As a follow-up to my year-in-review post, I thought I'd summarize some of the things I'm proud of accomplishing in 2018. I'll try to put these in chronological order:
Overall, I'm mainly proud of myself for believing in myself enough to accomplish something I didn't know if I could do when I started, and I didn't give up when it got difficult. What are you proud of accomplishing?
2018 was a big year for me and my family. By that I mean, I made a lot of major decisions and lots of things happened--a lot changed. Really, it boiled down to one major decision: Take a break from pastoral (vocational) ministry. This involved tackling probably the hardest thing I’ve done in quite a while. Let me give you a quick timeline of events:
I still worry that I left a lot of people wondering about my decision. Life was really pretty good and comfortable for my family and I. As a UMC pastor, the system took care of us fairly well by providing housing and other benefits. I just had to agree to move to any location in Missouri. I could go into a lot of reasons that all played a part in my decision, but I’ll boil it down to one. Leadership takes a toll on you. I know this. I signed up for it. I embrace it. I had a pretty good habit of taking care of myself. I didn’t have a good habit of taking care of my family, and more specifically, my spouse. Realizing this, I prayerfully considered my options and decided the best one was to take a leave of absence
The Most Difficult Task
Once I made that decision, I launched myself into “the most difficult task”: finding a new source of income. At first, I looked for ministry opportunities: chaplaincy and church staff positions. I wasn't satisfied with those options. It would have simply been a continuation of the status quo, which I had decided was not a good option...besides I was pretty well convinced that after 15 years of vocational ministry, on the whole, I wasn't very good at it. Being a geek and having talent with computers and technology, I looked into IT possibilities. While I had quite a bit of experience in IT through the church and hobbies, I didn’t have anything substantial on paper or any job titles to prove it. So I enrolled at Centriq Training in their Full Stack Web Developer program. That was the easy part.
I enjoy learning new things. I enjoy creating things. I love to let my curiosity run wild and discover things. School was easy for me (always has been). The hard part, “the most difficult task”, was finding a job. The last month of school, while I was in the midst of wrapping up my pastoral ministry and moving my family, I was also applying for 10-15 jobs per week. That was over 50 applications (mostly submitted online). Out of that I got 3 legit interviews. That’s a lot of rejection. The anxiousness and stress was overwhelming as time wore on without any luck. But I was in a no-fail situation, so rejection didn’t matter. I just kept moving on to the next possibility, making resume tweaks and evaluating myself all along the way.
Somehow, It All Worked Out
My official last day as a full-time pastor was June 30th, I was on “vacation”, so that wasn’t a big deal. However, I will say that leaving behind people and places for new things is always bittersweet. On July 2nd, I started my first day as a software developer at KSB Dental, Inc. It all worked out. AMAZING. Looking back, it really is a lot to comprehend. A lot of people, more than I realize, were praying and pulling for me and my family. I am thankful. In fact, that’s how I’m ending 2018 and saying hello to 2019: THANKFUL.
Glory to God.
P.S. There’s a lot I left out of the story, so I’ll keep sharing as time goes. Check back for more.
Setting boundaries is a good practice for life. In sports, there are rules. There's an "out of bounds", and play doesn't happen "out of bounds." Boundaries for life allows you to limit yourself in a healthy way so you're not taking over responsibility for things you're not and don't need to be responsible for. It gives you a system for saying no to things so you're not overwhelmed and able to operate at your peak performance. The best book about this stuff is by Cloud & Townsend and it's simply titled: Boundaries.
It got me thinking about the character of God. There's lots of verses in the Bible about God having no limits:
"all things are possible with God",
"nothing can separate us from the love of God".
And I'm sure many others that talk of God's sovereignty. But, in practice, it seems like there are things that happen that God would rather not see happen. We call these evil and injustice and suffering and oppression...you get the idea. The word to sum all this up is Sin. Sin is stuff that goes against what God wants. But if God is sovereign, how is that possible???? Some try to explain this by saying God designs stuff to work that way for a reason. I think, a better way is to realize that God is self-limiting God's sovereignty.
