10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Devotional – Luke 24.45

Devotional:

Luke 24.45

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

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Seminary required a lot of reading and writing. Every week our professors would assign readings from book and articles that we would never complete in time in addition to reflective papers on a variety of subjects. At the beginning of each semester you could almost hear the collective groan from the student body with every new syllabus that detailed the amount of work that would be taking place over the coming months.

During my second year I took a class entitled “Greek Exegesis of Mark.” Throughout the semester we would be translating Mark from it’s original language into English and explore the nuances of the grammar. I remember reading the syllabus on the first day and thinking that I was in way over my head. Yet there was one particular requirement on the syllabus that I was really excited about; every week we would be required to read through the gospel of Mark in English.

At the time I realized that I was spending so much time studying God’s Word that I was no longer enjoying and absorbing God’s Word. So each week two of my fellow students and I sat on the steps of Duke Chapel and read the gospel of Mark aloud. Depending on the week we would trade off chapters and until each of us had the chance to read every chapter multiple times.

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I read more grammar and theological works on the gospel according to Mark that semester than I care to remember, but none of them compared to the importance of just reading Mark over and over again. There were insights from theologians that I never would have discovered on my own, but spending time in scripture alone every week truly opened up God’s Word in a way I had yet to experience.

After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he appeared to the disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures. For the first time they were able to begin seeing faithful discipleship through the lens of the resurrection (which makes all the difference). Today we can purchase commentaries and books about the bible to help us understand what’s going on in the verses but nothing can compare to spending faithful time with God’s Word alone. It is important to remember that every time we read a book about the bible we are actually reading someone’s opinion and interpretation; we can only create our own understanding and interpretation from the source itself.

This week let us challenge ourselves to read one of the gospels out loud. Mark is the shortest so it can be finished quickly, but they are all worth exploring on their own. The point is this: the more time we spend in the Word the more we will begin to understand.

Wake Up! – Sermon on Romans 13.11-14

Romans 13.11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

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On April 4th, 1742, Charles Wesley came up for appointment as university preacher in St. Mary’s in London. Charles preached from Ephesians 5.14 which reads, “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”

Now, just for context sake, Charles Wesley was the younger brother of John Wesley, the primary founder of the Methodist renewal movement that eventually led to the formation of the United Methodist Church. Both brothers believed that, at the time, the Church of England was losing a sense of purpose and needed to be renewed. They were strongly rooted within their church structure, but they considered their ministries to be caught up in spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. While John was known for his organization and preaching, Charles was known for his ability to write hymns; some of his more celebrated hymns are sung on a regular basis in many churches: Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, to name a few.

So, Charles found himself invited to preach in front of a university audience that he largely believed had lost sight of what it meant to be Christian in the world. Those in attendance that day were far more consumed with the “academic pursuits” of Christianity rather than a deep and inward sense of what it meant to be forgiven and loved.

Like many young and naive pastors, Charles preached a sermon filled with a barrage of frightening assumptions and left many in attendance frustrated, angry, and ignorant.

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Here are a few of his lines, adapted for our contemporary period: Wake up! Everyone of you, wake up out of your dreams of worldly happiness. What is the state of your soul? If God required you to die right now while I am preaching, are you ready to meet death and judgement? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you secured the one thing needful? Have you recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Are you clothed in Christ? Do you know that God dwells in you by his Spirit that he has given to you? Have you received the Holy Spirit? Or do you even know if there is a Holy Spirit at all? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian nor do you desire to be one. Indeed, your very prayers have been turned into sin; and you have definitively mocked God this very day by praying for the inspiration of his Holy Spirit when you did not even believe that such a thing existed!

Needless to say, this was Charles’ first, and very last, occasion for preaching there.

Though Charles chose to preach from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul also wrote in a similar vein to the church in Rome: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!” What is the “this” that he is talking about? Love is the fulfillment of the Law. So, besides knowing that love is the fulfillment of the law, it is now time for us to wake up! For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

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Coming off of a major holiday weekend where we have all gratified our desires with mountains of mashed potatoes, rivers of gravy, quarries of cranberries, and seas of stuffing, where many of us were filled with debauchery and quarreling as we competed for the best holiday shopping prices on Black Friday, where we are now more focused on Santa Claus than Jesus Christ… it is very difficult for a young foolish pastor like myself to preach this text without ruffling some feathers. I used to laugh when I read Charles Wesley’s sermon “Awake, thou that sleepest” but now I’m beginning to understand how important it was for him to preach those words.

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. Just as we came to a conclusion with Christ the King Sunday last week, today we begin by looking forward, with expectation, to the birth and arrival of our King. But here’s the great paradox, even though we are looking forward to Christmas, it feels like we’re stuck looking to the past. In many areas of church life this is a plague that has permeated throughout a multitude of ministries, relationships, and conversations. We talk about where we are as a church, what we want to do, but far too many of our imaginations are trapped by the past. 

