I NEED YOUR INPUT – IDK ’14

How do you talk to students about God calling them into ministry?  That is a question I have been plagued with for the last year or so.  After hearing about what Church of the Resurrection does in their MAC Track Program (MAC = Ministry as a Career) I was wondering how I could help inspire, cultivate, and encourage the students in my church, district and conference to follow God’s calling in their lives.
I was introduced to the idea of being called into ministry by my associate pastor when I was 16 years old.  I had asked him, “How much does a Youth Pastor make?” which he followed up with, “Let’s get together and talk.”  He shared with me his calling story and expressed the idea that I may be called into the ministry as well.  He saw some things in me that I didn’t even know about yet.  He pushed me to explore the ministry and I did in college.  Finally through some hands on experience working as an intern in the Western North Carolina Conference Center I learned I was called into ordained ministry and I started the candidacy process.
But what I soon realized is that there is not much out there to help Middle and High School students explore the idea of being called.  If it wasn’t for my associate pastor I would have never known because it wasn’t something ingrained in the conversation at youth group or at church in general.  After hearing about the MAC Track I contacted the head minister of that program at COR to see what they do and how that might translate into something for my area. 
My brain swirled with ideas but I never knew how to get it off the ground.  Then I visited the conference center and went to say hello to a friend of mine.  We were ordained together and I knew she had a new position in the Conference Office.  I learned she was now the Associate Director of Ministerial Services.  What that translated to was she was in charge of people who were exploring their calling, were starting the candidacy process and through ordination.  I told her we needed to talk. 
During our conversations we found out that we, as a conference, have a huge gap in our system when it comes to Middle and High School students.  We have nothing on District or Conference levels to encourage and cultivate a sense of calling in their lives.  We explored different options of what it may look like to do something on a conference or district level in this area.  Finally we decided that the district level is where we should start and we should start with one event.  We formed a planning team of young clergy and the Metro District IDK ’14 was born.
IDK, for those who don’t know (get it J), is texting short hand for “I Don’t Know”.  IDK ’14: Turing Don’t into Do, is our attempt to help cultivate, encourage and start a conversation with students in our district who may feel called into some sort of ministry.  It could missions, local church, chaplaincy, working with homeless, WHATEVER.  We aren’t recruiting Elders or Deacons, we are simply starting the conversation and leading them to the path to start this calling journey.
I am truly excited about this event and thrilled it is coming into fruition.  Our hope is that after this test run is over we can learn what worked and what didn’t.  Then we can duplicate this in other districts around our conference.  We hope that after these events, possible small groups can start where people are sitting down with students to continue to check in with them and see how their journey is going.  We are also asking that every church that sends a student or students to this event also sends at least one sponsor.  This sponsor will learn how to encourage this student in the process and ways the local church can help guide and cultivate this calling in their student’s life.
If all goes well, over the next three years we could see a culture of call emerge within the Metro District and possibly the Western North Carolina Conference.  At least that is the dream, and the way I think God is directing us.
So here is where I need your help.  All who read this, both lay and clergy alike, I need some advice.  During our day long IDK ’14 event, I will have an hour and a half to teach and share my calling story.  What do you think would be essential to tell them?  We want this event to be upbeat and positive.  This is not the time to start to discuss the long ordination process and all the issues involved with that.  Nor do we want to turn this into a gripe session about the way ministry can be a drag sometimes on families and lead to an early death (depending on which study you read). 
I would like my teaching time to be focused on how God moves in people to express God’s love to the world.  I want to share how exciting ministry is and how wonderful it is to be used by God to make a difference in this world.  What I need help with is some other ideas.  What would you share and what would you think is most important for someone who is just starting this journey to know. 
Please leave a comment or you can email me at revjimparsons at g mail dot com. 

Thank you for reading and please keep this event in your prayers.
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Called By God…that’s why I’m here

I don’t think people realize the inner dialogue I have preaching every week.  I am sure there are these inner

dialogues behind every pulpit every Sunday, but since I am not invited into those personal conversations I cannot tell you what is happening.  Since I cannot escape my own, I can tell you what happens there.  Every Sunday, as I pick up the Bible in one hand and repeat the memorized phrase, requesting people to stand to hear the Word of God read today, it begins.

