this their first career, second, or third? What kind of call story do they have? Did she have all that gray hair before she became a pastor? We are usually forced to sit with people who we have yet to meet and then comes the ice breaker questions that will hopefully move us from strangers to friends.

The familiar questions focus on our ability to share our call narrative. I like to call it the elevator speech. In the time that it takes you to get from the lobby to the top floor, can you share how God has called you to ministry?

Here is my elevator speech:

“Born and raised as a United Methodist in Alexandria, VA, I began wrestling with a call to ministry when I was in high school. There were a number of formative experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to ordained ministry including: being the crew chaplain for a Boy Scout High Adventure trip in Philmont, New Mexico, creating and leading a youth band for my home church, and helping to organize a weekly youth bible study. However, my awareness of the call truly came into focus when one of my dear friends died in a car accident right before Christmas. As we mourned her death I found myself comforting those around me with words that were not my own, and one night I was pulled to my knees on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt Road to pray. I prayed and prayed and when I stood up, I knew there was nothing else in my life that I could do other than proclaim the Word of the Lord through ministry.

I have had to tell it so many times that I have learned how to include just the right amount of details in just the right amount of time.

For others, this process can take multiple elevator rides. They go on and on about the ways God has called them, and when I was at Licensing School I learned a lot about the people I would be serving with for the rest of my life.

You call that a call story? My husband left me right before the cancer came back. My children had grown up and moved off to different places with their own families and I was all alone. I went to support groups, and tried to keep a positive attitude but nothing was working. It was then that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and put my whole trust in his grace. Later, when I beat the cancer, Jesus told me to become a pastor and share the Good News like he had done with me.”

You call that a call story? I was killing more brain cells than Paul was killing Christians when God called me to a new life in Jesus Christ. The bottle was my bible. Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam were my best friends and were with me through the important moments of life, though I could never remember any of them. It was deep in the trenches of one of my worst benders that Jesus told me it was time to live a new life, that he had a mission for me, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

These call stories went on and on with every new story going deeper and farther than the last. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized that I was doing the same thing, and that we were trying to “out-Paul” one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love the story of Paul on the road, but sadly, we have too often used it to judge what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, once said “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse!” Her statement gets at the heart of the matter for Paul’s conversion, but oddly enough there is no horse in the story.

But that helps to show how “well” we think we know the story. It has been told so many time in such a variety of ways. Most of the art depicting this scene has Paul falling off his horse, when this is a detail missing from the scripture. Regardless of equine presence, the story is one that captivates us even today.

The first detail we learn about Paul is that he was a young man who watched over the garments of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not just any young man, not just an innocent bystander. He not only approved of Stephen’s death, but also led a violent persecution of the budding Christian community.

Paul was enemy number one to the church, and God would turn his life around to become evangelist number one.

While he was threatening and murdering the disciples of God, Paul went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any Christians on the way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. He was not just a concerned citizen, Paul was an active go-getter against the subversive community, willing to go above and beyond his duty.

It was on the way to Damascus that a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul’s companions that were traveling stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. After being helped up from the ground Paul could see nothing, so his friends had to guide him the rest of the way to Damascus.

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Some have subjected this story to psychological reflection about the inner-turmoil bubbling within Paul’s soul regarding his willingness to kill Christians. They see the Damascus road experience as an inward struggle that results in a changed life.

However, the details of the narrative argue the contrary. This is not an account of what was going on within Paul, but rather a story about a man who was encountered by something outside of himself. Conversion has to do with being approached by God, and being changed in the process of the encounter.

Paul was helpless and totally dependent on others after encountering Christ on the road. God, meanwhile, spoke with a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. He was commanded to go and meet the man from the road, Paul from Tarsus, lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. Ananias hesitated knowing the kind of wrath and destruction that Paul had brought on his fellow Christians, but the Lord insisted “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

So Ananias went and laid his hands on Paul to restore his sight. Paul was then filled with the Holy Spirt, was baptized, and regained his strength. Through the power of God made manifest in Ananias, Paul went from being an enemy to being a brother; his life was completely turned around.

When pastors get together we can attempt to “out-Paul” one another. We strive to substantiate our call stories by comparing it with the one who was confronted on the road to Damascus. I have seriously heard people begin their stories with, “It was like I was on my own road to Damascus when God called me to a new life…” This story has become the prototype for many Christians, and we use it as a lens by which we judge others’ calls to different forms of discipleship.

This is a problem.

It is a problem because we forget that the radical kind of change worked in Paul is something that Christ does, not us. Sometimes we become so concerned with the desire to convert others that we foolishly put all of the responsibility on our shoulders when God is the true agent of change. We can show people the door of faith, but God is the one who gives them the strength to walk through it.

It is also a problem because it is not universal. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is wonderful and miraculous, but it should not lead us to conclude that every conversion is basically the same.

Different people come to Jesus along different routes. When we consider the wealth of conversion stories from scripture, in addition to the tales of fellow Christians in our lives, it become self-evident that God calls individuals according to his will, not a singular story by which all others should be judged. Paul was called in a way that was proportionate to the life he was living – he needed to be knocked down in order to start a new life. But not all of us have lived like Paul. 

The one thing that is universal regarding the story of Paul on the road is that meeting God changes the way we see everything. When we encounter the divine we become dependent on those already versed in the faith, we need Ananiases to help guide and nurture us when our vision has been turned upside down.

God met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever. God brought me down to my knees on a cold December evening when I was sixteen years old and changed my life forever. God spoke through Gabriel to a virgin named Mary about her bringing a baby into the world which changed her life forever.

Paul’s story is a great. It is full of beautiful details and demonstrates God’s power to change lives. But his story is not the only one. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about people whose lives were changed by God in incredible ways. Our church is filled with people who have encountered the good God in ways that are beyond our imaginations.

Whenever we meet God, whether through a particularly poignant moment, the reading of scripture, or the deep thoughts of prayer we embark on a new beginning. Like Paul, everything gets changed and we see the world a little more clearly, we see God’s grace manifest through the friends and family around us and we realize the deepest truth about Christmas – that God does not leave us to our own devices. Amen.