Reason #5 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Opportunities to Grow

Today is Part 10 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamthe ics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry.

One of my favorite findings during my sabbatical has been the discovery of a little book called “Sleeping with Bread”.  The book was recommended by a clergy colleague of mine last Friday.  The book is helpful because it teaches its readers a simple two-step process that can used to guide everything from one’s prayer life to one’s discernment processes.

The process is based upon an Ignatian spiritual practice called The Daily Examen.  In the modern version presented in the book, individuals are asked to answer two questions at the end of each day: (1) what was my favorite part of the day; and (2) what was my least favorite part of the day. They present several ways you can adapt those two core questions based upon your circumstance.  “What was your favorite part of the day?” for instance, could become “When did I feel most alive?” or “When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, others, God, and the universe?”

The three authors of the book encourage readers to write down your answers each day when possible.  The things you record as the favorite part of your day are called consolations; the things you record as the least favorite part of your day are called desolations.

The process can guide your prayer life by inviting you to include prayers of thanksgivings for your consolations in your prayer time, and requests for help with your desolations.  The process can also guide your discernment process by watching to see if a pattern develops in your consolations.  The basic premise of the process is that God wants you to be happy.  By tracking your consolations, you can see where your joy comes from – and make it easier to identify and then follow your bliss.  Conversely tracking your desolations can tell you want you need to stop (if possible) or devoted less time and energy to.

So why am I sharing this with you?

When I started my sabbatical, I thought that my writing would be a consolation.  I notice over the past three days that I’ve used the process, however, that my writing process had actually become my desolation.  I wondered why that was.  And then I thought of something that happened that changed things for me significantly.  Let me tell you about it – and how I’m working to overcome it.

When I started writing, I was excited about being able to speak my truth in love without filters – and say things that I thought could be of benefit to those who serve local churches, and those who attend them.  I began by speaking in pretty direct ways.

Then a few days in I received a text message from a reader from within my faith community.  Text messages are hard because you don’t have the luxury of screening them like you do with an email.  At least I don’t, since my personal and vocational texts all come to the same number.  So I glanced at it.

The content suggested that there were some in my community who had read the early entries and were thinking that I was mostly unhappy with my position and that I might not return from my two-month sabbatical.

That experience was devastating to me on two different levels.

First, I feared I had not communicated my reasons for speaking my truth.  I thought I had made it clear that I was speaking my truth because I truly LOVE local churches (and the church I am currently serving specifically) and wanted to help strengthen them.  Apparently, I hadn’t.

There were some positives that came from this, however – as it encouraged me to do a couple things that perhaps made my blog better.  First, I decided to split my time between talking about reasons for wanting to leave and reasons for wanting me to stay.  It also helped me tighten up my language in my posts.  I took out the phrase “Reasons I Wanted to Leave” and replaced it with “Reasons I Wanted to Leave Parish Ministry.”  This helped readers from the community I currently serve better understand that my frustrations were not with them specifically.  They were frustrations that seemed to be inherent to the practice of parish ministry these days.  Those were the positives that came from the text.

The negative that has overwhelmed me for the past several days was that it triggered the one thing that is my greatest obstacle in my work as a pastor: fear.  And one of the things that triggers fear more than anything else for me is when someone uses the old phrase “Some people are talking …”

Because of that triggering two-word phrase – “some people” – my whole attitude toward writing changed.  I no longer felt comfortable writing what I felt called to share.  And suddenly, my blog was devolving into a shell of what I hoped it would be.  That’s why I came very close to deleting everything I had written last night and simply disappearing.

Here is where my 12 Step work clicked in and helped me make a different decision.  For you see one thing 12 Step work teaches is that hard times are really a blessing because they have the ability to teach us something that we need to learn.  The lessons that come from our hard times are particularly helpful, in fact, because they force us to look at things we would otherwise never explore.  If you have the strength to hang in there and face the challenge head on, you can grow incredibly.

So that’s what I did last night and this morning: I hung in there, looked directly at my fear, and came to this realization.  I believe that one of the biggest things that holds our local churches back is this thing called “fear”.  Most leaders (lay and ordained) know what needs to be done in our churches to strengthen the life of the church.  Many times, however, we don’t do things things.

Why?

For fear of what some people might say.  If I had a dollar for every time this dynamic played itself out in my ministry over the past nearly 20 years, I could have retired to the Bahamas 10 years ago. 😊

So how did this somewhat experience transform itself from what many would expect to be a “reason I wanted to leave parish ministry” into a “reason I want to remain in parish ministry”?

That transformation occurred because the experience reminded me that parish ministry gives me an extraordinarily high number of opportunities each day to face my fears and overcome them.  To speak my truth in love.  If I chose to run from such opportunities and find a more serene job, I would cheat myself out of many, many, many opportunities to become the person and pastor God would have me to be.

