Dear 28-year-old Libby,
As you assume pastoral leadership of a holy, beautiful, complex, and complicated local Christian church, I share a few ideas intended to serve as guideposts for the journey. I remember so clearly how much energy and confidence you have. But I want to make sure you don’t rely on your own gifts in meeting the exhilarating challenges coming your way, which I know you’ll be tempted to do. You’ll soon learn that relying on your own grit and determination won’t sustain you for a lifetime in North American parish ministry, given the challenges and deep cultural and political polarization coming your way.
As I write to my younger self at mid-career, with an eye toward the end of career, what I hope for you as you start out in ministry, is that at the end of your service to the church, at your retirement party surrounded by friends and family, you’ll still have a vibrant mature and steadfast hope, joy, and love for God and for God’s people. And I hope you know that you were never alone in the journey. I can tell you with 100% certainty that God will send you wise mentors along the way at key points in ministry. One day you will meet an amazing Methodist bishop in South Africa who will become an important voice to you. He will tell you that the local church, together with the local pastor, is God’s best plan for the healing of this world. It will shape your vision for ministry and life’s work. And again, when the local Indiana church you are leading divides over human sexuality differences and 40% of your people walk out the door, God will send a wise, Godly, seasoned leader to walk with you through the chaos and pain to help in re-stabilizing the ship. And again, when you will be called to focus and support early career pastors, God will provide a wise, fun, thoughtful, gifted, faithful, joyful colleague with whom to build the program. You are not alone. So in the Trinitarian spirit, consider these three important points, as you embark on your leadership of a local congregation:
Sabbath is not a lifestyle choice. Sabbath is not self-care. Sabbath is the fourth of ten commandments, a gift given by God for God’s people. I’ve learned that keeping Sabbath is the very way God’s creativity and restoration and hope and joy comes to us. North American culture and North American Christian Churches often pride themselves on staying so busy that we neglect the Sabbath rhythm. We might be tempted to believe a thick, busy schedule improves our productivity and efficiency. And in the short term, it might. But keep in mind two things: a) productivity and efficiency are not holy. b) productivity and efficiency cannot sustain you in ministry the way that hope, joy, and creativity given in Sabbath rhythm will. So, build your life and vocation in such a way that very early on you work this practice into your days so that you stay alive to the wonder, awe, delight, joy, unity in Christ. It will be the only thing that sustains you in pastoral ministry when the chaos and division and hopelessness draw near.
Now, you are going to think that you can just power through and get the stewardship campaign done, and power through to knock off one more thing on the to-do list. And your people will celebrate you for it, and as a young pastor, you’ll celebrate yourself for it. But over time, it will come at the cost of your creativity and restoration and hope and joy and ability to speak of the love and nearness of God. So know that you are soon going to take up beekeeping. It may start out like a fun hobby, but over time, you will realize that working with the bees is much more than diversion from parish ministry. As you work with the bees in the apiary, you will begin to realize that God is restoring you, enlivening you, teaching you, sparking your imagination, re-creating you, animating you in your call and craft of proclaiming God’s Good News to this weary world that God so deeply loves.
Regularly read Christian theologians. You don’t do this very much 28-year-old Libby, as I well remember. Given point #1 above, you haven’t made peace with the tyranny of the urgent, nor have you disciplined yourself enough to slow down and create an early and regular rhythm of reading the great Christian thinkers of our time, and of times past. Doing so would have kept our mind attuned to ‘thinking the faith’ and relating the faith to contemporary issues in the public sphere. Do yourself a favor and start a list of great Christian theologians and start reading all their works, one after the other. You’ll learn a language, a way of being, a fluency about God and how to think and speak about God that will serve you well in parish life. Doing so will also remind of your first love, and why you answered the call to ministry in the first place.
If our mentor was right, and the pastor and congregation are God’s best plan for the healing of the world, then your ministry will take you to places that need healing, people that are broken, powers and principalities that make God’s dream of a flourishing world seem hopeless. And you would do well to develop a language of hope within the hopelessness that you’ll encounter in parish ministry. I’m telling you now, when you smack up against poverty, injustice, abuse of women, sin, evil, heartbreak and other gross abuses of the imago dei, your instinct, because of the absolute horror and ugliness of it all, and because of your privileged social location, will be to look the other way or throw up your arms in despair. Don’t do that. Instead, consider that when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem and toward his death on the cross, he is turning toward hopelessness and despair. In doing so, he invites us to do that same thing in our local communities. Jesus is turning toward an impossible, crucifying, unjust Roman system, and saying to us, “Participate with me in places such as this. Don’t be afraid to join me in places such as this. Become one with me in places such as this.” Jesus is telling us that it will ultimately be ok, because the crucified and risen Christ will keep creating, keep moving, keep restoring, keep resurrecting in the face of what looks hopeless to us. Articulating your theology of hope in the face of hopelessness will be important work for faithful sustained parish ministry. Don’t neglect it.
You have no way to wrap your head around this now, but believe me when I tell you that the North American context will become polarized, divisive, distrustful, democratically-destabilized later in your career. In 2016, you’ll go to bed one night thinking of a future for yourself and your children with an America led by her first woman president, only to find out a very dangerous, democracy-destabilizing, ill-equipped, inexperienced, immoral, and corrupt man has been given the power to lead our country. Then, a global pandemic will follow in 2020 to rock the well-being of our churches, communities, and children. All the while, gross abuses of power from Catholic and Protestant church leaders will surface with the effect of undermining the authority and authenticity of all church leaders and institutions. That decrease in trust will radically change people’s willingness to financially support institutions of faith, so you and your peers will need to reimagine sources of income to sustain the work of the Church. The rich will get richer in North America, and the poor will get poorer; and all the while Americans will fear the overthrow of our very democracy and way of being. It’s going to get dark, 28-year-old Libby, real dark, so our willingness to develop a theology of hope in hopelessness is critical and will shape our capacity to faithfully bring light to the darkness in our local community; to wisely bring hope to hopelessness in our local community.
Blessings on your journey. I know you doubt that you are ready. But the Crucified and Risen Christ will guide you along the journey. There is so much to say, but the ancient words of St. Paul convey it best—I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Cor 1: 4-9.