Monday, January 23, 2012

What Is Needed?

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” - Luke 10:38-42, NRSV

My freshman year as a district superintendent in the Southeastern Jurisdiction came to a close last week as I attended the Cabinet Consultation at Epworth by the Sea in St. Simon's Island, Georgia. Along with meeting episcopal candidates for this year's jurisdictional conference, we were able to hear from Gil Rendle. His presentations, along with the resulting discussions, have fermented in me ever since.

As I have written before, we are living out the Chinese curse of "living in interesting times." And as I prepare to be involved in another round of pastoral appointment-making, I think some very hard realizations are going to hit us as a denomination. If we are going to make the shift to be about making disciples instead of making church members, there are people who are not going to be happy. In discipleship mode, neither clergy nor congregations are"cared for" - we become resources. Maybe even expendable resources.

Think about it: if we are truly going to ask people to vote against their self-interests and instead to devote themselves to a bigger purpose beyond themselves, we ARE saying that we are expendable. That our best interests ARE secondary (or even tertiary) to the interests of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In short, as Rendle challenged some of us last week, do we want an encounter with Christ, do we want to experience His grace, and do we want to transform the world more than propel our self-interests?

Some church members and clergy may say, "I didn't sign up for this gig." And, in all honesty, it hasn't always been the gig that was presented.

What is needed from our clergy? I think we have to retool, renew, and be willing to be transformed - not into what we want to be, but into what God wants us to be. Some of that may not be what we thought ministry ought to be, or that it's "not me" or "against my nature." The reality is, while all of us have gifts differing according to what God gives us, we are also called to be generalists.

In baseball, we call such players "utility" players; St. Louis Cardinals' coach Jose Oquendo comes to mind. I remember my father and I watching the Cardinals play the Braves in a 19 inning marathon when Oquendo pitched 3 innings - and held the Braves scoreless! - before giving up two runs in the 19th inning. Oquendo played every position on the diamond, has coached, and managed a year in the minor leagues. Now, one certainly can't excel in all things - but I think we pastors have to be willing to do more than just those things we think we "excel" at. We have to be generalists. We are servants. We are expendable resources. As we venture out into the wilderness, there are some harsh realities to face. Guaranteed appointments and defined-benefit pensions may be endangered species. "Moving up" every time we make a pastoral move may no longer be a given. We will experience loss in many shapes and forms.

Laity are no less immune. Restructuring church, changing the focus from membership to discipleship, emphasizing mission over maintenance - this may mean more than just giving up our favorite pew to sit in. We might lose our church office positions. We might be called to put more money in the plate yet have less say about how we want things. If legacy and transforming the world in the name of Jesus is the most important thing, we will pass the mantle of leadership in our churches into the hands of those who might not do church the way we would do it. We will experience loss in many shapes and forms.

Yet in all of this, once again the bigger question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to give up our self-interests toward the bigger purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ? Can we take up the cross? Can we pay the price? Can we choose the better part? Are we willing to examine ourselves?

Those are things worth praying about.



John Meunier said...


Thank you for this post.

How do pastors lay the groundwork for this change in their congregations?

Unknown said...

Thank you, Sky...lead on! We need honest expression from our leaders. You are modeling that. I pray you are sharing one on one with your pastors in this kind of honesty.

Sara Tate said...

This is great, Sky! I love the dialogue on being "generalists." I also love the truth behind the perspective of being changed into what God would have us be for ministry and for the church. As a very young person in ministry, I'm told often what I "have to be", or how I "have to preach", (as if there's only one right way to do everything) and so forth. I often feel caught between letting the culture of what ministry was (and is) be what's shaping me and at times feel as though it's not shaping me into that person God would have me be for the future or the church. What should young and new clergy hear from this?

Sky McCracken said...


There are certainly things that all of us as pastors have to do: even though people tell me that I'm good at administration, I don't 'like' it - but it is a tool to do things, as Paul said, "decently and in order." Plus, I hate to have to do anything twice, so I try to do it right the first time. So there are some basic expectations of being a clergy person, and whether we like all of those expectations is irrelevant; we to it to be faithful in our service.

I'm not convinced that there is any one "right way" to do anything, but they do need to be done. I think the tension we live in is between being what God calls us to be and doing what we think we need to be doing. That takes a lot of prayer and discernment. My wishes when I was young was to continue studying liturgical and sacramental theology, getting a doctorate, and perhaps teaching. I realize now that while I would have loved it, it wasn't what I was being called to do; that was being selfish. That doesn't mean God doesn't call people to teach; my good friend Ed Phillips is, in my opinion, doing exactly what God called him to do.

So I'd advise any young clergy person to seek out spiritual direction and guidance, and to hone the skills for pastoral work... especially the ones we don't do well or like. To borrow from the medical profession: in the Church, right now I think we need far fewer specialists and more general practitioners doing family medicine. We need to be constantly adapting to lead our congregations - which means we need to be willing to be renewed and transformed.

I am not a financial expert, but my hunch is that much leaner times are coming - which will make ordained ministry and the personal costs of serving as such much higher. At the same time, we are living in a rich time of opportunity: there are plenty of fields to scatter seed in. It will be a test of our call and faith to see how we minister without all the safety nets we currently have in place.

Blessings on your ministry, Sara!

Gary said...

I'm surprised at how little info. has come from the d.s. meeting. Have you seen other posts/reflections/news on what I would think is a fairly important gathering?

Pastor Chris Roberts said...

My problem is that while there is a great expectation that the clergy, laity and congregations must be expendable, the denomination refuses to be expendable. There are expectations from the leaders (read bureaucrats like bishops and DSs) that clergy will do what is asked of them, follow the rules (spoken and unspoken), adapt to bad appointments or new policies, and if they run afoul these expectations that they will change, go away, or be sent away. I know many clergy and laity who feel more disposable than expendable. Let me own it: I do. I feel that if I don't change as my DSs and other cabinet members so desire than I am simply disposable. They can send me away to an appointment far away making such little salary that I don't need to show up in discussions about potential moves when the promotions are passed out at the cabinet meetings.
It's kind of like a marriage relationship. Husband and wife enter into a happy marriage. All is well. Then one day, expectations are kept. On some level the covenant is broken. The wife (the church structure) feels that the husband (the clergy or congregation) has done something wrong. She asks the husband to change that behavior. The husband will either change or else. The problem is that in my experience of counseling, no matter who has caused the hurt, to find true healing and move forward both parties have to learn to adapt. If the husband changes his behavior, but the wife refuses to change herself (her attitude, her expectations,etc) then it is never going to work. Both parties must be willing to be expendable.
The problem is that the system, the structure, the Conference, the bureaucracies, whatever you want to call them, they cannot and will not be expendable.
And again, in the end, the hurt from that causes others to simply cut off communication, shut down the relationship, build walls and barriers that will be difficult to cross.
So as a DSs I'd be careful asking someone else to be expendable when the very system you represent has caused hurt and left scars on clergy and churches that refuse to be open to the same.

Pastor Chris Roberts said...

please note that part of my statement about "promotions being passed out" is done with a snark of sarcasm in my voice.