So with that, I am going to take some time off from writing, and see if I can do some more of my work so that my writing can once again become a consolation.  In the meantime, please know that the words I have written to this point have been shared in the spirit of love and concern for both myself and the church.  I know that God, as The Daily Examen reminds us, wants the very best for us.  And that path of becoming our very best self is one that is paved – every day – by our decision NOT to let fear run our lives and our ministries.  Thank you, my readers, for being a critical part of this invaluable learning process for me!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reason #5 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: A Shift in Focus

Today is Part 9 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry.

Now that I’ve caught up and balanced my reasons for wanting to leave parish ministry with the reasons I ultimately decided to stay, I will alternate between the two.  With that said, let me talk a little about a fifth reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.

If you were to ask most people on the street, “Why do local churches exist?”, they would say things like, “To meet the spiritual needs of their members” or “To provide services (or ministry) to those in need”.  Those would also be my answer to the question.

Unfortunately, something happened in during the 20th Century that changed the focus of many local churches.  Churches began to buy large pieces of property and build large buildings and campus facilities.

Much of the building happened at a time in the 1950s when church attendance was at its peak: at a time when the resources of local churches seemed unlimited.  They had all the money they needed to build new buildings and all the volunteers they needed to maintain the brand-new facilities.

Fast forward sixty years.

Church attendance has declined over past past 60 years. The number of volunteers willing to help meet the needs of the church buildings has diminished. And the number of dollars placed in the offering plates each week has dwindled as well.

In addition to the limited resources available to local churches, the once-new buildings are now rapidly showing their age.  The need for money to fix and maintain the buildings is skyrocketing.  The need for volunteers who have the expertise and time to make the repairs has never been greater.

Given those two sets of circumstance, do you see where we are today?

If you go to most church council or board meetings these days, a huge chunk of time and energy is spent discussing business matters.  “Where can we find the financial resources to maintain the buildings?” church leaders ask themselves.  “Where can we find people who can make the much-needed repairs?” congregants are asked.  More and more time is devoted to business matters; less and less time is devoted to spiritual matters.

This shift in focus has been demoralizing to everyone involved.  This is especially true for lay and ordained church leaders: most of whom stepped forward to lead because of their spiritual passion and not their business acumen.  Something has to give in order for our local churches to find their way back – so that spiritual matters can once again take priority.

How will that happen?

Clearly a paradigm shift MUST occur.  Local churches must think about themselves in ways that are less focused on their buildings and property and more focused on their spiritual life.

New models for how worshipping community can continue to exist have been emerging for the last few decades.  There are private foundations out there, for instance, who are purchasing local church buildings, agreeing to manage the buildings (including assuming responsibility for upkeep and building use), and then entering into contractual arrangements that give the worshipping community priority in the use of the facility.  That’s one model.

Another emerging model is where local churches work with community partners to establish a private foundation of their own.  The foundation can then take on responsibility for oversight of the buildings.  It allows the campus community to seek out things like public and private grants in order to meet the needs of the campus: grants that would be unavailable for local churches.  This model would put MUCH less pressure on church members to bear the burden of maintaining the facility alone.

Of course, these aren’t the only two choices out there. There are a variety of other models out there as well for how local churches can redefine themselves in the 21st Century so the life of the church is no longer driven primarily by attempts to maintain their building and property.

I have no strong feeling about which choice our local churches should make.  Each community has different needs and values.  Each community must make the series of choices that feels right for their ministry context.  All I know is that we can’t continue with business as usual (pun intended). A shift in paradigm MUST occur.

What will it take for local churches to make this shift in paradigm?

My 12-Step thinking tells me that local churches will have to hit bottom first.  I hope I am wrong.  My sincere hope is that local churches can be honest with each other and begin by naming the overwhelming challenges they face.  In being honest about the scope of the challenges, it might encourage church people to begin thinking outside the box and find innovative ways of being church.

Until that shift in paradigm happens, local mainline churches will continue to have their lives increasingly dominated by business, rather than spiritual matters.  That reality is be a big reason why pastors like myself will consider leaving parish ministry.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reason #4 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Ability to Affect Change in SO Many Areas

For the first thirty years of my life, I struggled to find one place where I could direct my time and resources in order to tend to the things I most cared about.  That’s because there were so many things I cared about that, on the surface, seemed completely unrelated.  As a result, I found myself constantly split in so many different directions.

I found myself devoting my time to so many different causes.  I would spend a couple nights a week at church, for instance, directing our church choir and attending a Bible study.  I would spend another evening in a board meeting helping out with a charitable cause or on a campaign that would further a cause in which I believed.  I would spend another night at a lecture on an important topic I cared deeply about.

The same thing happened with my limited financial resources.  I would send a few dollars to a group advocating for human rights.  Later, I would send a few dollars to support a local or national candidate in whom I believed.  Then, I would then save my pennies so I could attend a cultural event that was sponsored by a non-profit I supported.