What is that limit?
Your free will.
God's love is not dependent upon your free will. However our experience of God's love is limited by our participation with it. The nature of love is that we consent and desire to love. If we don't want to love, or we don't consent to love, then it ceases to be love. God's greatest commandment, the commandment that Jesus gives his disciples, is LOVE ONE ANOTHER. You don't have to. But it is what God wants. And God desires to bring each of us to a place where we want that too.
In fact, that's why he sent Jesus Christ, not to condemn the world, but so that we'd know and become Love like Jesus Christ. Life becomes a journey of refinement in Love, where you are shaped to freely choose Love first and foremost.
As I go through this time of transition, a lot of people have asked me: "Are you okay?" Concern is expressed about me or my family. The assumption is that Personal Leave of Absence means something is wrong. Which is totally justifiable. I'm glad people are asking because it means they care.
From my perspective, nothing is any more wrong than any other time. There's not really a "fix" that I'm looking for. Sure, there's burnout lurking here and there as it always does for any church leader. But I'm not one to isolate from other Christians and church leaders who support me. For me, this is really a journey of connecting with God on a deeper level and following where that leads.
For me, that means stepping away from my comfort zone that is the church. My whole life has been in the United Methodist Church. It seems a little backwards on the surface. But so far, it's deepening my faith as I take these steps into an unknown future. I'm excited to see what's next and to share that when the time comes.
Looking back, I reflect on a lot of things. It's tempting to focus on regrets, the "if only" scenarios. Hindsight is 20/20, or so they say. If I had only known then what I know now, then I'd have done that differently. Those are important lessons for me to process, but I try not to dwell there.
More importantly, I want to celebrate the good instead of assuming the bad (wrong). I wouldn't be where or who I am today, if not for what I've come through to get there. The good that I'm celebrating is a growing faith. I remember the words of Jesus "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
So, to answer the question "Is something wrong?" The short answer is "No," and more correctly: "There's not anything any more wrong than any other time...In fact, things are better." Why? Because my faith continues to grow. I encourage you to take a similar outlook towards your life. Quit comparing yourself to others, what they think, the expectations they place on you, and their assumptions. Celebrate the good: The Faith that God is building within you.
Celebrate the good: your family.
Celebrate the good: your friends.
Celebrate the good: your faith, your life...gifts from The Giver.
That gratitude will spread into others' lives.
Lent is the season for giving up things, so here's a list of some that I've found in the most recent season of my life.
1. "Fix It" mindset
I love to solve problems. It's very satisfying to find and implement a solution that works and complete something. Unfortunately, it doesn't work for people and organizations like the church. Trust me. I tried. If there's one thing I wish I could go back and change is that I too often approached my church's decline as if I had the answer and if people would just do what I say, then we'd be good. It often to criticizing the church, when what I really wanted to do was build up the church. I also found that I criticized myself a lot, and was extra sensitive (paranoid) when others criticized me. The "Fix It" mindset created a whole big mess. There's no silver bullet fix to your church's problems. (And saying "we just need Jesus" is an over-spiritualized copout.)
1b. Your Agenda
When a Bishop ordains a person as clergy, the Bishop uses the phrase "Take thou authority." Some might see that as a license to do whatever you want. Most temper that, but we still bring our own agenda to the table. Surrendering that agenda is an important process to go through. Kind of like Abraham going up to sacrifice his son Isaac. It may turn out that you get to keep some of what you want to do, but surrendering to God's agenda for your church is more important. Do that soul work of surrender and let go. God has something amazing in mind...beyond your wildest dreams.
If I had it to do again, I'd use a "coach approach" to ministry. I'd help people and the church improve themselves. That's when change can really happen because people are motivated and inspired to do it themselves; they're learning and developing themselves. It's much more grace-filled and healthy.
