Who is drawn to your ministry?

I was asked this question by a more seasoned colleague one day over lunch.  It caught me off guard.  I never thought about the type of person who is attracted to my ministry but as we shared a meal, he lopped that grenade on the table and it has been unsettling since.

I’m not unsettled because the question is too personal, it is just that I never thought of it before.  I look at my congregations (past and present) and I’m trying to find the common denominator.  Who came?  Who arrived and felt welcomed, engaged, connected like never before?  What type of people are drawn to how God is working through me?

Clergy always inherit parishioners.  There are always people there before we arrive, and some stay and some go (minus new church starts of course).  Yet there are those who only know me as the pastor of the church I am currently at.  They don’t know the past.  They arrived in the present.  I never really looked at these people and tried to figure out why they are drawn to my ministry.

I have a few men who came because their wives started coming first.  Yet, now they love it.  I have some who have been distant from church and never found a place to connect until now.  I have some who moved and were looking for a taste of the church they grew up in and they have stayed.  I have young couples with young families and retirees all coming to our small congregation.

I still don’t know how to answer the question fully but I’m still searching for the answer.  I do know that my style of ministry creates an open and relaxed setting in which people feel welcomed.  I know my style of preaching likes to intertwine the ‘real world’ with ‘God’s world.’  I’m always looking for ways to connect the common culture to God and the work we are called to do.

I know that relates to how people feel welcomed and enter our flock.  But the type of peopled drawn to my ministry???? Huh…

How about you…what type of people are drawn to the way God works through you?

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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.

All I Need to Know about Church Leadership I Learned from My Massage Therapist – Part I

My wife, Alycia, is a very talented and gifted Licensed Massage and Bodywork Therapist (check out her Facebook page).  She knows the muscles of a human body more than anyone I know.  Just as a brief testimony, during our recent move I did something to my back.  I literally could not stand up straight and almost couldn’t walk.  An hour later I got off her table and felt much better.  The pain had subsided and I could move again.  Is she a miracle worker?  That day I would have said YES! 
I recently was on her table again getting some work done on my shoulders and neck when I realized the link between Massage Therapy and Church Leadership.  These series of posts will demonstrate some links between the two professions and what we, as Church Leaders, can learn from Massage Therapy.
Quick stop on my soapbox: The profession of License Massage and Bodywork Therapists (LMBTs) gets linked to the sex trade very easily because of the ‘massage parlors’ around the world that offer ‘happy endings’.  My wife is not a sex worker, nor are the vast majority of LMBTs.  But a few rotten apples always ruin the reputation of every apple.  She takes her profession, her calling, very seriously and handles her business with the utmost professionalism.  Please leave all gutter thoughts in the gutter.  We can be grown ups and move beyond the thought that whenever a human being touches another human being it always leads to sex.  These posts have nothing to do with any of that and the mere mention is truly offensive.  This profession has worked very hard to move beyond that notion, let’s help them continue to move forward.
With that said, my first post on “All I Need to Know about Church Leadership I Learned from My Massage Therapist” has to do with letting go.  As Alycia worked my neck muscles, trying to loosen up the knots, she kept giving me instructions to ‘let go’.  As she held my head in her hand and manipulated it side to side to access the right muscles I kept trying to control it without realizing it.  The best way for her to tilt my head in the right angle would be to simple relax all the muscles in my neck and let her do the work.  By ‘letting go’, I enabled her to do the work she needed to do. 
Many of us in the ministry have a problem with control.  We like it and we don’t want to give it up.  This fact can have implications in either direction.  It is a good thing because we can help steer a church or committee in the direction we see fit.  It can be bad because we take away the power from the laity to do the work they need to do, not to mention taking power away from God.  The art of Church Leadership is found in knowing when to lead from the front and when to lead from behind.  When do we allow others to do the work and when do we step forward?  How we answer that question tells us a lot about our leadership skills and mindset.  But to walk that line and know when to do one verse the other is tough.  Then there are the other times where we need to get out of the way all together.
“Let Go!”  As my wife’s voice echoed in my ears as she stretched my head towards my shoulders I was reminded that I am not the savior to my church.  My congregation already has a savior.  My leadership, my vision, my pride, my desires are not the things to be concerned with.  Let go.  God has placed a calling upon this congregation and that is what I need to be searching for, that is what I need the people of my congregation searching for.  We need to remove the I, me, my, we, our, out of the conversation and listen to God instead.  We need to let go.  I need to let go.
When we let go and enable ourselves to be pushed, stretched, and manipulated by the hands of God we open ourselves up to true discipleship, transformation, and sanctification.  Even the smallest notion that we can do it on our own removes our full faith in God.  We need to let go more as Church Leaders.  We need to let go the ideas we hold dear in our minds because we want to build ourselves up, seek credit and accolades, or look good to our bosses.  We need to let go and rest our hearts, our ideas, our trust in the hands of God.  Let God lead us to where we need to be and stop attempting to tell God how it should be done.
We can see the process of letting go and then attempting to take control back in the people of Israel.  They would follow God and then slip away, be called back and then slip away.  Letting go of our power and relying on God is a process.  Letting go is a journey towards holiness and to be made Christ-like.  May you be able to let go in your ministry and in your walk with God.