For those first 30 years I was always on the go.  I was ALWAYS busy and engaged.  Sadly, I was always haunted by the nagging frustration that I was never doing enough.  Never giving enough. 😦

It wasn’t until I answered the call to attend seminary and began my preparations for parish ministry that I realized there actually WAS a place in my life where all of my interests – spirituality, public policy, advocacy, and the arts – came together.  And that place for me was the church.

Over the years, I watched as the communities God called me to serve did amazing things.  I watched as one church dedicated vacant space on their property to create a community garden – which brought residents of the city together to care for God’s earth.  I watched as our church first gathered donations to stock the shelves at the local foodbank – and then provide volunteers to help get the food out to those in need. I watched as the communities I served provided progressive spiritual formation programs that helped people of all ages grow in a variety of ways.  I thrilled as a portion of each dollar I put into the offering plate at my current ministry site goes in a number of directions ranging from a domestic violence shelter, to a community-based Nursery school program, to a mission program in Peru, to a denominational camping program that nurtures children from throughout Southern California and Nevada.  I watched as our church welcomed community theatre groups first rehearse and then perform on our campus: bringing an expression of the arts into our neighborhood.  I glory as our church opens its doors twice a year to host meetings for a local chapter of a non-partisan organization that works hard to form sensible public policies to end gun violence.  My heart soars every time I watch community members flow into one of our rooms for a 12 Step meeting that helps liberate those whose lives had been nearly lost to some form of addiction.  Most folks who do not participate in the life of a local church have no clue about how much goes on in our community – how many needs are being met – because of our local churches!

The more I invested my time and energy into ministry, the less I was haunted by the nagging fear that I wasn’t doing or giving enough.  Serving the needs of my local community – and of the entire planet – became so much easier, I found, when I focused my time and energy in one place: and then set about working tirelessly to ensure that place grew in its desire to address the needs of the world.  TOGETHER, I am reminded every day in ministry, we can do AMAZING things!

This ability to focus my time and resources in one place that has the ability to transform the world in so many, many, many ways is my fourth reason for wanting to stay in parish ministry.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reason #3 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Opportunity to Do the Deeper Work

The older I get the more I realize how frequently life can come full circle.  At the age of 53, I find myself learning lessons that I thought I had learned many years earlier.  Let me share an example of that with you.

When I first went to college, I felt like I was being called to serve God’s people.  I got an undergraduate degree in education and went to work immediately as a teacher in the juvenile corrections system.  I loved my time in the detention center.  After six year working in the juvenile detention center, I then went on to work in the field of HIV/AIDS as an educator and outreach specialist.  Once again, I loved my work.  My call to serve was so strong, in fact, that I spent nearly all of my free time volunteering on efforts that were related to human rights.  I desperately wanted to protect – and advocate for – those whom society defined as “the least of these”.

Toward the end of my twenties, however, I began to realize something.  While I absolutely loved being able to help folks who were in the process of turning their lives around, an essential piece of the work was missing for me.  A hugely spiritual piece of the work.

As an individual who worked for secular entities (primarily in government funded positions) I wasn’t able to talk with people about their value and worth as children of God.  Most of my time was spent on either trying to get people to do something of value for themselves (i.e. encourage juvenile offenders to completed their education) or get those people engaging in high risk behavior for the transmission of HIV to stop those high-risk behaviors.  I was not able to talk about deeper motivations that could lay behind their decisions.

That is what drove me to seek a seminary education, get ordained, and respond to the call to serve local churches.  In a faith-based setting, I could talk openly with people about their beauty and worth as a child of God.  I could help them explore what their purpose their life might have.  In other words, I could address the big life issues that could help people to make healthy decisions regarding all aspects of their being.

When I found myself getting burned out in my parish ministry (for reasons that I will continue to explore in future entries), I figured that I needed to flee from the overwhelming demands of the parish in order to tend to my own personal life.

The first obvious question that arose was, “So what will I do?”

Two answers seemed obvious.  First, I could either seek work in the field of treatment; or second, I could return to the field of corrections and work with juvenile or adult offenders.  So I started to apply for jobs in those areas (and a few other loosely related positions involving education).

In the interviews for the positions, I was confronted with the same realization that hit me when I approached the age of thirty – over 23 years ago.  While it would be incredibly rewarding to help people in crisis or transition, I would once again be limited in my ability to engage them about some of the deeper issues I felt needed to be addressed in order for personal transformation to take root.

