Discovering and Celebrating Your Own Voice

I am turning 40 years old this month and it will also be my 15th wedding anniversary.  It is a big month.  15 years ago, on my 25th birthday, I also graduated seminary.   I’ll be 40 now, a new decade and a new box to check on forms.  I’m no longer a young clergy.  I’m, I guess what you call, middle-aged clergy?  Since I am on the downhill sprint of my second decade of ministry, I have been reflecting on my journey so far.  That is what people in middle age do, right?  We reflect on where we have come from and where we are.  It is a natural piece of adulthood.

Now you have to understand, I was dragged into this whole preaching thing.  I would much rather help with worship anywhere else than behind the pulpit on Sunday.  Speaking in front of people was and still is a fear of mine.  It is a heart pounding, sweat inducing fear.  It happens every Sunday.  I have learned though that the fear is rooted in embarrassment and lack of confidence.  I grew to know that preaching, this task, and art form, was something I could do, but it wasn’t my choice.

These past 15 years have taught me that life in ministry is all about looking past people’s expectations.  When I meet people and they find out what I do, they assume I am like the pastor they know.  I am just like their brother who is the pastor of a Free Will Baptist Church out in the country.  I’m just like that Catholic Priest who made life hell for them in Catholic School.  I must be outgoing and wanting to be the life of the party just like the previous minister of the church.  When I meet people they heap onto my shoulders the expectations of their experience with clergy.

I am a manuscript preacher and I need my notes every Sunday.  Yet, some say I should step away from the pulpit because that is what the TV preachers do.  I’m an introvert and so after two hours of fellowship at a wedding reception, I’m done.  Yet, some wonder why I would rather sit back and not work the crowd like the previous pastor.  There is a lot I don’t do like other people because this is the number one lesson I have learned over these 15 years of ministry, I can only be me.

I too had an expectation of what a great preacher looked like and it looked like those famous preachers.  Those outgoing, extroverted, extremely scholarly, and quick thinking preachers who were everything I wasn’t.  I learned that I was placing unrealistic expectations upon myself.  What I have come to realize is that I can only be me.  God’s breath resides in my soul.  Preaching isn’t my choice it is my calling.  God chose me to be a mouthpiece to the people of the world.  God called me…me.  ME!

Don’t miss interpret.  I push myself.  I attempt to grow in my preaching, leadership, and spirituality.  I am constantly looking into different ways to do things or pushing my comfort zone.  However, I have also learned that I have to do it my way.  The more I learn about how God created me, the better I have gotten on being me.

I understand my strengths and weaknesses better now then I did 15 years ago.  I know when to ask for help, when to say “I’ll take care of it,” and more importantly when to say, “No.”  I am more comfortable in who I am and who God has created me to be than I ever have before.

My wisdom to pass down to those who are 25 and are just starting a career of any kind is to get to know who you are.  Learn who and how God created you.  Don’t be afraid to be who you are but also don’t let that be an excuse to keep you where you are.  When you are honest and authentically yourself you let the light of Christ shine through you because that is the divine spark illuminating the life God has called you to.

Go and be you, the God created and inspired you.

 

This post is my article as a guest contributor on James Burrough’s website, jlburroughsiii.com.    

AiR_E001 – Casualties (Ben Williams)

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CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST 

The first episode of my new podcast is now up and ready for your listening pleasure.  TodayBen Williams I talk with the Rev. Ben Williams.  Ben is the senior pastor of St. Mark’s UMC in Raleigh, NC.  He was my roommate for two years at Duke Divinity school and one of the best men at my wedding.  He is a dear friend and does amazing work at St. Mark’s.  This is a great combination to be my first guest on this inaugural episode on this new podcast.

Ben is a graduate of Wake Forrest University and Duke Divinity School.  He has been appointed to St. Mark’s UMC in Raleigh, NC for well over a decade now.  He is married to Anna and has two children Stuart and Maggie.  Besides always looking dapper, Ben enjoys sailing, soccer and cycling.  You can follow him on Facebook HERE or on Twitter HERE.

Show notes: Here are some links to some of the things Ben and I talked about.

St. Mark’s UMC Website

Royce and Jane Reynolds Program in Church Leadership

Academy of Spiritual Formation

Please subscribe to this podcast and please leave a review.  If you know someone who is on a wonderful and unique adventure in ministry, please let me know.  I am always looking for more guests for this podcast so leave a comment with your email and we can connect.  (I won’t publish those comments but use them to contact you via email)

The next episode will be with Rob Hill, the state director of the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi.  It is a great conversation about his work in Mississippi but also how he left the ministry to live authentically as a gay man.  It will be up on September 19th.

Until then, enjoy your Adventure in Revland and peace be with you.