Response to Sandy Hook Tragedy

Below is a question I received from one of my Facebook Friends. I was going to answer this question within FB’s messages but thought others may want to know my response. I am simply sharing this, with the permission of my anonymous friend, in hopes that my answers will help you grapple with Friday’s events.
 
My friends question was this: I have been struggling with wanting to address a post by our neighbor (a good friend & an atheist) who said “Why has god forsaken us?” Well, I know that God has not forsaken us and that His heart breaks when things like this happen. But we also recognize that America has repeatedly asked Him to leave our schools. But I sense that is not the right thing to say to her. Maybe nothing is the best thing to say here. Any thoughts?
 
I hear a number of questions within this paragraph and to answer it clearly I will need to break it down. The questions I hear are as follows:
 
1. Did God forsake us? Behind that is, How can a just and loving God let this happen?
2. Where is God in tragedy?
3. Should God be put back into public school?
4. How do you talk with someone who believe different than you and be respectful?
 
1. Did God forsake us? The quick answer is no. The story of Christmas, the birth of God’s son, points to the fact that we are not forsaken but forgiven, freed, and reclaimed as God’s own. Christmas marks the start of our Jesus’ salvation journey for our sake. A God who would give up his only Son, for the sake of us, does not forsake us.
 
I think a question behind this question is one commonly asked; How can a just and loving God let this happen? As a United Methodist pastor, brought up in and taught Wesleyan theology, I believe we have free will. Each of us is given the ability to choose right or wrong, to believe or not to believe. Also, we have to recognize we live in a very fallen world, drenched in sin. If we go back to the original sin, the one Adam and Eve committed we can see what sin is truly about. If you read Genesis 3, you will see the serpent tempt Adam and Eve (Adam was there by the way, read closely) with this phrase. “’You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5) The reason they ate the forbidden fruit was because they wanted to be like God. If you look at all sin, it all goes back to being like God. When people take guns into schools they want to demonstrate their power of life and death. They want to be godlike. If you look at the sins we commit we can usually track back to the fact that we want to be God or we don’t trust God enough.
 
With that said, God didn’t let Friday’s event take place. It was a decision by Adam Lanza to take lives of too many young and innocent people into his hands. He wanted to play God that morning but thank the Lord he isn’t. God’s heart was the first to break when the events started to unfold. Just like God’s heart breaks every time we sin and that space between humanity and God feels emptier. Humanity is concentrated on making ourselves into “Big Deals” and individuals who stand above others. This is not the way God neither wanted nor originally created the world we live in. And through the gift of his Son, we won’t have to stay this way forever.
 
2.  Where is God in tragedy? Matthew 28:20 (Jesus’ last words on earth in this gospel) “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Where was God? God was there, in the hallways, in the closets, in the offices, in the classrooms, in the fire station, in the churches, in the town. God was there and everywhere, because God is God. Jesus promises that he will be with us always and I think we lose sight of that. God is right there, with you, right now. It is us, humanity, which has to change our eyes to see God in our midst. God was active in the principals, administrators, and teachers who ran towards the bullets instead of away. God was active in the first responders who provided safety. God was active in the clergy and counselors who provided shoulders, ears, and hugs. God’s presence in tragedy is always overwhelming when we have the right eyes to see God at work.
 
3. Should God be put back into public school? Once again, using the argument above, God never left. How prideful are we, as humans, to think that through some act of government legislation we can remove God from anything. Once again, this directs us back to original sin, when we think we can be God. Yes, officially teachers cannot lead students in a required prayer every morning, but I bet prayers are said every time they are required to take a test. Prayers are said all the time when courage is being mustarded up to talk to that girl or guy. Prayers are said in sporting events, recitals, and in offices before teacher/parent conferences. God is not absent. God is there. Nothing we can do can kick God out of school because, once again, we aren’t god.
 
4. How do you talk with someone who believes differently than you while being respectful and understanding? I have found that people are put off by those who have overly bearing and dramatic stances on really anything. Okay, maybe not everyone, but I am, so I try to approach every conversation in that respect. I am not going to wad Jesus up and stuff him down someone’s throat because I don’t wanted to be treated that way. I try to truly live into the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39). If that doesn’t take I go to the golden rule; “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we do not see each other as God sees each of us, than we cannot have any type of quality conversation or relationship.
 
With that said, if I was to have a conversation with my atheist neighbor, and he said, “Why has god forsaken us?” I would simply say, “I don’t believe God has.” Then let the neighbor ask why. Then I would politely lay out my reasons. One, very appropriate to the season, is why Jesus came into this world. Why do we truly celebrate Christmas? We celebrate because God came into this world to restore, forgive and make right what went wrong. Wrong stuff will still happen, really wrong, evil, horrible stuff from nature and humanity. But then I hear the words of Paul in my head; “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:38-39) No matter how much we play god in our lives, nothing we can do can separate us from God, the God that I worship, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
During the best times here on earth and in the midst of unspeakable evil, God is with us. That is what I hold onto. That is where I find my hope; where I find my peace; where I find my joy; where I come in contact with God’s love.
 
