Ministry in the Shadow of Violence

Me and my friend David Swanson talked together as part of an interview with our denomination’s communications department. I had originally written a piece and submitted it, and that piece turned into an occasion to talk with a friend and brother about people we deeply care for and issues we’re drawn to address.

Read the post here at Covenant Companion.

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Two Questions From the Weekend, pt 1

I was in Boston for the weekend to lead a retreat with new friends at Highrock Covenant Church.  Our denomination’s department of Christian Formation has facilitators, me included, who are dispatched to facilitate these invitations to prayer when local churches request them.  I’ve done a half dozen of these retreats in the last years, and Saturday was my latest opportunity.

Friday evening I enjoyed a meal with Michelle Sanchez and Amy Bositis.  We talked about the usual things, our geographies, our stories, and how we came to the places we are.  We spoke of our families, ministries, and, of course, we eventually got to the matter of last minute details for Saturday’s retreat.

Somewhere in the midst of eating, Michelle said she had two favorite questions she wanted to raise.  Her first question is the one I want to write about today.  Her second question comes in the next post.  They are questions worth answering, considering, and answering again.  They are questions worth keeping.  The first one: why do you lead these retreats?

I heard the obvious in her question.  She was planning to introduce me in the morning to a group from her church, and she wanted what wasn’t in my brief bio.  But I also heard a more general, penetrating question: why do you do what you do?  Have you thought lately about that question?  Why do you do what you do?  Why do you spend the time you do where you are?

It would help to know that the particular retreat we participated in is an assortment of prayer practices paired with various passages from the Bible.  I answered Michelle’s question simply.  I told her that I get to do, in these retreats, two of the most essential pastoral acts, and since I’m a pastor, the retreats are perfect opportunities for me to do two things I love: I get to teach people other ways to pray, and I get to put people before the scriptures.

So I get in planes or in rental cars and arrive at new places, meet new people, and wade through awkward or familiar ways to pray.  There is silence and music.  There is usually chocolate, a lot of reading, and, this time, there was bell-ringing.  There was my getting lost because Boston’s streets are notorious for their signage.  Several participants told me, in other words, either you know your way or you don’t.  There were sweet sisters in religious life.  There was a visit to a friend’s new church.

But Michelle’s question sparked the weekend.  Before the questions and the answers and the warm greetings of members from her church.  Before the smiling and hand-shaking with nuns so warm it made me think of fresh bread and a crackling fire.  Before the Sunday night return flight and right prior to Sandy’s arrival.  Sitting at the table, with a tasty dish of pecan-crusted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and green beans, Michelle anchored me into my work.

She helped me remember why I did my work.  And I thought about how good that felt, because there are things about work that aren’t always good or enjoyable.  There are people I know who grieve their work, people I know who don’t have the work they want or any work at all.  There I was getting to enjoy the consideration, getting to look forward to tomorrow, getting to embody the connected pieces of my vocation.

And like the pecan chicken and the tomato basil soup before it, the day ahead would be splendid.  The weather would be glorious for it, even if mornings following would bring winds so strong they’d make children shudder.  Leaves would fall easily to the ground in many gardens.  Sun rays would stretch across our heads and around the chapel like our favorite music.  And I would enjoy every moment of it.

Vow of Ordination

This is a short address from the Covenant Book of Worship, where the president of our denomination addresses the ordinands during the (service of) ordination to word and sacrament, what I’ll be hearing and saying tonight:

Dear friends, in response to God’s call and after spiritual and educational preparation, you have come to be ordained to the office of word and sacrament.  Having confessed your faith and spoken your vows in matters of faith and holy intent, I now call upon you to make your solemn promise in the presence of God and in this company of witnesses.

Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor, caring for God’s people, nourishing them in the preaching and teaching of the word, administering the holy sacraments, bearing rule in the church, and serving with the love and authority of Christ in bringing redemption and reconciliation?

After we say, “I will with the help of God,” the president addresses both orders of ordination (word and service and word sacrament):

We praise God for your commitment to serve Christ and his Church in the orders of word, service, and sacrament.  Serve patiently, cheerfully, and with compassion, remembering that the work you are called to is God’s work and that it is done in God’s name to God’s glory.  Follow Christ, whose servant you are.  Remember you are marked as persons who proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and you must be prepared to be what you proclaim.  Serve Christ simply and willingly, and let your joy in Christ overcome all discouragement.  Have no fear; be humble, yet bold and full of hope.

