Discovering and Celebrating Your Own Voice

I am turning 40 years old this month and it will also be my 15th wedding anniversary.  It is a big month.  15 years ago, on my 25th birthday, I also graduated seminary.   I’ll be 40 now, a new decade and a new box to check on forms.  I’m no longer a young clergy.  I’m, I guess what you call, middle-aged clergy?  Since I am on the downhill sprint of my second decade of ministry, I have been reflecting on my journey so far.  That is what people in middle age do, right?  We reflect on where we have come from and where we are.  It is a natural piece of adulthood.

Now you have to understand, I was dragged into this whole preaching thing.  I would much rather help with worship anywhere else than behind the pulpit on Sunday.  Speaking in front of people was and still is a fear of mine.  It is a heart pounding, sweat inducing fear.  It happens every Sunday.  I have learned though that the fear is rooted in embarrassment and lack of confidence.  I grew to know that preaching, this task, and art form, was something I could do, but it wasn’t my choice.

These past 15 years have taught me that life in ministry is all about looking past people’s expectations.  When I meet people and they find out what I do, they assume I am like the pastor they know.  I am just like their brother who is the pastor of a Free Will Baptist Church out in the country.  I’m just like that Catholic Priest who made life hell for them in Catholic School.  I must be outgoing and wanting to be the life of the party just like the previous minister of the church.  When I meet people they heap onto my shoulders the expectations of their experience with clergy.

I am a manuscript preacher and I need my notes every Sunday.  Yet, some say I should step away from the pulpit because that is what the TV preachers do.  I’m an introvert and so after two hours of fellowship at a wedding reception, I’m done.  Yet, some wonder why I would rather sit back and not work the crowd like the previous pastor.  There is a lot I don’t do like other people because this is the number one lesson I have learned over these 15 years of ministry, I can only be me.

I too had an expectation of what a great preacher looked like and it looked like those famous preachers.  Those outgoing, extroverted, extremely scholarly, and quick thinking preachers who were everything I wasn’t.  I learned that I was placing unrealistic expectations upon myself.  What I have come to realize is that I can only be me.  God’s breath resides in my soul.  Preaching isn’t my choice it is my calling.  God chose me to be a mouthpiece to the people of the world.  God called me…me.  ME!

Don’t miss interpret.  I push myself.  I attempt to grow in my preaching, leadership, and spirituality.  I am constantly looking into different ways to do things or pushing my comfort zone.  However, I have also learned that I have to do it my way.  The more I learn about how God created me, the better I have gotten on being me.

I understand my strengths and weaknesses better now then I did 15 years ago.  I know when to ask for help, when to say “I’ll take care of it,” and more importantly when to say, “No.”  I am more comfortable in who I am and who God has created me to be than I ever have before.

My wisdom to pass down to those who are 25 and are just starting a career of any kind is to get to know who you are.  Learn who and how God created you.  Don’t be afraid to be who you are but also don’t let that be an excuse to keep you where you are.  When you are honest and authentically yourself you let the light of Christ shine through you because that is the divine spark illuminating the life God has called you to.

Go and be you, the God created and inspired you.

 

This post is my article as a guest contributor on James Burrough’s website, jlburroughsiii.com.    

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AiR_E001 – Casualties (Ben Williams)

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CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST 

The first episode of my new podcast is now up and ready for your listening pleasure.  TodayBen Williams I talk with the Rev. Ben Williams.  Ben is the senior pastor of St. Mark’s UMC in Raleigh, NC.  He was my roommate for two years at Duke Divinity school and one of the best men at my wedding.  He is a dear friend and does amazing work at St. Mark’s.  This is a great combination to be my first guest on this inaugural episode on this new podcast.

Ben is a graduate of Wake Forrest University and Duke Divinity School.  He has been appointed to St. Mark’s UMC in Raleigh, NC for well over a decade now.  He is married to Anna and has two children Stuart and Maggie.  Besides always looking dapper, Ben enjoys sailing, soccer and cycling.  You can follow him on Facebook HERE or on Twitter HERE.

Show notes: Here are some links to some of the things Ben and I talked about.

St. Mark’s UMC Website

Royce and Jane Reynolds Program in Church Leadership

Academy of Spiritual Formation

Please subscribe to this podcast and please leave a review.  If you know someone who is on a wonderful and unique adventure in ministry, please let me know.  I am always looking for more guests for this podcast so leave a comment with your email and we can connect.  (I won’t publish those comments but use them to contact you via email)

The next episode will be with Rob Hill, the state director of the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi.  It is a great conversation about his work in Mississippi but also how he left the ministry to live authentically as a gay man.  It will be up on September 19th.

Until then, enjoy your Adventure in Revland and peace be with you.

New Year’s Revelation

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A new year is almost upon us, less than 5 hours as I type.  As I reflect on 2015, I wonder if 2016 will be any different.  What miraculous moments of ministry will happen?  How will my congregation be different this year?  How will I change over this next year?  In what areas will I attempt to grow and stop in other areas?  When I sit down on Dec. 31, 2016 how will the world be different because of God’s work through me?

I know people are making resolutions, or attempts to better them selves.  It is common to make a resolution to lose 20 pounds and keep it off.  Other will want to stop eating junk food or other bad habits.  Resolutions though are made to be broken or if nothing else, not kept.

In 2016, I am praying for a revelation.  Revelation is defined as “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.”  This is what I want out of a new year.  This is what I need to move forward in my ministry.  This is what I need in my life in order to keep my passion and love of God.

I am praying, in this new year, I can see, feel, experience, and be used by the Triune God I worship.  I want to be a vessel for God’s love to be expressed in this world.  I want to partake in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the here and now.  This is the revelation I am praying for.