Peace be with you all,
 
Jim
 

Mystery

In this world of facts and proof which is at our finger tips, it seems we are getting less and less comfortable with mystery. With a new app on my phone, Google Goggles, I can take a picture of something with my phone and get a Google search for that item. If I want to know more about something I can just take a picture of it and off I go tracking down the facts about it.

My generation and the one behind me demand proof for everything. The answer of “just because” doesn’t cut it any more. The question we continue to ask is “because why?” We ask and ask and ask until the proof, the facts are found and digested. But what if the facts run out? What if as we ask question after question we only get more questions? What happens when mystery sets in?
I am reminded about this as we look at Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus’ divine side shows through his humanity and three disciples get a glimpse of the reality of our Savior who is 100% human and 100% God. We hear this story today and we don’t understand it. We pass it off as Biblical hocus pocus and keep moving. Yet what happens if we sit on top of the mountain of Transfiguration in the midst of the mystery?
In our search for the answers to life’s question we forget that there are some things we will never understand. What does it feel like to die? How can people feel prayer? There are points where we have to play the mystery card. Is it a cop-out? No, it is taking seriously the reality of worshiping and believing in a God who goes beyond our understanding. It is resting in the fact that we will never know some things and that faith will simply have to fill in the gaps.
I’m comfortable with that, are you?

North American God

TeacherLady asked a good question about my previous post. Who is the “North American God”? I used that phrase from Bishop Will Willimon’s podcast entitled “Preaching Today like the Prophets of Yesterday.” Here is the actual quote from Willimon,

“I am worried about this turn in contemporary homiletics, be it liberal or conservative, toward the listener. I am worried about a contemporary, North American, narcissistic, sexually driven,…I could go on…person being the test for what Christians should utter in worship of this God. Because the test for this is my God not my own contemporary North American limitations.”

In it Bishop Willimon goes on to explain that we as preachers need to be true to the text not the world around us. The world around us will try and pull us in certain directions and frame the way we are to be followers of Christ. I think this is why we have the prosperity gospel movement that tells us that if we worship Jesus we will have wealth, health, and a huge house. In our society we would love it if God was simply an ATM (The Almighty Teller Machine). Another example would be hoard of sermons that are being preached about Social Justice. I would probably say that they are not being preached because of God’s Word stirring preachers to talk about social issues and the church’s response to them, but because Glenn Beck made headlines.

We, as North American Christians, have to peel back our social coats and listen hard to the Word of God because the Word of God is for the world, not just the part we live in. That can be hard when we live in the Rome of our time. We think we are the end all be all and that if it ain’t American, it ain’t right. We have to realize that Jesus was not buried with an American Flag over his coffin. Many times American ideals and Christian theology are used interchangeably. This is done from our lips during conversations with others and from behind the pulpit as well.

To paint a word picture of who the “North American God” it would be one word, Superman. A stranger from another planet who fights for truth, justice and the American way. This video explains it all…(and brings back memories!)

What Willimon stirred in me was the fact that it is our job as preachers to look past our North American way of life and into the Word of God, a global God, a “I built the whole earth, not just your part” God. To do so means preaching from the perspective of the scripture, not the listener. Or else we might just end up transforming a Jesus into a mild mannered Superman.

I could have done without this God!

God I would like to complain. I would like you to hear me for a minute because I have a problem with being your follower right now. I know it has been years, over a decade and a half, since I asked you to take my life and do with me what you want but this is pushing it.

God, I cannot stop looking at the news and having my heart break over and over again. I cannot stop looking at pictures (like this one) and not have my heart weep. God, this is all your fault.

Before taking you seriously, I would have heard the news, seen the pictures, and the videos and thought to myself, “well that is sad.” But then I would have moved on with my life. I would have continued on to live in my little world and I would have been fine. I would have concentrated on other things, like the NFL Playoffs. But NO, instead I have spent time praying and wondering how I can help these people all the way up here in Thomasville, NC. I have tried to rally my congregation and to have them reach out through giving of their money and making health kits. I have seen images that are in my brain constantly because your children, my fellow brothers and sisters, are in pain and I cannot shake it.

So thank you God, THANK YOU VERY MUCH for making me care and love people I have never met. Thank you for making my life recently full of prayer and sorrow. Thank you for making Haiti and the people doing ministries and missions down there be constantly on the forefront of my mind. I have never been there and really had no desire to but it is because of YOUR love and YOUR Holy Spirit that now I am being moved to figure out how and when I or a team from my church can go. THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT.

Thank you God. Thank you for making me worry and grieve. Thank you for the pain and the ache. Thank you for making me realize what it would be like to be YOU. I know you made this clear and you have told us that as we become closer to you we will become closer to your children. But this may be taking it too far.

I’m going on with my day now. But I thought I should tell you thank you for ruining my self-absorbed life and making me think of, pray for, and love people I’ll never meet. I blame you for this and I thought you should know!

(picture from The Big Picture)