New Year’s Revelation

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A new year is almost upon us, less than 5 hours as I type.  As I reflect on 2015, I wonder if 2016 will be any different.  What miraculous moments of ministry will happen?  How will my congregation be different this year?  How will I change over this next year?  In what areas will I attempt to grow and stop in other areas?  When I sit down on Dec. 31, 2016 how will the world be different because of God’s work through me?

I know people are making resolutions, or attempts to better them selves.  It is common to make a resolution to lose 20 pounds and keep it off.  Other will want to stop eating junk food or other bad habits.  Resolutions though are made to be broken or if nothing else, not kept.

In 2016, I am praying for a revelation.  Revelation is defined as “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.”  This is what I want out of a new year.  This is what I need to move forward in my ministry.  This is what I need in my life in order to keep my passion and love of God.

I am praying, in this new year, I can see, feel, experience, and be used by the Triune God I worship.  I want to be a vessel for God’s love to be expressed in this world.  I want to partake in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the here and now.  This is the revelation I am praying for.

I pray that God would reveal in my life how this will happen.  I pray that God will use the gifts and talents that he created me with to do this in 2016.  Instead of a resolution, I pray for a revelation.

Who is drawn to your ministry?

I was asked this question by a more seasoned colleague one day over lunch.  It caught me off guard.  I never thought about the type of person who is attracted to my ministry but as we shared a meal, he lopped that grenade on the table and it has been unsettling since.

I’m not unsettled because the question is too personal, it is just that I never thought of it before.  I look at my congregations (past and present) and I’m trying to find the common denominator.  Who came?  Who arrived and felt welcomed, engaged, connected like never before?  What type of people are drawn to how God is working through me?

Clergy always inherit parishioners.  There are always people there before we arrive, and some stay and some go (minus new church starts of course).  Yet there are those who only know me as the pastor of the church I am currently at.  They don’t know the past.  They arrived in the present.  I never really looked at these people and tried to figure out why they are drawn to my ministry.

I have a few men who came because their wives started coming first.  Yet, now they love it.  I have some who have been distant from church and never found a place to connect until now.  I have some who moved and were looking for a taste of the church they grew up in and they have stayed.  I have young couples with young families and retirees all coming to our small congregation.

I still don’t know how to answer the question fully but I’m still searching for the answer.  I do know that my style of ministry creates an open and relaxed setting in which people feel welcomed.  I know my style of preaching likes to intertwine the ‘real world’ with ‘God’s world.’  I’m always looking for ways to connect the common culture to God and the work we are called to do.

I know that relates to how people feel welcomed and enter our flock.  But the type of peopled drawn to my ministry???? Huh…

How about you…what type of people are drawn to the way God works through you?

Stop Moving the Young Clergy Age

Young Clergy is defined in my conference as those clergy 35 years old or younger. Depending on who is talking, some people like to move the line to those under 40.  Now that I am in the middle of those two lines (will be officially 37.5 years old in a few weeks) I thought I had enough experience to weigh in on this idea.  As a 37 year old let me say this…stop calling me a young clergy.
I am honored that many fellow clergy and laity alike, look upon my head of dark hair (now speckled with flashes of white here and there) and you see a young whippersnapper.  I will take it because part of me really wants to be young.  I know I look at people 10-15 years younger than me and they still look REALLY young.  So I get it.
As I wrote I started to go into a rant about how Young Clergy can seem very condescending because it denotes inexperience, lack of knowledge and cheek-pinching.  However, I don’t want this post to turn into that. 
Here is why I think it is important to make sure that those we call Young Clergy stays at 35 years old and younger.  According to the US Census, middle age starts at 35 and ends at 54.  I know the most painful birthday for me was 35 when I had to start checking the box marked 35-44 years old.  Something switched in my brain because I realized I really wasn’t young any more. 
As I switched boxes in my age I also switched in years of experience. 25 years old is the age someone graduates who went straight through from high school to a Bachelor’s degree to Seminary.  25 years old is when you start full time ministry.  Starting ministry at 25 gives a person 40+ years of a ministry ahead of them.  By the time they are 35 they have been doing full time ministry for a decade. 
10 years of experience in any field doesn’t equal a newbie, rookie, beginner or greenhorn.  After 10 years, this minister has a vast knowledge and experience.  S/he is probably on a second or third appointment and ministry isn’t new anymore.  It makes sense that after a decade of ministerial experience we stop calling them “young clergy.”  Continuing to do so, shifts the term from one of applause to condescending.
The larger issue is that if we redefine “young clergy” as those under 40 we are doing so to boost the numbers and make ourselves feel and look better.  We have a leadership gap when it comes to those who make ministry their first and hopefully lifelong vocation.   According to the Lewis Center Report on ClergyAge Trends in the United Methodist Church Report (2014), in my conference [Western North Carolina] 37.48% of the clergy (Elders, Deacons and Local Pastors) are between 55-72 years old.  5.51% are under 35 years old.  59 is the most represented, or Mode age, in our conference. 
This is telling and painful therefore the tendency is to try and shift the data to make ourselves feel better.  The numbers will jump if you shift ‘young clergy’ from 35 to 40, although not very drastically.  Yet, you are not accomplishing anything in shifting that line.  All you are doing is ignoring the current reality. 
Baby Boomers are listed as people who are born between 1946-1964.  Generation Xers are those born between 1965-1980 and the Millennials between 1981-2000.  In a little more than a year the Millennial Generation will have its first 35 year old and they will have to check that new box.   That is a hard pill to swallow but to adjust the age of whom we call “young clergy”, once again ignores our current reality.