I pray that God would reveal in my life how this will happen.  I pray that God will use the gifts and talents that he created me with to do this in 2016.  Instead of a resolution, I pray for a revelation.

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?

Stop Moving the Young Clergy Age

Young Clergy is defined in my conference as those clergy 35 years old or younger. Depending on who is talking, some people like to move the line to those under 40.  Now that I am in the middle of those two lines (will be officially 37.5 years old in a few weeks) I thought I had enough experience to weigh in on this idea.  As a 37 year old let me say this…stop calling me a young clergy.
I am honored that many fellow clergy and laity alike, look upon my head of dark hair (now speckled with flashes of white here and there) and you see a young whippersnapper.  I will take it because part of me really wants to be young.  I know I look at people 10-15 years younger than me and they still look REALLY young.  So I get it.
As I wrote I started to go into a rant about how Young Clergy can seem very condescending because it denotes inexperience, lack of knowledge and cheek-pinching.  However, I don’t want this post to turn into that. 
Here is why I think it is important to make sure that those we call Young Clergy stays at 35 years old and younger.  According to the US Census, middle age starts at 35 and ends at 54.  I know the most painful birthday for me was 35 when I had to start checking the box marked 35-44 years old.  Something switched in my brain because I realized I really wasn’t young any more. 
As I switched boxes in my age I also switched in years of experience. 25 years old is the age someone graduates who went straight through from high school to a Bachelor’s degree to Seminary.  25 years old is when you start full time ministry.  Starting ministry at 25 gives a person 40+ years of a ministry ahead of them.  By the time they are 35 they have been doing full time ministry for a decade. 
10 years of experience in any field doesn’t equal a newbie, rookie, beginner or greenhorn.  After 10 years, this minister has a vast knowledge and experience.  S/he is probably on a second or third appointment and ministry isn’t new anymore.  It makes sense that after a decade of ministerial experience we stop calling them “young clergy.”  Continuing to do so, shifts the term from one of applause to condescending.
The larger issue is that if we redefine “young clergy” as those under 40 we are doing so to boost the numbers and make ourselves feel and look better.  We have a leadership gap when it comes to those who make ministry their first and hopefully lifelong vocation.   According to the Lewis Center Report on ClergyAge Trends in the United Methodist Church Report (2014), in my conference [Western North Carolina] 37.48% of the clergy (Elders, Deacons and Local Pastors) are between 55-72 years old.  5.51% are under 35 years old.  59 is the most represented, or Mode age, in our conference. 
This is telling and painful therefore the tendency is to try and shift the data to make ourselves feel better.  The numbers will jump if you shift ‘young clergy’ from 35 to 40, although not very drastically.  Yet, you are not accomplishing anything in shifting that line.  All you are doing is ignoring the current reality. 
Baby Boomers are listed as people who are born between 1946-1964.  Generation Xers are those born between 1965-1980 and the Millennials between 1981-2000.  In a little more than a year the Millennial Generation will have its first 35 year old and they will have to check that new box.   That is a hard pill to swallow but to adjust the age of whom we call “young clergy”, once again ignores our current reality.

Let’s keep the ages firm, 35 years old and younger are “young clergy.”  Not in experience nor ability but simply because they haven’t reached middle age yet.

Hello this is church…

I just hung up the phone with the second telemarketer of the day…I’ve been in the office for two and a half hours now.  9 times out of 10 this is why the church office phone rings.  Someone has something that will make my congregation grow deeper in their relationship with God.   My youth group can now understand how to connect with God more fully.  My staff’s cell phone plan can lower it’s cost if I switch.

When I was dreaming about ministry sitting behind a desk in seminary (yes, seminary students do that), I never realized how much business is crammed into ministry.  You have to squint a little, tilt your head to the left and push that right eyelid closed almost and stare at it, but if you look close you can see business all over ministry.  It shows up in all dollar signs.  As I hung up the phone with a person wanting to sell the newest Youth Ministry Product by informing him we don’t have a “youth pastor”, I wondered if it was always like this?

In the 1950s did church’s get phone calls from companies offering the newest Bible Study?  Were they getting offers to bring the best new speaker to their church for a revival?  It probably wasn’t exactly the same, but I am sure it was there.  Today it is all up in your face and I have learned to sound bored and unapproachable as I answer the phone.

The truth is ever since people have been worshiping, there is someone out there trying to make money off of it.  The motives haven’t changed only the avenues they travel on.  I guess it is just something they don’t tell you about in seminary.

Successful Minsitry = Grit

Angela Lee Duckworth gives a great TED talk which you can watch below.  As I listened to it I wondered if this is what makes people successful in ministry?  Clergy need grit which Angela defines as “passion and preserving for very long time goals, having stamina, sticking with your future.”  Dictionary.com defines it as courage and resolve.  This is a personality trait that is needed in ministry but one that wasn’t really discussed in seminary or even in my pre-ordination conference small groups.  Ministry needs grit.

Why do we hide the realty that to change a social system like a congregation which is embedded into families and community will take a ton of courage and resolve.  To move a group of people who have grown up, know each other, and lived with one another longer than you have been alive takes an immense amount of grit.  It is a long game, a marathon as Angela puts it.  Clergy, especially in my denomination of United Methodist, work within a local system (the local church) and a middle system (districts) within a larger systems (conference/denomination).  Grit is needed to get through the red tape to accomplish anything and even more to make any type of changes.

Angela confesses that work still needs to be done to learn how to teach people the characteristic of grit.  But now that I know what it is, I am on the look out for it.  I am looking for leaders in my congregation who don’t mind the long game, the marathon, and who have the stamina to see things through.  I hope I can see grit as one of my personality traits but I think that will come with time.

What do you think?  Is grit a key characteristic of a successful minister?

http://embed.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html