I never enjoyed speaking in front of people.  Scratch that, I hate speaking in front of people, especially growing up.  I remember ducking and cowering when the teacher was looking for a reader or an answer.  When I could not escape the call, my heart would pound, my tongue would feel heavy, and the nerves shot out of me a like a neon beer sign, begging everyone to witness my misery.  Honestly, after preaching for almost 12 years, it has gotten slightly better.  I am not in total panic mode and I am a little calm on the inside.  Yet, every week that inner dialogue starts in my head and with all the eyes on me and what I am about to say, I trudge forward into the preaching abyss. 
The conversation in my head has a lot to do with my ordination interviews and oh how I wish I could redo at least one of them.  I wish I could sit in front of the preaching committee once again.  They read my sermon and loved it.  Then they looked at my video and were puzzled.  They saw a monotone, nervous, statue of a preacher almost reading his sermon off his manuscript.  They confessed that after reading the sermon they had a picture of what my preaching style would look like and the one they witnessed did not match.  As those words washed over me I could not say anything.  I did not know what to say.  However if I could do it again, I would say this:
“I am called by God to preach the Good News to the people of this world, in the pulpits I am appointed to.  I do this because I am called by God and only because of that fact.  The nervous train wreck of a preacher you see on that video tape is a person who is scared to death to talk in front of people.  He is a preacher who never wanted to be the center of attention, an introvert stuck in an extrovert’s job description for an hour each Sunday.  I am learning to do better, trying to move forward in my calling but the only reason I am up there is because God has called me.  I am forced by God’s will to stand behind that pulpit and to find comfort, ease, and peace behind it will take some time.  When you see and hear me preach I pray you don’t see me, I pray you see and hear God because that is the only reason I am up there.”
I passed my boards, thankfully.  But the committee did not know whether to pass me because of my preaching style.  I think this is because we have a cookie cutter expectation when it comes to preaching.  We all want the charismatic, outgoing, showman/woman who thrives in the spotlight.  People want extroverts.  God called me, an introvert, to preach though.  Just as God called the stuttering and leadership limited Moses, the silent but always present Disciple whom Jesus loved, and the passionate, spiritual and “heady” prophet Jeremiah.  God called introverts into this extroverted position because we have something to offer, to say, and a calling to live out. 

The introvert heads to the pulpit not to feed an ego, have some “look at me” time, or become the center of attention.  The introvert heads to the pulpit because God has dragged him/her up there, sometimes kicking and screaming.  However, that preacher is up there because God called and only because God called.

Attention Young Clergy

I need some help and I need some opinion from some Young Clergy (Elders, Deacons, Candidates, whoever!).  For those of YC who accepted a call into the ministry in High School or College please leave me a comment or contact me via email at revjimparsons at gmail dot com.

Here are the questions I need help flushing out.

– Who helped you realize you were called into ministry?  Pastor?  Associate Pastor?  Youth Minister?  Friend?  Crazy street corner lady?  Angel from God?  Parents?

– During your High School and College years, what kind of support did you get exploring your call to ministry?

–  Is there something that would have helped you more during those formative years?  A mentor?  A group of peers exploring their call as well?  Internships to get hands on experience in ministry?

– What event/person/experience solidified your calling and gave you the strength/patience/fortitude to continue or go through the ordination process?

Any feed back would be very helpful and thanks for your help.

Ordaining Moments

This past week I was a retreat and they had us tell the story of one of our “ordaining moments.”  These are the moments we have in ministry when we feel we are doing exactly what we are supposed to do.  These are the moments when you know that you are doing what God has called you to do.

In all the crap that can happen in ministry it is important to realize and take in these “ordaining moments.”  If we miss them we will be burned out, but if we keep our eyes and hearts open to them we can grow and stay energized in ministry.

I wanted to share a couple of my “ordaining moments” with my readers and I invite you to share yours either in the comments or on your own blog.  One of the reasons I think people are so scared of ministry is because of all the crap we ministers go through and then vent about especially online.  But if we look at the “ordaining moments” in ministry, there is truly no better place to be.  We should share more of these moments with the world and others because they are truly sharing God’s grace.

A couple of my “ordaining moments”:

– Baptizing my children: I could not even utter the whole sentence “Name I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  I couldn’t because when I placed water on my sons head and then three years later my daughters, there was such a tangible presence of the Holy Spirit that words could not be formed in my mouth.

– Over and over again being invited into the tender and raw moments of people lives, especially at the passing of a loved one.  Over my four months at this appointment we have said goodbye to two parishioners who had massive heart attacks.  One was 56 and the other 42, both too young.  When I am invited in I feel I am able to use my spiritual gifts of peace and comfort.  I hate doing it because it means tragedy is there but none the less I feel my calling in those moments more as well.