Let’s keep the ages firm, 35 years old and younger are “young clergy.”  Not in experience nor ability but simply because they haven’t reached middle age yet.

Hello this is church…

I just hung up the phone with the second telemarketer of the day…I’ve been in the office for two and a half hours now.  9 times out of 10 this is why the church office phone rings.  Someone has something that will make my congregation grow deeper in their relationship with God.   My youth group can now understand how to connect with God more fully.  My staff’s cell phone plan can lower it’s cost if I switch.

When I was dreaming about ministry sitting behind a desk in seminary (yes, seminary students do that), I never realized how much business is crammed into ministry.  You have to squint a little, tilt your head to the left and push that right eyelid closed almost and stare at it, but if you look close you can see business all over ministry.  It shows up in all dollar signs.  As I hung up the phone with a person wanting to sell the newest Youth Ministry Product by informing him we don’t have a “youth pastor”, I wondered if it was always like this?

In the 1950s did church’s get phone calls from companies offering the newest Bible Study?  Were they getting offers to bring the best new speaker to their church for a revival?  It probably wasn’t exactly the same, but I am sure it was there.  Today it is all up in your face and I have learned to sound bored and unapproachable as I answer the phone.

The truth is ever since people have been worshiping, there is someone out there trying to make money off of it.  The motives haven’t changed only the avenues they travel on.  I guess it is just something they don’t tell you about in seminary.

Successful Minsitry = Grit

Angela Lee Duckworth gives a great TED talk which you can watch below.  As I listened to it I wondered if this is what makes people successful in ministry?  Clergy need grit which Angela defines as “passion and preserving for very long time goals, having stamina, sticking with your future.”  Dictionary.com defines it as courage and resolve.  This is a personality trait that is needed in ministry but one that wasn’t really discussed in seminary or even in my pre-ordination conference small groups.  Ministry needs grit.

Why do we hide the realty that to change a social system like a congregation which is embedded into families and community will take a ton of courage and resolve.  To move a group of people who have grown up, know each other, and lived with one another longer than you have been alive takes an immense amount of grit.  It is a long game, a marathon as Angela puts it.  Clergy, especially in my denomination of United Methodist, work within a local system (the local church) and a middle system (districts) within a larger systems (conference/denomination).  Grit is needed to get through the red tape to accomplish anything and even more to make any type of changes.

Angela confesses that work still needs to be done to learn how to teach people the characteristic of grit.  But now that I know what it is, I am on the look out for it.  I am looking for leaders in my congregation who don’t mind the long game, the marathon, and who have the stamina to see things through.  I hope I can see grit as one of my personality traits but I think that will come with time.

What do you think?  Is grit a key characteristic of a successful minister?