Trying to keep up with the latest and greatest church and cultural trends will just run you ragged. I pretty much found this out the hard way. Mainly what I mean is that most of them are not suitable for my current context; we just weren't there yet. Many could be contextualized for my context, but see #1. Even if a trend matches the culture, the church may not be there yet. I remember from being a Youth Pastor that trying to be "cool" works for a while, but eventually people figure it out and move on if there's not something deep to engage in. A better goal would be to discover your strengths and major in those. Discover what's most important to you and your church that's worth it no matter who shows up, and do it the best you can.
Again, this is connected to #1, but let's get personal and real. Often times, we do things and decide things a certain way just to feel good about ourselves. And it gets addicting. I get it, I really do. Pleasing people feels good and its a boost when you're down. Chasing after your ambitions is fun. Ambition isn't all bad, but selfish ambition is. I'm beginning to think that I pursued a lot of ministry in order to store up treasures on earth, as in the get the credit. In fact, I think in a lot of ways the institutional system is set up to reward that sort of thing and make you more hungry for it. Some may think the ends justifies the means. Ok, maybe. But at what cost? What good is it for someone to gain the whole world and forfeit one's soul?
Instead, I've learned to care for my soul first. Then I'm more apt to not care about getting the credit and inflating my ego. I have all the affection I need from God. He can have all the credit. It's called glory.
What do You Think?
So there's my list of things to give up. I guess it's closer to 4 than 3. What do you think? Does this spark any ideas in your mind?
In my whole life, I don't think I ever received an 'F' in school. I've had a few 'D' grades. Most of my bad grades were because I didn't try. Now, I want to clarify something. Yesterday I mentioned that I failed. What I mean by that is, I moved to St. Joseph, MO, and said that my goal is that I would be a Missionary here. That I would approach ministry in a different way than I had before. I failed at that for a number of reasons, but here's the big three:
1. I Wasn't Intentional
I honestly had little clue to what it means to be a missionary. I didn't set a clear, specific goal of that that would mean. Which also means I didn't know what it took to get there. It was very haphazard. I sort of just approached it as "if I just think about ministry differently, and do some things I hadn't done before, then maybe it'll happen." I should have put myself on a learning track about doing missionary work in the U.S. and been more intentional about things to try. I should have put myself in a healthy-accountability system to help me grow and progress. By "healthy-accountability" I don't mean having someone on my case. I mean some way for me to keep myself on task, and coaching to help myself think strategically instead of getting bogged down in moment-by-moment situations/problems.
I recently purchased something to try to help myself with this, the Best Self journal from Best Self Co. Right now, it seems like a lot of work to start it, and I may fail at it at first, but knowing what I know now, in the long run, it will pay off. (Is that a run-on sentence? #grammarpolice) I've learned a lot about myself and where I can grow, so I'll use this to set some goals and be intentional about them.
2. I Tried Alone
I started this change in my thinking as a personal goal, "I'm going to be a missionary, not a typical Pastor." One great piece of advice that an experienced Pastor gave me when I asked about how to start something new in a church is "Do it as a herd." We are social beings, like herd animals. We gain momentum to accomplish things when we do it together. We truly are better together.
I was unable to (or incapable of) gathering a herd to work on having a Missionary/Missional mentality together. What I said above played a big role in that. I was only focused on changing me, and even then I wasn't as intentional about it as I could have been.
3. I Didn't Fail Enough
Failing means you tried. Not-trying is the even worse. I should have tried more things Honestly, if I would have failed more and failed faster, then I may have made more progress (see #1, I need to track and be intentional in order to try things, fail, and make progress). I know that "practice makes perfect" is a cliché, but in some ways it's true. Practice is really "fail a bunch of times and work to get better". Some say "practice makes habit" is a better way to put it, which is true, but improvement will happen when you learn and adapt as you practice. So, keep Failing, keep trying, and keep growing! Like my dad taught me, "Mistakes aren't bad if you learn from them." Another way to put it is "Fail Forward."