– I recently went back to my first appointment and stood in the silence of a completed youth room.  It was a project I help start but moved before it could be completed.  I had listened to one of my youth workers tell me of this dream he had about this space and I could tell it wasn’t him but it was of God.  I get excited about hearing the calling God has put on the lives of people and helping that calling come into fruition   It can be a marathon of a process but it is what it is.  When it is form God, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much sweat and blood has to be put into it, it is always worth it.

Those are just three examples.  What stories would you share?  What are your ordaining moment?  When you tell the stories of ministry which do you concentrate on, the painful times or the times when you come into contact with our Risen Lord and Savior who is in our midst?

Avoid Becoming the Pastor you Swore You’d Never Be – Part II

From page 22 in The Unofficial United Methodist Handbook for Pastors.

You are pastor. (“Exercising pastoral supervision of the people committed to your care, ordering the life of the congregation, counseling the troubled in spirit…”)
The word ‘pastor’ can mean ‘shepherd,’ one who watches over the flock, the congregation.  A shepherd learns to recognize cries for help (even when they sound like anger); a shepherd offers gentle redirection for a lamb going astray; a shepherd organizes life within the sheepfold.

DON’T:

  • Underestimate the tools of your trade: The Word, prayer, and the sacraments.  These are not second best.  Few physicians, counselors, or gurus offer these life-giving things.
  • Think of the pastor’s office as a chance for you to do your own thing.  The ordered life of the church includes disciplined accountability.  In the United Methodist Church, this includes the authroity of The Book of Discipline.

DO

  • Remember the difference between whom you serve and for whom you work.  You serve a congregation, but you work for God.
  • Keep in mind the basics.  People need what pastors provide – a word from God, prayers, dependable sacramental promises, and a church relationship that is lived out ‘decently and in [good] order.’ (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Recently we had a parishioner die.  She spent a long time in the hospital and the family called me and told me that she was given about 24-48 hours to live.  I and my wife were on a date that night and on our way home we both stopped by.  I was familiar with a room like that, my wife was not.  She could feel the energy in the room (she is really attune to such things) and said it was a hard place to be.  I told her this is one of the reasons I feel it is a privileged to be a minister.  It is a privileged because I am invited into that room, into that private family moment.  Prayer with family at the bedside of a dying loved one is holy ground.
We are pastors…if we start to take those moments for granted or leave them neglected, we are the Pastor we swore we would never be.

Avoid Becoming the Pastor you Swore You’d Never Be – Part I

There is a ‘cute’ little book out there called “The Unofficial United Methodist Handbook for Pastors.”  It has a bunch of short, direct, informative, funny, and yet serious vignettes into the everyday workings of being a UM Pastor.  As I rearranged my book shelf I stumbled upon it, and like many of the books I tried to place in the correct shelf, I opened it up and started to read a little.

The first vignette I came to that caught my eye was one titled How to Avoid Becoming the Pastor You Swore You’d Never Be and Become the Pastor You Always Wanted To Be.  That caught my attention and as I read I felt some conviction.  I’m a decade in and I have wondered this exact question.  There have been times in this past year that I doubted my call, my self-knowledge, and who God really wants out of me.  As I read through the five main points I felt some relief and thought I would share with the blogosphere.  So here is post one of five and I hope they help someone out there dealing with the same stuff I have been through this year.

“1. You are a preacher. (‘Preaching and teaching the Word of God…by leading persons to faith in Jesus Christ…).  Speech is more than ‘mere words.’  Words have the power to bind and to free, to kill and to riase up.  In fact, Paul matches ‘truthful speech’ with ‘the power of God.’ (2 Corinthians 6:7).  dangerous stuff in the wrong hands: the word translated ‘power’ is dunamis.  Recognize our work ‘dynamite’?
Don’t – Force your own predeterminations into what John Wesley called ‘plain truth for plain people.’
Don’t – Let your walk stray so far from your talk that neither walk nor talk is recognizable.
Do – Talk about Jesus.  It is his story, not yours.  He is the faithful one.  Preach like John the Baptizer who said, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 3:30)
Do – Take the gospel to your listeners by saying ‘for you.’ Remember to include yourself among the sinners being addressed: ‘for us’.” (p.21-22)

My Thoughts: There has been a rare moment in these last ten years where I have had the pleasure of actually participating in worship and was able to be preached too.  There has been the rare occasion when I have been repulsed by what was being sad from behind the pulpit.  The repulsion was the ‘show’ going on from behind it.  During that time the preacher talked more about “I” or “me” than anything else.  I constantly remind myself that when I preach it is not about me.  One of the questions I ask my wife all the time is “do you think this illustration is okay?”  I have found using personal stories help connect the congregation and myself.  It is a good way to let them know more about me and my life experience but I always make sure the illustration points to God and not myself.  If it points to myself it is usually in a self-deprecating fashion.