It was that realization that played a HUGE role in my decision to stay in the field of parish ministry.  For parish ministry offers a rare opportunity to not only participate in the shift of attitudes and behaviors; it provides an opportunity for a clergy person to participate in the transformation of how an individual sees her or himself and the world. It is the ability to participate in that kind of transformation that excites me most about returning to my current position of local pastor when I finish my sabbatical on August 31.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reason #2 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Ability to Live Together Amidst Our Wonderful Diversities

Yesterday, one of my regular readers pointed out I had accidentally skipped Reason #3 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry.  With that in mind, I went in today and changed the numbering of the reasons on my blog.

Please keep something else in mind.  When I list My Reasons for Want to Leave (or Stay), the reasons are NOT specific to my current ministry site of Woodland Hills Community Church.  They weren’t reasons I Wanted to Leave (or Stay at) Woodland Hills Community Church.  They were Reasons for Wanting to Leave (or Stay in) Parish Ministry.  It’s VERY important you understand that.  With that said, let me share with you Reason #2 for Want to Stay in Parish Ministry.

Having been born and raised in a small town, I grew up with an approach to life that was foundational for me.  That approach is that we shouldn’t separate, or segregate ourselves in life by hanging out only with those who look, think, or live like us.  We should learn how to live with those who look, think and live differently than us as well.

That approach developed not because of some abstract philosophical process I went through; it was born of practical necessity.  You see in small towns you don’t have the luxury of hanging out with only like-minded people.  Necessity dictates you mix things up.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  If you belong to one political party and a man named John a few doors down belongs to a different party, it is highly likely that John plays many important roles in your life.  In a small town, for instance, John might be your butcher, the coach of your youngest child’s softball team, AND the driver of the car pool that takes the neighborhood kids to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Because of that tangled web of relationships, you don’t have the luxury of getting mad at John because of his politics and telling him to F-off.  You HAVE to figure out how to get along with John and develop a healthy relationship in other areas of your life.

Over time, you learn how to reach an understanding of what can (and cannot) be talked about with John.  And if you venture into dangerous conversational territory (i.e. politics), you have certain unspoken guidelines that let both individuals know when they can continue with a conversation – and when they need to switch topics.  It is not unusual in small towns for people who are radically different from one another to develop intimate friendships.

When I moved to much larger cities, I realized that folks who grow up in big cities often don’t share that approach to life.  They are MUCH more likely to build a series of micro communities that are composed of people who look, think, and live much like them.  For instance, families might pull together to form a playdate group for the kids (and parents) who get along from Nursery School.  Or an adult might join a Meet Up group made up of people who share a love for hiking.  In big cities, people have the luxury of spending most of their free time hanging out primarily with those whom they can relate to.  “Why WOULD you hang out with those who are radically different from you if you don’t have to?!?!,” I’ve been asked more than once.

This move in the direction of micro communities used to happen mostly in big cities.  Smaller (or rural) areas were largely immune from this dynamic.

Things began to change when cable/satellite television and the Internet broke onto the scene.  People began to watch television stations (i.e. either Fox News or MSNBC) that broadcast a version of the news with which they agreed.  Later people began to hang out on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and interact (or like) those who shared their perception of the world.  As a result of these developments, today even our small towns reflect the divides that were once common primarily in our big cities.

This development is a tragedy.  People rarely come into contact with those who see things differently.  I believe these developments explain why we are so incredibly polarized about virtually EVERYTHING these days.  We have traded in our notion of community in order to become a series of micro communities.  

Our local faith communities are one of the last places that still provide us with the opportunity to voluntarily hang out with folks who are different from us.  I love, for instance, that the church I serve is full of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.  We have people in our community who come from (or whose parents or grandparents came from) places like Afghanistan, Argentina, China, Columbia, England, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Ukraine: people who identify as African-America, Asian American-Pacific Islander, European-American, Native American and Latinx. In our congregation we have some who voted for Hillary Clinton and others who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election.  In our community we have people who – in addressing the situation in the Middle East – are passionately pro-Palestinian, and others who are vocally pro-Israeli.  In our church we have people who were raised Agnostic, Atheist, Buddhist, Congregationalist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Presbyterian and Zoroastrian.  In our community, we have folks whose household income is in the four-figures and others whose income is in the six-figures. You name the issue, and we have a breadth of experience and perspective present in our church.

This is one of the reasons I love serving a local church so much.  Today, when we are at our best , the local church offers a deeply polarized world something that it can’t seem to get from other places: a diverse place where people who are different from one another can voluntarily hang out, get to know each other, and – get this – actually build healthy relationships.  There are so many days I wish we could bottle up the spirit of our local church and take it out to share with the rest of the world.

Of course, it takes a lot of work to maintain this.  Some are threatened by expressions of difference in our local churches and push to get us to become more homogeneous.  These pressures are particularly strong in areas of theology and politics.  Nevertheless, I continue to push back and do my best to maintain the sacred (and wonderfully inclusive) space our church can offer the world.

This way of living together in the midst of our diversity is Reason #2 for What I Want to Stay in Parish Ministry.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments