Memorial Day weekend and a family reunion with the graveside service of a brother has given me pause. This morning during my prayer time, it hit me that I have been engaged in the ministry for now more than 40 years, 30-some of which are on record with The United Methodist Church. As an elder, I have served in pastoral roles both in the congregation and the academy. The pastor’s call is a burden – a largely joyous one, but no less a burden for that reason. And I’ve lived it for a long time.
A couple of months before my 19th birthday, I was asked to serve as a supply preacher at Solomon (KS) United Methodist Church. I’m sure those sermons were positively horrible. Fortunately, there remains no written record. But I thank God that Jack Fogleman (the District Superintendent) gave me the opportunity and I thank the good Methodists of Solomon for permitting it. A 19 year old boy preparing and preaching each week is nothing but ordinary in the history of our church, but in the present? I wish more 19 year olds had the opportunity. Let’s find them and give it to them.
At age 19, I began a 2.5 year stint as a youth leader for the yoked parish (United Methodist and Presbyterian – it’s now the United Church) in Bennington, KS. Nowadays, at 19, I would not be permitted such an opportunity, but the truth is, youth ministry was a lot less complex in those days, at least in the small towns where I served. Every Sunday afternoon, I headed west from Manhattan through Fort Riley (on State highway 18) to Bennington where I led the Sunday evening youth group. On occasion, I came for the weekends and helped with worship. We had about 20 kids who came pretty regularly. In those days, youth groups generally didn’t do complicated things like go on international mission trips. We tried to have a good Sunday evening program and get kids to go to church camp and participate in the worship life to the church, not much more.
I got lots of “face time” with teenagers even as I was one. It’s crazy to think about now – a teenager trying to lead teenagers. I learned far more than my youth did. But it does prompt the thought that it’s actually amazing that God entrusts us with the ministry of reconciliation at any age, but it has become more complicated for young adults. There is so much bad publicity about “emerging adults” and absurd use of research (on brain development, for example) to justify postponing significant opportunities for them to learn to be adults. For about 20 years we’ve sown the wind on young adult development and we’re reaping the whirlwind.
I turned 21 while working at First UMC, Wichita, KS. Full-time staff member there. Learned a lot in a short time. The annual retreat at Camp Horizon was a big planning responsibility, as was the annual fundraising dinner for youth ministry.
By age 21, I already had a fair amount of experience in ministry.
(During my short time teaching in public school, I also did youth ministry as a volunteer. I’m not counting these years in the 40+, but again I learned a lot.)
1981-84, Joni and I spent almost 3 years (we generally call it 3) serving an expatriate congregation in Casal Palocco (Rome), Italy. In this little church of about 100 or so souls, we got to know people from at least 10 different countries, some holding diplomatic status and some fleeing their countries as refugees. I heartily recommend taking any opportunity at cross cultural ministry that one can find. And stay for more than 6 weeks. Stay awhile. Do everything you can to get to know people and cultures. This experience completely revolutionized the way I think about church. Again, we received vastly far more than we gave.
From 1984 to 1995, I served as a pastor or on staff in United Methodist churches. About half that time I was also enrolled in school. At times, the schedule was a killer, but again, the experience shaped me. I never could get over the feeling that God was calling me to stay squarely in both the academy and the church. Our education system is fragmented and atomistic to the severe detriment of the church’s life. I keep searching for ways to unite the two so long disjoined. Yes, I know, it’s a badly overworked cliche for Methodists. It’s still true and it’s desperately important.
And now, 20 years in higher education as a professor and pastor/chaplain. 20 years of ministry in various forms in the local church. 20 years in the academy.
The one constant? Since I was a teenager, I have lived with a sense of responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of other people. This is what I mean by the pastor’s burden. Some people might suggest some psychotherapy for that burden, but I’m talking about the calling that comes from God. It is a burden. The mantle settles and the pastor feels it. Pastors want others to thrive, to grow. Pastors want people to know that the joy of the Lord is their strength. Pastors want sick people to be healed and broken people to be mended and ignorant people to be taught. They want young people to be grown into full adult disciples and they want adult disciples to go from strength to strength.
Others do, too, of course. But pastors feel that burden in a certain way. Sometimes we forget who the Messiah truly is. This is the danger of the pastor’s burden. But when properly in perspective – when we remember that the Messiah is the Chief Shepherd and we serve at his behest – the pastor’s burden is the greatest joy.
40 years and counting…