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A Window To The Cross: Renewal Leave Update #1
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bob 01It’s been a little over a week since the congregation and I bade farewell to one another as I embarked on a 15-week renewal leave, the first extended leave I have ever taken in nearly 30 years of full-time ministry. This time is a tremendous gift and I’m grateful to the congregation and our leadership for the opportunity to renew, retool, reinvent, and reload for our next season of ministry together.

 

That’s really what this renewal leave is about—preparing for the long haul. I am in my eighth year as pastor at TLUMC, which means I have served here longer than any other pastoral appointment. In our United Methodist itinerant system, most of us can count on moving somewhere in the 5-7 year range depending on the situation. Knowing that we are always “interims” in a practical sense can breed a sense of emotional distance between pastor and congregation. As an elderly woman reminded me after my first sermon in my first appointment, “Pastor, I was here before you came and I’ll be here after you’re gone.” She was right, of course. But that reality brings with it some pathology, making it difficult to invest in each other and breeding the temptation to always look over the hill to whatever and whomever is next in line.

 

Now in year eight, however, I have come to the realization that the most effective and impactful relationships in ministry take place when pastor and congregation invest in one another for the long haul. Studies have shown that longer term pastorates tend to be more fruitful and have greater impact on both the congregation and community. To engage that fruitfulness, however, requires a different set of skills and, even more importantly, a different orientation toward emotional and relational intelligence and vulnerability than a short-term pastorate assumes.

 

I was reading Anthony Thistleton’s book The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thoughtas one of the texts for my Oxford courses later this summer, and there was one remark the author made about Paul’s life that struck me as a paradigm for the kind of life and ministry that makes a difference for the long haul: “Unlike the false apostles, the essence of apostleship is to be a transparent window through which we can all see the cross, not human success.” Paul was clear about his own struggles and weakness, and that made all the difference for the people to whom he preached and the churches he founded. His life was a window to the cross, not a reflection of his own pursuit of success.

 

As I’ve been reflecting on this during my first week of leave, I’ve come to understand that vulnerability, and showing one’s scars, is a key to being a window to the cross. Jesus never hid his scars and Paul pointed to the “marks of Christ” on his body as evidence of his own vulnerability and Christ’s strength. That’s a different way of being than many of us were taught to believe–that showing weakness is an anathema to success.

 

My own orientation to ministry has often been to keep people somewhat at a distance emotionally. Reflecting on that with my spiritual director, Pam Roberts, and with the counselor who facilitated a marriage retreat for Jennifer and me last week (more on that later), I realize that some past wounds from early in my life have largely dictated how I approach (or more accurately, don’t approach) others. As an adopted child, I have always had an innate sense of needing to prove that I’m worthy of existence. Losing my mom when I was just 14 was a major factor in closing off emotionally from others. She was our emotional and spiritual anchor and when she died it left a great emotional hole in my life that I have long covered with bravado and self-sufficiency (and always makes Mother’s Day a difficult one). The pain was so great that I walled it off, put it aside, and unconsciously decided that closeness leads to pain. When my sisters and I were abandoned by our father and stepmother a few years later, it solidified my stoicism and put me off to any emotional vulnerability.

 

That sense of emotional distance served me well as an Army officer, but it also led to me see people as cogs in a machine that was designed to generate outcomes and execute missions, defining success by results. When I was called to ministry, I was drawn to the missional aspects of the work—theology, preaching, teaching, etc. but I was still carrying emotional baggage that led me to keep people at arm’s length (except for my immediate family) and rarely ask for help with anything. I was pursuing success, not being a window to the cross.

 

My pastoral evaluations have seemingly always reflected this: good preacher and teacher, apt administrator, but emotionally distant. I figured that’s just the way it was going to be—but now I realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, one of the keys to a long term pastorate is transparency and vulnerability, letting people know you and helping them to feel known, acknowledging your scars—in other words, being a window to the cross. As I have reflected, discussed, and journaled over the past week, I know that one of the ways that I want to reinvent myself for the long haul is to be more open with people—people who have loved me in spite of my distance and who care for me in ways I could not previously imagine. I realize, too, how much I love the people of TLUMC and am grateful that we are a family on mission together. My heart is full as I write this, and I’m grateful to God for bringing real healing and a deep sense of love for our future together as pastor and congregation.

 

jenJennifer and I had a chance to talk about all this on a marriage retreat, which I planned as a way of kicking off the renewal period. We’ve been living a new season of life as empty nesters and we realize that after 30 years of marriage we have an opportunity to kind of reinvent ourselves as a couple, too. We worked with Jordan Hall from Rock Your Family counseling center for a full day, both in the office and in an experiential session at a ranch out in Elbert. Jordan encouraged us by pointing out that our marriage is very healthy (thanks be to God!), but that there are some things to work on like renegotiating our roles, asking for help, and having intentional time together. He also gave us the assignment to work on a mission statement for our marriage (an incredibly helpful exercise). We realize that, together, we want to engage more people in our lives as family—it’s something we’ve both been missing, especially now that our kids are grown and launched. Here’s our marriage mission: To work, pray, and play together, embracing others as family through hospitality and service in the model of Jesus Christ. In other words, we want to be able to extend God’s kingdom through our relationship with each other and with the people we encounter—to be open windows to the cross as a couple. We want to use our home (and all the extra space we now have!) to welcome people into our lives and extend the table fellowship we both have been longing for in our lives. To that end, I have also begun taking cooking lessons from my wife. We’re excited about where God will lead us in this next season and look forward to sharing more with you this fall.

 



 

 

 

 

 

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As far as what else I’ve been up to, I started leave with a meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association in Columbus, Ohio, discussing where things might be headed in our denomination. Wherever that goes, I know that I want to spend my remaining years of ministry invested in a renewed Wesleyan movement. The next year will tell us a lot about where that might go. Jennifer and I then enjoyed our marriage retreat and spent a night at Glen Eyrie Castle, which was a lovely romantic evening that we had been looking forward to. Earlier this week, I did a solo retreat up at Ted and jeri-Gene Bauman’s cabin near Fairplay, one of the prettiest spots on earth. I caught up on some reading and some sleep (I don’t know many places that are quieter). This weekend, we head to Grand Rapids, Michigan where our daughter Hannah will graduate from Calvin College with a double major in Film Production and French. We could not be prouder!

 

More reflections from leave will be forthcoming. Blessings to you all!



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