Friday, April 20, 2012

Elders – Called to Wherever, Whenever and into Whatever

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the role of the elder in the United Methodist Church. When I started the journey to becoming an elder at the age of 38, after 20 years in management, I decided that I was willing to fully commit to the sacrifices and challenges of living out the life of an elder. I started out as a local pastor serving a small country church and for eight years I served that congregation while working full time including 7 years on our Conference staff and going to seminary. As I think back on those years as a local pastor I realize how much my ministry was impacted by the elders that had been the pastors of the churches I attended and then while serving at Emory Chapel I was surrounded by a number of elders with many years of experience and wisdom. While I believed the work I was doing was important and I thought of myself as committed to the church,  I knew that with the bulk of my income coming from other sources, living in my own home in the community of my choosing and living more than 30 miles from the church I was not connecting to my church or community in the same way that many of the elders around me were able to.

I am very aware of the cost to a church or group of churches to have an ordained elder as their pastor. There is a minimum salary, a reimbursement account for ministerial expenses, hospitalization, pension, a parsonage including the utilities, office space in the church and the parsonage. Today the cost in many places is close to or more than $80,000 a year. That is a lot of money. We are finding it more and more difficult for a church to support this kind of pastoral care in many places. Is the problem the cost of the pastor or the faithfulness of the church to make disciples for Jesus Christ?

While many around me saw the call on my life to pastoral ministry I fought that call for more than 20 years. The truth is I liked having some semblance of control over my life, where I worked, where I lived, who I lived near, the people I spend the bulk of my time with. One of the things I liked most was the ability of people around me to see me for more than the work that I did. They seemed to be able to separate my work, be it managing a business or non-profit or teaching, from the many other things I did in my life. I was involved in a local church, lead many Bible studies, coached and officiated for numerous sports, became active in local politics as a candidate, public servant and campaign worker. I belonged to numerous organizations and groups that brought richness to my life that usually were unrelated to most other areas of my life.

While I was involved in many other activities I have since I was a teenager tried to live my life to have an impact for the Kingdom of God in every one of those areas. Since I decided to offer my life to God and follow Jesus and his teaching at the age of 16 my life has traveled many paths, some I am proud of and some that I wish I had made different decisions. For years I studied the Bible, lead Bible studies and served my local churches in many ways. I belonged to two United Methodist churches before I entered the ministry, a mid-sized urban church and a large rural church. I was raised in the country in the midst of the steel industry and the heart of unions when they were extremely strong. My dad was a steel worker for more than 35 years and one of the hardest working men I have ever met and a union member. As I began my faith journey as a young teenager I was surrounded by Christian people that struggled with what it meant to follow Jesus on a daily basis. I can still remember my grandfather poring over his Bible at the kitchen table and debating what passages meant to daily living with many that entered his home. Interestingly I can never remember him going to church. His wife, my grandmother, on the other hand never missed a Sunday and took her two daughters, including my mother, with her and the church would shape their lives in many ways that I would only come to appreciate years later.  I was impacted by the faith I saw lived out.

As a child growing up in my rural community we were C&E Christians, Christmas and Easter attenders in church. While we did not attend worship regularly my mother taught me the Bible stories and read to me from the Bible before bed many nights. I grew up with the stories of the Bible. When I was 14 we began attending church but that is another story! Not only did we begin to attend church but I was required to attend Sunday school and MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship)! We had an Associate member of the Annual Conference as our pastor and He continued to challenge me to give my life to Jesus and follow Him and at the age of 16 I knelt before that congregation and offered my life to Jesus. On that day I didn’t know what that would mean. It began my journey of faith that continues to evolve and grow today.

That fall a young man, Walt Hehman, a seminary student, would become my pastor. We would travel with him as he completed seminary and was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. Walt would guide my journey in faith, get me started in District and Conference activities, and become a vital part of my life. For 7 years he helped to mold me in so many ways. It was through him that I began to see the cost of being an elder and pastor. He would tell me that I would one day be a District Superintendent. I would laugh and tell him that I wasn’t going to be a pastor so he never had to worry about that. I wasn’t willing to set aside my goals, making money and gaining power, to serve a church that required you to go wherever, whenever and into whatever you were sent. For the next 20 years I would go to college, begin a business career, get an MBA, teach at the college I graduated from and continue to minister and grow in my faith through those avenues. During the whole time I was doing ministry in the name of Jesus as I attempted to live out what he had taught.

After fighting the call to ministry for more than 20 year my pastor ask me if I realized that I would never accomplish what God was calling me to be and impact the world until I was willing to give up my life and follow Him and he saw that as a call to full-time ordained ministry. Believing that there had to be another way I agreed to start the process of exploration into the ordained ministry fully expecting to reject the call. The truth is I tried to find a way to being ordained without giving up control of my life either to God or those placed in authority over me, DSs and Bishops. I have learned that I cannot serve the church until I am able to give up that control and allow God to work in and through me. Over the next 9 years I would serve a small church, go to seminary, work on our Conference staff and join the struggle to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In 2004 I was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. On that day I vowed to go wherever, whenever and into whatever God called me through the direction of my DS and Bishop. At that time I was serving two churches as pastor and on the staff of a third in my home community and felt I was effectively building the Kingdom of God through that season of my ministry. Then I received the call to go to the City of Erie, PA and pastor an intercity church. I was a country boy and felt most comfortable in rural and small town settings but because I had said I will go wherever, whenever and into whatever my Bishop called me to I went. In response to a challenge from that Bishop I worked diligently to make disciples there and build the Kingdom of God. To say that they were the three most difficult years of my life might just be an understatement. The cost to serve there was high but I believe God called me to that place for a season so that both I and the church could grow.

Now that I am back in a rural and small town serving two churches I have been doing a lot of thinking about the cost to the church and to me and my family of serving the church as a full-time elder and member of the Annual Conference. Most people don’t realize that when we are ordained we no longer hold membership in a local church but in the Annual Conference. We are appointed to the community in which we serve so that the “world is my parish” can be lived out. When I go to an appointment I have to be willing to go into whatever community my Bishop wishes me to touch, go whenever they send me, and serve whatever community to which I am sent. I do not get to choose where to go, what my income will be, what kind of house I will live in, what school my children will attend, and I am usually called to be far from my family and friends. Others decide how the house I live in will be cared for, what they are willing to do to help the church and I will be evaluated on their willingness to follow the Jesus. The cost to me as and elder to go wherever, whenever and into whatever I am sent is a cost that most will never see.

As we enter General Conference there will be discussion as to if we should keep the “guaranteed appointment” or not. I would gladly give up the “guaranteed appointment” as long as I get to give up the wherever, whenever and into whatever! The question will be whether the authorities, Bishops, District Superintendents, and churches are willing to give up this power and right to have a pastor that is willing to go wherever, whenever and into whatever.
We need to make sure we look at the costs for every decision we make.

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