Stop the Blame Game
When failures happen, it's important to analyze and figure out "why". That's what I'm doing here. Sure, there's lots of other factors at play. Here I am simply taking responsibility for what I can, and provide a "why" without placing blame. Blaming isn't helpful, but self-reflection, taking responsibility, trying something new are all ways to grow and develop. So when I say that I failed, I'm saying it in a positive way. Yes there's grief, and I have all kinds of emotions, positive and negative, to process. This is part of the reason why I like the sport of baseball. They play so many games. They have thousands of at a bats. They throw thousands of pitches. There is so much data to analyze, and you see a lot of failure. You win some; you lose some. Sometimes you hit a home run; sometimes you strike out. Sometimes you can barely get the first out of the game and have to be replaced; other times you pitch a shutout. All of it is simply part of the game. It's mostly a lesson in dealing with failure. It's when you internalize the failures and make them your identity that you begin to quit trying and give up. This also means you quit learning and growing. If there's one thing that churches and church leaders need to do is to quit the blame game, keep learning & growing, and fail forward. 'F' can be for Future. What are you going to do with it?
No, not the end of the world, but the end of this blog. I announced to my churches that I'll be taking a leave of absence from being a pastor beginning the first of July. You can read my announcement here: http://www.clairchurch.com/news/important-announcement. I started this blog when I moved to St. Joseph, MO and I really haven't been very good at keeping up with it in my almost 6 years here. I am thankful for those who have taken the time to read.
The thinking was that I would approach this appointment as a missionary. That failed. I say that with some natural grief. But I say it honestly. Failure is an event not a person. So I wish it would have gone differently, but it didn't. I'm not going to go into a lot of details here, but I am writing in a journal and reflecting on as much as I can. Mainly, that's for my own mental and emotional health. Wow, so many feelings to process. My natural inclination is to stuff them down and trudge on, but that's not healthy. Fortunately, a good friend, Jim Voigt, has guided me some on that journey. You can find his latest thoughts on his podcast called Your Way Too Honest Pastor. The other resource that has helped me is the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. Stuffing your feelings never works out in the long run. In fact, some of that is probably why I'm taking a leave of absence.
So, I'm going to stop this blog, and probably start a new one where I'll just share me and my journey. I still have some more posts I want to share here, so until the end of June, I'll try to keep posting what I've worked on. I have quite a few drafts already started. I have 15 more sermons to preach before I'll be done. I'm taking vacation for June and officially no longer be pastor after June 30. Fortunately, the United Methodist Church has a process for these transitions, and the two churches I serve will not be left without a pastor. In fact, I'm guessing they already have someone in mind.
Thanks for reading. What ways do you process big life changes and the associated feelings? What resources have you found to be helpful?
When you drive, you know to watch your blindspots when you're changing lanes and making turns. If you don't, and you drive with tunnel vision, then you'll likely cause an accident. A similar idea is true for life. Get too focused on things a certain way, and you might miss something important. I think this has happened to for a lot of us in the USA in regards to the Gospel.
Gospel of Personal Salvation
Much of what we have grown to understand to be the Gospel is that through Faith in Christ, your sins are forgiven and you are saved. It is a very personal message. I don't think it's a wrong message or a false Gospel. I'm just not sure it's the WHOLE Gospel. I think it's great that you can personally know our Savior, the Living God, Jesus Christ. I think it's great that my sins, your sins, our past mistakes are each forgiven and washed clean. This frees us for new life in Christ. I'm just worried that we aren't getting the whole picture. We've developed tunnel vision.
For those who focus on Personal Salvation, the Gospel is summarized as "Jesus died for me." They see the beatings he took, the cross he bore, the mocking he withstood, the painful death he died, and see it as something God the Son does, or allows to happen to himself in order to take on my sins. The problem I have with that being the only way to see it is that it misses the power struggle the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) describe to us.
Yes, it is sin, evil, injustice and oppression that nails Jesus to the cross. Specifically, it is the Sin, Injustice, Evil, Greed, Oppression of the Roman Authority and Jewish Ruling Elites (Pharisees, Sadducees, Teachers of the Law, et al.). Jesus was a rebel. Leading a peaceful rebellion and uprising. He threatened those in Power and Influence, mainly the Jewish Ruling Elites. Jesus was like a prophet telling the Pharisees, "Hey, you can't practice your religion and think you're a good person while ignoring "the least of these," like blind beggars, prostitutes, etc. They were keeping the "least of these" away from God, and doing it in God's name. The Jewish Ruling Elites' blindspot was their collusion with the Roman Authority to keep systems of oppression in place so they could keep their power and influence. Overlooking "the least of these" in the name of their religion didn't seem like a problem to them. They were "good people" doing what they were supposed to do in order to "keep the peace." Jesus came proclaiming a Gospel of Peace saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven (not Rome) is at hand."
I'm Worried We Have The Same Blindspot
I'm worried we have the same blindspot. I think our USA, Western culture, has shaped us to be overly individualistic. We have been unknowingly formed to be concerned with our individual salvation and our personal sins (mistakes/failures) and how to fix them. We miss the greater power of God at work that God isn't just saving individuals, but he is also redeeming all of creation. When you see the terrible beating that Jesus takes in the movie "The Passion of the Christ," or when you read the narrative in Matthew 27, know that's what Corrupt Power does to peaceful people who stand against it. The tears you shed from seeing or reading about the suffering of our Savior shouldn't just be about "what he endured for me," but also about the pain and suffering the world afflicts on "the least of these" (reference Matthew 25). I weep when I read the passion narrative(s) because I see the world still doing the same things: Greed, Corruption, Abusive Power. They are all still at work, and I contribute to the mess.
Why Is This Important?
Examining this potential blindspot is important because you might be unknowingly be shouting along, "Crucify Him!" and encouraging the suffering. I'm not talking about the personal sins you've committed, the mistakes you've made that you feel guilty about. I'm talking about the systems that you participate in daily that you can't escape. Systems that oppress and cause suffering in our world. Things that you'd rather not know about that go on so you can have a clear conscience. Examining this allows you to "carry out your salvation" (Philippians 2:12) and make choices to stand up and speak for "the least of these", the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the voiceless, the powerless.
The Good News
Two important pieces of The Passion narrative(s) to not forget in regards to this. First, when hanging on the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." It is pretty much impossible to extract yourself from the systems of sin at work in our world. But with God, all things are possible. Christ still forgives. We do our best until the work is completed and Christ comes again in final victory. Take the time in prayer to reflect on this potential blindspot, a time of confession. Let Jesus' words wash over you, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Also, remember Peter? He denied knowing Jesus publicly, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus forgave him too, and made him the "rock" the leader of the Church. Take the time in prayer to reflect on this potential blindspot, a time of confession. Hear Jesus asking you like he asked Peter: "Do you love me? Then feed my sheep." Let those words set you free to engage our world with the power of God's love in Christ Jesus.
So, how do you practice a holy Lent? The main practice is "Self-Denial". That's where you give something up that you usually have. Some people choose luxury things like coffee, soda pop, chocolate, red meat, etc. Some people take on a new spiritual practice (which, by the way, self-denial is a spiritual practice) like meditation, praying the Psalms, devotional reading, etc.
I usually try to do some combination of all of the above. Extra bible reading with meditation, a devotional guide, and being intentional about self-denial. I'll admit, this year, I'm kind of a slacker, but I am training for a marathon, and the training is more intense during Lent than it was before. I pray and meditate when I run, so I am doing more of that than normal.
The process of committing to some practice and sticking to it is a good spiritual practice. Self-denial is a great spiritual practice because it helps us develop a humble servant mindset, instead of a self-centered attitude. Remember, one of the fruits of the spirit is "self-control" and self-denial is a path towards that.
What are you doing for Lent? Share in the comments.
Our last day of volunteering in LA was rainy. We returned to the Union Rescue Mission. This time was much different from serving in the food kitchen. Our job that morning was to spend 90 minutes to 2 hours enjoying activities with folks who were in the "Day Room" to get off the street for a while. There was a little bit of a stereotype because they sent us with board games and cards to the men's day room, and the ladies on our trip took nail polish and coloring books to the women's day room. This was a bit awkward at first. It seemed kind of weird to try and get people who were "down" to play games, but that was my pre-conceived notions. We set up some tables with chess, checkers, Connect Four, UNO, etc. And we had enough room indoors to play Corn Hole (bean-bag toss). At first, I tried asking a couple guys to play corn hole, and they declined. Myself and a member of our group decided to just start playing and see if anyone wanted to join...no one did. After that game, we moved over to the game table and played Connect Four. One of the guests in the day room came over and asked to play, I was glad to have someone join in so I obliged. I'm not going to lie, I assumed it would be an easy win. Most of the folks have some kind of mental or emotional health issue going on in one way or another, and this guy looked like he fit right into that mold. To my surprise, I lost. I got to aggressive going for the win and didn't pay attention. Shame on me for stereotyping him and elevating myself. It was a good game. He didn't want a rematch though.
The next guy shared his name with us, Adolfo. Three of us began playing UNO with Adolfo. He told us his dreams of writing songs and being a musician. If I remember correctly, he plays guitar and sings. We encouraged him and had a fun time teaching him to play UNO. Towards the end of that game, a guy named Jason came up and began telling us his story. Jason looked clean and very well taken care of, and he was in a wheel chair. He said when he was a kid his dream was to be a major league baseball player. Then at age 12 he was at a Halloween party and trying to impress a girl who was already taken, he took off running across the street. When he turned around to come back, he didn't check for cars and was hit and suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As he grew up he went to a couple different colleges and became a successful graphic designer. He eventually attended seminary at DTS in Dallas, TX, and felt called to be a pastor. While in seminary he was an apartment manager with a good friend of his. But along this time he also became an alcoholic, and that's when things began falling apart. One night after being at a party with his serious girlfriend, he was drunk and knew he shouldn't drive home. So he parked in the parking lot of McDonald's nearby and fell asleep. He awoke to someone tapping on the glass, he assumed it was the police. Instead, a guy said, "Wanna get high?" Before he could really get himself awake and respond, the guy had walked around to the passenger side of his car, opened the door, and got in the car. Jason watched him light up a bong of some sort, and soon joined him. It turns out the drug was crack cocaine. Jason was hooked, and his life spiraled out of control and he lost pretty much everything. That was twelve years ago I think. He's been clean for a few months now and working on staying that way and getting off the streets and back to graphic designing. It was amazing to hear his story and how willing he was to tell it. Keep Jason in your prayers with me.
Shortly after Jason finished, it was time to clean up and head to our next stop: Alexandria House. Alexandria House is transitional housing for women and women with children. When you drive down the street it is full of tall apartment buildings, and in between are these two houses that don't look very big from the front. The ministry was started by a Catholic nun and some friends a couple decades or so ago. They don't receive grant funding because if they did, they'd have to kick residents out after 90 days. They want to give these women enough time to turn things around and make it on their own. Behind one of the homes, there is a building that houses their preschool and after school programs for the kids that stay there. Behind the other house is a garage. Right now, the garage is full of stuff they will sell in a thrift sale. They hold two each month. The first is for the residents to take whatever they need/want. The second sale is open to the community and people can make donations for what they want. Alexandria house provides a safe place for women and their children to live and learn. While we were there, we wiped out all of the cabinets in their kitchen, and stacked up some of the items for the upcoming thrift sale. This ministry serves a great purpose because often times women have no where to go if they face domestic violence or other situations that put them out of their home. I was very impressed how they help the women learn and grow as well as give them a place to stay. Most stay for about a year to 18 months until they "graduate" from the program and have a job and housing of their own. It was great to hear their success.
That was what we really came to LA to do, to volunteer, but more importantly to hear the stories of people who have experienced life much different from what we have. Those stories impacted my story, and because of that, I can reflect and ask myself, "What story am I telling with my life?" By doing all the good I can, to all the people I can, in all the places I can, I hope my life story reflects the Gospel story much like the people we met this week, a story moving from death to life.
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.