I grew up a person who was scared to talk in front of people and hated to read in public.  I ran hard from my calling to be behind the pulpit every week.  Yet I have to remind myself it is also the place I feel most connected to God.  I feel that way because I am not up there on my own volition.  If I had my choice I would rather run the sound booth and be behind the scenes.  But God has called me to stand behind the pulpit and I do as I am called.  I love the quote from John Wesley, “plain truth for plain people.”  That is my calling in a nutshell.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 – Sermon – I’m Listening, Lord

1 Samuel 3:1-10
I’m Listening, Lord
01-15-12

One of the last books I read was Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ Built to Last.  This was an in-depth look at visionary companies that have been able to survive countless decades.  They have weathered many turns in the market, many out lasting the Great Depression, changes in society and their own leadership.  They looked a companies like Johnson and Johnson, Merck, 3M, IBM, Walmart and GE.  They asked questions like why they lasted so long when other companies who were in similar markets, similar times and similar products didn’t.  It was interesting and one of the things that were most interesting was when the shift in power came.

One of the places companies got into trouble was when it came time for a transition in the CEO position.  Some companies were built around the CEOs personality and when that CEO died so did the company.  Other companies were able to keep moving forward because they had a succession plan in place and grew their CEOs from the inside of the company instead of the outside.  This let the company continue to do what it was built to do.  It was able to keep the core values of the company while they went through the transition of power.

This is nothing new.  When leadership was transferred from one person to another person in the Old Testament many had to be taught what to do before they took over.  Sons learned from the Fathers before their fathers passed away and gave their power to them.  Here in 1 Samuel we learn of Eli teaching and rearing up Samuel to know the way of God.  This story is a great one because it demonstrates how the power transfer process was happening.  Before we get there though let’s refresh or maybe introduce they two key players in this story.

First off we have the mentor, the teacher, the master, Eli.  Eli was second to last Judge in Israel’s history.  A Judge was a person that God appointed to watch over the Israelite nation.  They would help hold the nation accountable to God’s will carry out justice when necessary.  You can read about them in the book of Judges, which if Quinton Tarantino was going to direct a book of the Bible it would be the book of Judges.  There are some gruesome stories in that book.  But as we get to 1 Samuel you can start to see a change in the nation of Israel.  They are hungry for some different type of leadership, instead of Judges they are starting to think they want a king.

Eli was the high priest of Shiloh and had two sons who lived into every horrible stereotype of “Judges Kids” you can think of.  They would go into the temple and take the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices that were being offered.  They slept with women who were working in the temple.  One section describes Eli’s sons as scoundrels.  Their names were Hophni (Haff-nai) and Phinehas (yes, like Phinehas and Ferb).  As they wreaked havoc in and around the temple throughout the years Eli did nothing to stop them.  Because of this God got mad and told Eli that his sons would die on the same day and that he was going to call up a new priest to help his people that would not be a part of his family.

God decides that a young boy named Samuel will do perfectly in this role.  When we read about Eli and Samuel they are just starting off in their training together.  They are sleeping in the Temple, which is where Samuel would be doing most of his training as he learned what the ins and outs of being a priest would be.  But he was young and inexperienced so he had a lot to learn and Eli turned out to be a good teacher.  After this story Samuel goes on to be the last judge of the Israelites, a priest and then Israel’s first prophet.  Samuel is also known as the kingmaker.  He crowns Israel’s first king, Saul and then anoints the second one too, David.  But today we get the start of his path, the beginning of the journey which starts in the quiet of the night.

It is funny what happens in the silence of the soul.  When we are quiet and when we are not expecting much sometimes God moves the most.  John Wesley kept a very detailed journal.  On May 24, 1738 he wrote these words, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  He didn’t really want to go to Aldersgate that night and all he was doing was listening to Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, talk about boring.  But in that listening he left the tingle of God’s in his life.  After that he was on fire for God and his ministry went full steam ahead.  

Since we are celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday tomorrow his calling into ministry was a little like Samuel’s as well.  King wrote in one of his papers about his calling and states that it was a response to an ‘inner urge’ which called him to serve humanity.  It wasn’t a 2×4 smacking him across the forehead that told him to become a minister and to then stand up to the injustices of a segregated and racist America.  Instead it was a quiet voice that called his name.