Savoring A Feast

My wife and son are with me at a feast.  Where are taking a few days as a family to enjoy one another, to connect with other people we don’t really know, and to attend to God.

This is a first for us.  We’ve never been at this event or in this venue in Estes Park.  We were telling the Sung family on the way to lunch–when they asked why we chose to come to the Feast together–that we don’t get to do this together, ever.  I serve in one church.  My wife and son attend and serve at another.  Even though New Community Bronzeville was launched from Logan Square, the miles that separate us on Sundays, mean that I don’t regularly worship with or sing or greet with my wife or my son.  So we came to the Feast to do that.

The Feast is a series of days developed and set aside by the Evangelical Covenant Church in order for people and families to create space for God, for each other, and for play.  It leads to the denomination’s main governing time, our Annual Meeting.  The Annual Meeting is when and where the business of the Church is prayerfully heard and decided upon.  It is where the superintendents offer reports, where the staff communicate things done and undone, and where the delegates vote upon critical issues facing our Body.  It is also where our national Church commissions, licenses, and ordains clergy and missionaries for our vocations in ministry.  The Feast, done only every three years, anticipates that business, doing so by reminding those who participate that the central issues before us as a Church are our God and our God’s mission as accepted and responded to in community.

We’re in the middle of breathtaking scenes, surrounded by peaks and trees fashioned by the Creator.  And we’re surrounded by people who are eating like we are.  In the days before my own service of ordination (I’ve written several posts about the process), I get to sit and hear great speakers remind me to savor.

This morning Lauren Walter spoke about savoring.  Lauren told stories about loving salami and cheese sandwiches and remembering how she tried to sell water with her friend when she was a five-year old girl.  She showed us what it was to savor.  She talked about how when we remember what we love, we remember people and feelings and not schedules and projects.  She said that when we savor, we feast with God.  When we savor, when we enjoy the moment we’re in, we enjoy God in ways that we don’t get to when we pass the moment and go on to the next.

I’m off to do more savoring.  Sure, I’ll be running through details of next weekend, and I’ll be squeezing moments to prepare to preach in Bronzeville this week.  I might even try to get the raw podcasts from Logan Square since I missed Blake’s message today.  I’ve already begun jotting notes for my short message at Misuzu and Alvin’s wedding this Saturday.  I’m naturally inclined to think about what’s next, what’s ahead, even when that normal way of being is a problem.  There are things to do.  But savoring is the first one.  I’m being reminded of that, and I’m obeying the nudges inside those reminders.

Questions, Papers, Interviews, & An Upcoming Ordination

“You haven’t seen the last of us.”  Those were the words of a member of the small group of people who interviewed me during the first part of last Saturday’s ordination interview.  I wrote three posts about my process toward ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church, which you can read here, here, and here.

Well, my final interviews were Saturday, which followed up from my earlier session at the Conference level in the fall.  Saturday I met with a group of four people for an hour.  They had seen my profile and all my applications.  They probably saw the summary of my progress in the denomination’s classes and read through the experiences I had listed from the last four years.  They pulled my paper up on their laptops and read through their highlighted questions. 

I was asked about my calling to ministry and about my theology of human sexuality.  They wanted me to talk about my understanding of congregational polity since I came from an African American church that was not of the same governing structure.  They asked about preaching, after having heard my sermon sample and read the evaluation from my church’s Leadership Team.  We talked about rest and what that looks like for me.  They complimented my paper, which made my day.

After that, I left, they discussed me, and called me back a half hour later into a room with four times as many people.  We all introduced ourselves and they asked me to answer one of the previous questions I had already answered so that part of the Board could hear me answer a question–the one about sexuality.  Then they asked about my recreational life.  I told them that my son was often entertaining, not always but often.  That was my best answer in the moment. 

They said that my interview and process were favorable, that they were recommending me for ordination.  They smiled and I did too.  It was our way of acknowledging that much work had been done.  I was nervous, though, because ordination really isn’t something to congratulate a person over as much as it’s a reason to pray for a person!  That’s probably why that group of pastors and leaders laid their hands on me and prayed.

Then I hopped onto the Blue line, went to my office, talked briefly with my pastor about random church things, and met with an engaged couple getting married this spring. 

