“Our life is not willed by God to be an endless anxiety. It is, rather, meant to be an embrace, but that entails being caught by God…Lent is about noticing our blindness and seeing differently. I invite you, during this Lent, to see differently…You will, when you see truly, be free and joyous and generous, unencumbered and grateful. Desire one thing: God’s presence.”
(WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, DEVOTIONS FOR LENT: A WAY OTHER THAN OUR OWN. 32-33.)
United Methodists are an anxious people these days. The reasons for the anxiety are endless: declining worship attendance, finances, and engagement; concerns about connecting with the “next generation;” conflicts within the church over vision and direction…and General Conference 2019 and the future of Methodism.
I have been wondering how the District can “come alongside” pastors and local churches in this season. We offer many programs, and I think they are good (sometimes even great) programs. We offer coaching, and I believe our coaches and mentors are highly effective. (Some have suggested that we need to offer therapy, but I know the Virginia Conference health care plan covers that!) So, what is needed?
As I prayed and listened for God’s guidance, I remembered when I was a new pastor. My congregation was in an uproar over a matter of great import: the color of the carpet! I had dealt with conflict before, but nothing like this. So, I went to my provisional group mentor, Rhonda Van Dyke for advice. I described the situation:
- The ceiling in the sanctuary had been damaged after a big snow storm, when water from the melting snow leaked from the flat roof and destroyed the ceiling below.
- The church had money, but could not agree.
- One camp (led by the church matriarch), wanted to return the sanctuary to “just the way it was!”
- Another group wanted to update the look and feel of the sanctuary to make it more welcoming to the younger, more diverse adults moving into Rosslyn.
“Draw me a picture,” Rhonda said. So I drew the two opposing groups. “Draw where you are in this.” I put myself in the middle, being pulled by each side (but frankly, leaning towards those who wanted to welcome the neighbors).
“Now, draw where God is.” (!!!) That stopped me cold. Taking pity on me, Rhonda said, “Your one job as pastor, Cathy, is to stay connected to God, and stay connected to your people…all your people.” Ouch…
Fifteen years later, I still remember that conversation. I went expecting organizational leadership and change management advice from a respected pastor. What I got…and what I needed, was spiritual direction.
As I have listened to the varying reactions to GC2019, and to the burnout that many pastors are experiencing right now, I received a prompting from the Holy Spirit. We offer many things in the Bi-District…but not spiritual direction. One pastor said to me, “What I have longed for most, during this difficult time…is spiritual direction.”
We are blessed in the Arlington District to have received a bequest from a lay woman named Nancy Hanks for leadership development. And in this season of anxiety and turmoil, we are asking pastors to lead in non-anxious ways. Easy to say, but hard to do.
One of my “go to” books on church leadership is Graham Standish’s Becoming a Blessed Church. His advice: when a church (or a denomination) is in conflict or undergoing great change, the pastor needs to spend more time in prayer and with God.
After praying about this, and consulting your incoming District Superintendent, Sarah Calvert, and the District Leadership Team, we are now offering grants to pastors who desire to work with a spiritual director. (See related article on how the program works and how to apply.)
You may be wondering, what about the laity? Why not offer spiritual direction for them too? Well, we are! If you are interested in that, please consider Neighborhood Seminary, a two-year program of spiritual direction, theological education, and practical ministry engagement for laity.
If you as a pastor find yourself in danger of burnout, spiritually dry, or just pushed and pulled by forces in your congregation, your personal life, the demons, or the world at large, I pray you will consider spiritual direction. Fifteen years ago, as I followed Rhonda’s advice, I discovered that I could see God at work in the midst of my difficult situation…and even join with what the Lord was already doing. I pray the same will happen to you.
Reading the above passage from Walter Brueggemann’s excellent Lenten devotional, I realized that the legacy I yearn for most for the churches and pastors of the District is that they desire just one thing: God’s presence. And may you “be free and joyous and generous, unencumbered and grateful.” Amen