I am preparing to lead a spiritual formation time in the midst of a difficult season. Like most district superintendents, I am in the midst of projecting pastoral appointments for the next conference year. I find myself in more prayer and introspection than at any other time in my life. I think this is a good thing. It is also frustrating.
I read the book Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Francis Chan) a few months ago, and found myself convicted and rebuked of things I thought I had grasped: sacrifice, agape love, surrender, taking risks. The reality is, we are always on the journey to master these, and usually come up short. We Wesleyans love to talk about the process of sanctification, and going on to Christian perfection (lessening or abolishing our bent to sin), but more often than not it results in resignation that we can't do it, instead of adopting prayerful mindsets and disciplines that might actually help us attain such. I am as guilty as anyone.
Chan asked some very direct and harsh questions in his book: Do you grasp the beauty and deep joy of walking in genuine intimacy with God, our holy Father and Friend? Do you want to see God more than you desire security? Do we have enough faith to do what others might see as crazy but God would see as faithful? Are we willing to do things that might cost us in this life but worth it for the Kingdom? Are we willing to give, being motivated by nothing except love? Are we willing to 'downsize' so that others might 'upgrade?'
I bought a very modest house last year - something that I can pay off fairly quickly. All of my vehicles are paid for. Yesterday, on a day when I really needed to be able to work in quiet and peace, I was having work done on a chimney that needed repair. It was loud; a mortar-mixer was running, old brick was being knocked out. I was perturbed that my quiet, safe sanctuary of a home was loud and overrun with people everywhere. This morning, I now find myself ashamed, because I am complaining about a little noise and having repairs that I can afford being done to a house that more than meets my comfort needs. Because I make more than $4,000 a month, I make one hundred times more than the average person in this world. I have a roof over my head. Running water. Climate control. High def television. As Chan points out, the sin is not in making that money - it is in not realizing how rich I really am. Rich in money, rich in comfort, rich in gifts and grace.
In dealing with pastors, I've wrestled with how to deal with our bent to sin. If a pastor is projected for a move, they want to know how much their salary will be. Can I continue to live in my house? Do you think the church could maybe pay a little more? Why am I getting a cut? (a downright sinful response from those who agreed to itinerate, and in a denomination that is in rapid decline). Rarely a question about a church's ministry and needs. Rarely does a pastor ask, "What do you think the church's main needs will be?" We sound like agents trying to negotiate the best salary and perks for a new job, instead of those availing themselves to serve. We find ourselves in competition with other pastors rather than in competition with Evil. It makes me want to ask the question: "Would you be a pastor if you got paid next to nothing? Would your heart still burn to preach the Gospel, to serve the Church in Word, Sacrament, and Order?" I think the answer to that question tells us loads about our call.
Dealing with churches is no less frustrating. They want to know, can we get a younger pastor, with a family? What did we do wrong to get this pastor? Do we have to pay our apportionments? Or the newest one: "We don't want to be part of a charge or a parish - we want to be on our own!" And when a pastor is asked to be moved, a litany of complaints follows. But when I ask, "Have you prayed with and for your pastor? Did you talk to him/her about these concerns?", I usually get silence. Pastors are expected to be spiritual leaders, but they are often treated like hirelings.
Of course everyone has frustrations - we are human beings, flawed and imperfect! But I wonder how often we examine our frustrations to see if they are founded in truth or founded in sin and self-absorption. Sometimes, there is reason to overturn the tables in the Temple. But many times, there is more reason to get on our knees and confess and repent of our thoughts and attitudes.
It seems like we only give God our best when it comes to lament and complaint! I wonder: do we really love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength - or just part of it? The First Commandment often becomes more like the First Impediment. As Chan remarks, "We give Jesus a section of our time, money, and thoughts, but He isn't allowed to control our lives." Our love of Jesus is at best conditional, comes with strings attached, and very selective.
United Methodist pastors vowed to itinerate regardless of income. We vowed to serve the church above our own comfort and to make sacrifices. Church members vowed to serve the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and services. We all said that we would put Christ first, and minister to the least and the lost. I think it may be time to quit giving God leftovers and start giving our best. A little sacrifice and contriteness wouldn't hurt us a bit.
I am glad our God is a forgiving God, full of grace. We can be a hard-headed bunch.