Upon reflection, I think the words from that seasoned colleague stuck out the most.  You haven’t seen the last of us.  Looking at what ministry I’ve already done, and imagining what’s next, those are searching and encouraging words.  To me they mean that the ups and downs of pastoral leadership, the moments when words can’t be said or won’t be said, the frustrating times when you feel or are misunderstood–during those times–there is a community of people around you.  A group of coworkers in the larger Church that you can look around for and find.

A Part of Something

Yesterday I sat for my first interview for ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church.  I’ve written a few posts about it.  One of the many things I’m thinking and appreciating about this process is the reminder that I am a servant in a local church that is a part of something larger, a Church that is inclusive of more than the local group of people I see, interact with, and serve. 

After being called into the room, I met four folks who had all my forms, papers, and applications.  Their faces were knowing and humble, and I could tell that they had been thoughtful and prayerful that morning.  I looked around the table at the face of a man I knew from several conversations, a man I’d met once when I led a retreat for his church earlier this year, a woman whose face was familiar but who I couldn’t recall meeting, and another man who I knew only by name and good reputation.

As the conversation came and went, we talked about my call, about my role and what I’m learning at New Community.  We discussed how I came to my church and where I’ve grown in my own view.  They mentioned the evaluation from my church and pointed out several pieces in my paper.  We talked about ways to serve and further get to know our denomination.  They reminded me that our work as ministers was both to our local churches and to the broader group within our denomination.

It was a kind reminder.  

One of my favorite authors is Gerald May.  I’m reading Will and Spirit.  Very slowly.  It will take me at least a year to process this book so if I mention in 2012 that I’m reading Will and Spirit, don’t be surprised!  Dr. May anchors the book in a distinction between willingness and willfulness.   

Willfulness is manipulative.  It is what we’re used to in culture, what pulls us away from being aware of who we are and what we’re addicted to.  Willfulness is setting ourselves a part of what we are naturally a part of.  It is the hard attempt to direct, control, and master existence.  Willfulness is the opposite of living by grace or living because you have been given something.

Willingness is on the other hand.  It is surrendering oneself to what is.  It is entering into, immersing one’s life into life, realizing “that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process.”  He says, willingness is the commitment to be in the process of life.  The commitment to be a part of something bigger that already is.

My interview was a recent reminder of some of this good stuff May is bringing up.  Any thoughts?

I Hope They Ordain Me, pt. 3 of 3

As I said in the first post, I am working on a paper as a part of my ordination process.  I like papers.  I haven’t always.  In fact, it took a conversation and a graded essay from Dr. Timothy Boddie, then English professor at Hampton University, before I started to like writing.  Dr. Boddie told me something simple but life-changing.  He said–and this isn’t spectacular literally–that I was a good writer. 

I couldn’t take his words too far.  It was my first semester.  I had many more essays to write.  He knew that.  He knew that he was first complimenting or commenting on the work in front of him.  He was speaking more to potential than to evidence.  But.  That conversation changed the way I look at myself and at writing.  Suddenly it was something I could do.  Writing was something I was maybe even good at.

I’ve written a few papers since that conversation as a freshman at Hampton.  As I look at this essay for my ordination, I’m thinking, “I’ve done this before.”  I’ve done it in seminary and other places.  So I look forward to pulling thoughts down next week into some form.

It’ll give me another chance to articulate what I think, why I think it, and how it looks in the context of a church setting.  I’m not working in the academy but in a congregation.  In the congregation, everything a pastor does–not quite everything–should has some meaning, significance, or relevance to the mission of that church.  Knowing for the sake of knowing, producing knowledge alone, doesn’t work.  Knowledge ties to doing and being.  So I’m looking forward to those paragraphs between next week and the September 1 deadline.

If you had to summarize what you believe–about faith, about life, about love, about anything that matters–how would you start?  What stories would you tell?  Who would be the indispensable characters in those stories?

I Hope They Ordain Me, pt. 2 of 3

I started these posts by talking about a few reasons I want to be ordained.  This short post goes into some detail about how the ECC (or the Covenant) goes about ordaining folks.

The denomination educates ministers at North Park Theological Seminary.  For folks who study there, the process is slightly different.  For people in shoes like mine, there are other steps.  Part of the Covenant’s process includes taking classes ( 7 of them when I started, though that’s been changed to 4 classes nowadays) to orient people to the denomination; participating in particular experiences like retreats and conferences; reading books; attending Annual meeting and Midwinter; and connecting with other pastors inside the denomination.  People are also expected to be supervised by a mentor who is already ordained and serving in the denomination.  I should also say that to be ordained to what’s called “Word and Sacrament” in the Covenant, you need to have a MDiv.  That’s a thorny issue for some, but I’ll come back to that in a few days.