My calling story is similar.  Truthfully I envy those who have a cool calling story.  One where they found themselves on the roadside of some cornfield and a light from heaven came down and told them to go into ministry.  Or like Saul’s conversion when Jesus comes in a bright light, blinds him, knocks him off his horse and then he believes.  No, like so many throughout history and our Bible, God called me in the quiet of the soul.

I tell you what, there are a couple of places that get really creepy at night that seem warm and inviting during the day, churches and schools.  Walk the hallways, alone, at night, of either a school or church and things start to feel a little different.  Noises get amplified and shadows look like they move.  I am sure as Samuel slept there on the floor near the ark of God probably felt a little uneasy.  Then all of a sudden he hears his name being called out.  The only other person in the whole temple was Eli so Samuel runs to him.  Eli tells him it wasn’t him and to go back to sleep.  This happens again and on the third time Eli in his vast experience and wisdom understands what is happening.  

When there is a transition of power, a time of succession there needs to be a time for the younger leader to learn from the older leader.  Any Kung Fu movie has a student and a master.  There needs to be a time for ‘grasshopper’ to learn the ways and then make them his own.  John Wesley used to tell his new preachers to preach only his sermons until they gained enough experience and wisdom to start to preach their own.  A blacksmith doesn’t just post a sign outside of his shop and pronounce himself a blacksmith simply because he has the tools.  No they usually had and may still have to, go through being an apprentice first.  Being an apprentice teachings the student, the inexperienced one, what to do by using the wisdom and experience of someone who has been doing it for a long time.

The ordination process within the United Methodist Church is an extremely long process and takes about a decade to go through if you go strait though.  When you start the process you are given a mentor.  That mentor walks through some material with you and asks you questions about your calling, your passions in ministry, and sees if this is something that you really should be doing.  Then there are yearly meetings with District Boards and then finally two grueling meetings with conference boards before you are approved to be ordained.  It is a LONG vetting process but the point is to verify, check, encourage, and help name that you are called by God to be an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

For a Jewish boy wanting to become a Rabbi there is a similar situation.  The boy studies the Torah, starting when he is very young, and then goes to be a student of a rabbi.  After years and years of learning from this Rabbi, about when the student is thirty years old, he can leave his rabbi and become one himself.  Samuel was in the beginning of that process.  The scripture says, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” (verse 7)  He didn’t know how to listen for God’s voice and what to do when he heard it.  It was because of Eli that he grew to understand how and what to do.

This is why it is so important to have multi-generational churches.  If a church has only one or two generations then it is doomed to die because it will stay like it is until it is no more.  But those churches with multi-generations, three, four and even five, they will flourish because they have the wisdom of the elders mixed with the excitement and energy of the young.  Both are needed yet both don’t seem to understand each other at times.

In every time generations hate each other.  The older ones don’t understand why the younger ones do what they do and the younger ones don’t understand why the older ones do what they do.  But when they can come together great things can be accomplished.  Their has to be mutual respect for each other.  Eli was old, he was going blind, and he knew God was going to take his power and authority away.  He could have done nothing and been a lame duck judge but instead he took Samuel under his wing and guided him in the right direction.  Samuel could have dismissed Eli.  I am sure many people talked about this person who was a high priest but failed as a father.  Samuel could have simply waited for Eli to die and then do whatever he wanted but he didn’t.  He soaked up as much wisdom and guidance as he could before that happened.

We, in the modern world, can relate to where Eli and Samuel were in that time.  It says “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.”  We don’t live in a world where God shows up in pillars of smoke and fire.  We don’t see waters parted or people walking on it.  But that doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t at work.  Remember it is in the silence that God can move our souls.

We are sleepy sometimes.  I look out in the congregation while I am preaching and I find people being just like Eli and Samuel, asleep in the middle of Church.  But there are others who are spiritually asleep and who would love nothing more than to hear the call of the Lord in their lives.  There are others of you out there who have heard God’s calling.  So you went to another country to see what he was doing.  You started a ministry to help those in need.  You volunteer your time helping children learn to read.  You have heard God calling.  You are the Elis of our congregation.  There are those who wish they could be like you but they don’t know how.  They want to learn to hear God calling but they just don’t know how.  When we can learn from each other.  When we can stop looking at the other generation as out of touch or misguided we can move forward and into the life that God calls us to.  

May we stop every once in a while and listen.  May we share our wisdom with others so they can start or be encouraged on their own journey.  May we open our ears and our hearts to see if God is calling us to do something more, to be something more.

And all God’s people said…Amen.