If, as Paul argues, love is the fulfillment of the law in he past, then love is most assuredly also the appropriate mode of action in the present.

Being Christian is all about love in action; not just a reflection on the past, but also a waking up to the present and the future. 

For disciples of Jesus Christ, one of the hardest things to wrap our heads around is “time.” We are a people who regularly remember the past, in order to live into the present, while also looking forward to God’s promises. We are a people rooted in time, removed from time, and unaware of God’s time. Our past is constantly invading the present, and the future has already met with the present in the presence of the Holy Spirit within the faithful community.

If your head is spinning, don’t worry. It should be.

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God’s future casts a light into the present and provides the illumination of the reality by which we are all called to live. Because God has promised to come again and make all things new, a new heaven and a new earth where death will be no more, death will die, then we are called to live into God’s future reality in the present. We are called to love in order to fulfill the Law.

What makes us unique as a people is precisely the fact that God has invaded our present with the Spirit, with his Son who walked among us, with his Word, with his sacraments, that we are a distinctive people with expectations of how the world needs to be.

For us, the time is now! Wake up! 

As Christians we are not to be content with passively accepting injustices and evils in the world. Our faith demands that we reach out in love to combat the sinfulness of the world. How often do we think about our obligations to love outside of our families and our church community? What could this world look like if we seriously considered loving all, and all means ALL, of God’s creatures?

We are creatures of the present, though we are so consumed with our pasts. Our text today encourages us to look to the future in order to know how to act. As Paul wrote elsewhere in Romans, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Discover newness in your lives which the future will bring.

Wake up! We are no longer burdened by living for ourselves, but we are privileged to live for God, we are a people who obey his will for our lives. That is what Paul means when he says we are to clothe ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ. Its what he means by putting off the darkness and putting on the armor of light!

Because of Christ’s redemptive act on a cross in a place called The Skull we have all been liberated from the burdens of a sinful past. We strive forth with confident steps into a future that is always bringing us closer and closer to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the entirety of creation. We are here as a people of anticipation, here the first Sunday of advent, remembering while anticipating Christ’s in breaking in the world in order to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth.

Wake up! This moment is the eternal moment – the now – when the past and the future stand still, when the past ceases its going, and the future its coming. This moment is not a time that comes and goes, it is God’s eternal moment, a spot of clarity amidst the ridiculous chaos of our lives.

This passage from Paul, read for us this first Sunday of Advent, deepens our understanding of the future whose coming we celebrate both in the birth and in the return of Jesus Christ.

So, how can we wake up from the sleep that we are caught up in? How can we love in such a degree so as to fulfill the law?

Love is always the essentially revolutionary action.

We love the way that Christ loved, and still loves us…

We can reach out to the lonely in our community, those who do not have a family to share this holiday season with. We can gather together in the front of the church selling Christmas trees while demonstrating Christ’s love in the world through the way we reach out to those who stop by. We can participate in quilt for a cause, letting our fingers and needles and thread create a tangible sense of love for individuals in our community. We can donate money for the Children from Social Services who we have adopted for Christmas presents this year, reminding them that nothing will ever separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

We can open our eyes to the injustices within our local community, and abroad, and be willing to speak out against the disparity present. We can love the unlovable, reconcile with friends and family from whom we have been separated, and we can provide a little warmth this coldest time of the year.

Our love for others, creation, and God is never just a concrete act, something that once began and continues on a course. Our love is the Beginning, the Miracle, the Creation in every moment of time, it sets our hearts aflame for Christ Jesus and allows us to be his body for the world.

And so, though paradoxical, what we are doing, the ways that we embody love, can be no more than point to the victory which has occurred, does occur, and will occur in Jesus Christ. Love directs us to the one whose very birth we now await and anticipate. Love awaits the ends of darkness which is the Beginning of the light of the world.

Wake up! You all know what time it is, and it is time for us to wake from our sleep. This is the beginning, another chance to start again. Whatever baggage you are carrying, whatever sin you believe is too harsh to be forgiven, whatever frustration you are dealing with in your life, today is a new beginning. We have gathered together as a community to rid ourselves of the darkness in our lives. We are here to care for one another. You are not alone. You are part of a community of faith that loves you because God loves us. Put on the armor of light. Prepare yourselves to be surprised by God’s grace in the world.

Wake up! Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not be consumed by your past, but with excited expectation live in the present and anticipate God’s future for you.

This table is our Beginning. For it is here that we gather to confess our faults, receive forgiveness, reconcile with our community, and feast at Christ’s table. This place is where past, present, and future all wind themselves together. Christ’s table is the matrix of time; it is where we remember God’s mighty acts, anticipate his birth and coming again, and live into the new reality of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Wake up! God is waiting for you.

Amen.

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