As I said, these steps are a bit different if you attend our denomination’s seminary, but since I went somewhere else, I had to take supplemental courses and so forth.  The classes were good because I knew nothing about this denomination before accepting my role at New Community.  I was familiar with a few Covenant churches but that was it.

Further, the process above is very different from the one I went through in my first experience of ordination.  Each denomination is different.  Some ordinations are done through the local church only (like my first ordination).  Usually Baptist and independent churches are in this category.  Others are through connectional systems, also known as denominations, like the United Methodist Church or the Church of God in Christ.  The Covenant is an example of the latter.

If I have a successful interview, if my paper doesn’t raise too many red flags, if all the reports and signatures concerning me come back positively, I will present myself before our Conference (a collection of churches in geographically close states) in the spring, talk about myself, and they will hand me off to the Annual meeting to be voted in.  I’m omitting one or two things, but those are the basics.

Perhaps this post is completely irrelevant to you, and if you read it only to find that irrelevancy, you’re a great visitor to this blog!

I Hope They Ordain Me, pt. 1 of 3

I was ordained in my home church the year I finished graduate school and one year before I entered seminary.  I didn’t really want to be ordained.  I got convinced by a few people that it was something to do.  I think back to that decision, to that time, and laugh at myself because I went kicking and screaming.

Now, I am finishing up the process of ordination for our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and my attitude is completely different.  Because I’m in a new denomination, I had to pursue its ordination in order to serve.  Well, I didn’t have to.  But it was very clear to me that ordination was a good idea. 

 As I prepare to write my paper describing my understanding of the “Central Affirmations,” along with several of my own theological understandings of the church, the role of a pastor, and the person and work of Jesus in both of them; as I look forward to an interview in October and piecing together my profile and “examples of proclamation” for the various committees and departments, I think it’s healthy to remind myself why I do the things I do.  And I’m sharing them with you.

I realize that everyone who works at a job, who serves in a particular role, doesn’t feel called to that job or role.  But I encourage you to think about why you’re up to the things you are.  Whether you do feel a sense of call or conviction for what you do.  Whether you should even.

Here’s an example of some of the things I need to spend the next couple weeks fleshing out for my process:

  1. Ordination has to mean something.  I’ve been ordained before, by a local church, and if ordination hasn’t taken on deeper meaning for me, that’s a problem.  Being a professional religious person has its benefits but it has pitfalls.  Sacrifices come.  Often.  As I say yes to ordination, I do so with a better understanding that’s come with a few more years of pastoral ministry.
  2. I’m made for a congregation.  As much as I enjoy writing and talking to people about solutions to problems, I think the best place for me to do that is within a church.  I’ve struggled for years to find contentment in the church as  a staff person.  I’ve felt comfortable in other settings, and still do.  But even though I’m comfortable doing other things and even with my struggles, I get to serve in a general way, inside a congregation, that captures what I enjoy.
  3. I love people.  I love to serve people.  I love to see people change, even when that change takes a long time.  One of the books on my desk is titled, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”  It’s by Eugene Peterson and it’s a book about Christian discipleship.  It describes how slow following Jesus is, how tedious looking at Jesus and following his steps, if you will, can be.  It’s a reminder–just the title–that what I do is slow work.  But I love it.
  4. I don’t always love people.  When you love and don’t love people, the best place for that movement is the church.  If there is a place where I should be honest about my feelings about the people I work with and for and alongside, it’s God’s church. 
  5. Other people think my being here is a good idea.  This can be slippery, but I’ve lived my life hearing or ignoring a community’s affirmation of my purpose.  When I started working in churches, I asked people whether they thought I was suited for it.  Even though I didn’t follow my mother’s first advice to not work in the church, I have listened to many others along my way so far.
  6. Invoking God never gets old.  I am not the type to say what God told me.  Least not often.  It sounds suspicious and presumptuous.  It’s easily misunderstood, that language.  Then, again, I do feel an inner sense and conviction that God has summoned me for ministry.  Made me for it.  And how do you argue with a person who believes they hear from the mostly unseen Creator of eveything that is seen?