http://embed.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html

I NEED YOUR INPUT – IDK ’14

How do you talk to students about God calling them into ministry?  That is a question I have been plagued with for the last year or so.  After hearing about what Church of the Resurrection does in their MAC Track Program (MAC = Ministry as a Career) I was wondering how I could help inspire, cultivate, and encourage the students in my church, district and conference to follow God’s calling in their lives.
I was introduced to the idea of being called into ministry by my associate pastor when I was 16 years old.  I had asked him, “How much does a Youth Pastor make?” which he followed up with, “Let’s get together and talk.”  He shared with me his calling story and expressed the idea that I may be called into the ministry as well.  He saw some things in me that I didn’t even know about yet.  He pushed me to explore the ministry and I did in college.  Finally through some hands on experience working as an intern in the Western North Carolina Conference Center I learned I was called into ordained ministry and I started the candidacy process.
But what I soon realized is that there is not much out there to help Middle and High School students explore the idea of being called.  If it wasn’t for my associate pastor I would have never known because it wasn’t something ingrained in the conversation at youth group or at church in general.  After hearing about the MAC Track I contacted the head minister of that program at COR to see what they do and how that might translate into something for my area. 
My brain swirled with ideas but I never knew how to get it off the ground.  Then I visited the conference center and went to say hello to a friend of mine.  We were ordained together and I knew she had a new position in the Conference Office.  I learned she was now the Associate Director of Ministerial Services.  What that translated to was she was in charge of people who were exploring their calling, were starting the candidacy process and through ordination.  I told her we needed to talk. 
During our conversations we found out that we, as a conference, have a huge gap in our system when it comes to Middle and High School students.  We have nothing on District or Conference levels to encourage and cultivate a sense of calling in their lives.  We explored different options of what it may look like to do something on a conference or district level in this area.  Finally we decided that the district level is where we should start and we should start with one event.  We formed a planning team of young clergy and the Metro District IDK ’14 was born.
IDK, for those who don’t know (get it J), is texting short hand for “I Don’t Know”.  IDK ’14: Turing Don’t into Do, is our attempt to help cultivate, encourage and start a conversation with students in our district who may feel called into some sort of ministry.  It could missions, local church, chaplaincy, working with homeless, WHATEVER.  We aren’t recruiting Elders or Deacons, we are simply starting the conversation and leading them to the path to start this calling journey.
I am truly excited about this event and thrilled it is coming into fruition.  Our hope is that after this test run is over we can learn what worked and what didn’t.  Then we can duplicate this in other districts around our conference.  We hope that after these events, possible small groups can start where people are sitting down with students to continue to check in with them and see how their journey is going.  We are also asking that every church that sends a student or students to this event also sends at least one sponsor.  This sponsor will learn how to encourage this student in the process and ways the local church can help guide and cultivate this calling in their student’s life.
If all goes well, over the next three years we could see a culture of call emerge within the Metro District and possibly the Western North Carolina Conference.  At least that is the dream, and the way I think God is directing us.
So here is where I need your help.  All who read this, both lay and clergy alike, I need some advice.  During our day long IDK ’14 event, I will have an hour and a half to teach and share my calling story.  What do you think would be essential to tell them?  We want this event to be upbeat and positive.  This is not the time to start to discuss the long ordination process and all the issues involved with that.  Nor do we want to turn this into a gripe session about the way ministry can be a drag sometimes on families and lead to an early death (depending on which study you read). 
I would like my teaching time to be focused on how God moves in people to express God’s love to the world.  I want to share how exciting ministry is and how wonderful it is to be used by God to make a difference in this world.  What I need help with is some other ideas.  What would you share and what would you think is most important for someone who is just starting this journey to know. 
Please leave a comment or you can email me at revjimparsons at g mail dot com. 

Thank you for reading and please keep this event in your prayers.

10 Reasons I Love the Ministery

Recently I have seen lists of ten reasons why people are quitting the ministry.  (Here and Here) As I read these lists I can understand some of them.  I can relate because I have been there personally too.  There are others I don’t understand because I have not had that personal experience.  Now I know there are many clergy out there that are ready to call it quits, to lay down their stoles and walk away.  My prayers are with you.
I have struggled in my years in ministry but I constantly have to remind myself why I also love ministry.  Here are my top ten reasons why ministry is a great career/calling/life!
1.       Intimate Moments in Life:  As clergy you are invited into the rare moments of life many don’t see.  You are called when people are struggling or when tragedy strikes.  You are invited to share in good times, celebrations, anniversaries, and new births too.  No other person, besides friends and family, are invited into those moments in people’s life.  I see this as something special and I’m honored every time I am invited.  It is in these precious moments where we can witness God at work in these people’s lives and our presence calls attention to it.
2.       Vessel of God: As clergy we are vessels God uses to teach, reach, minister, and love his children.  We are broken.  We are imperfect.  We are sinful.  Yet, God uses us anyway.  That is simply amazing and humbling. 
3.       Baptizing: Every time I read the Baptismal Liturgy I am reminded about the grace that God bestows on us and the promise he gives each one of us.  Whether it is an infant or an adult God is there in that water and his grace is real in that person’s life.  I am in awe that the water that represents this gift gets to run through my fingers.
4.       Communion: The most intimate moment in my relationship with my congregation is when I hand each one of them a piece of bread and say, “The body of Christ broken for you.”  THE MOST INTIMATE and God filled moment is found there in that sacrament.
5.       Leading Worship: When we think about other events we attend during our week, there is nothing like worship.  To join together in a community, sing together (where do you do that ever?), pray for each other and together, hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, and offer ourselves in service to God.  The fact that I get a chance to lead a group of people through that every week is incredible and I walk away blessed each week (even during those low attended, crappy sermon, and draining services that occur).
6.       Creativity:  Each week I get the chance to be creative in my sermon, in my teachings, in my children’s time and in my communications.  Each week I can be allowed to think about God’s Word in a way that is different from the last.  There is joy in that.  There is an everlasting and endless source of possibilities.  How great is it to have a job/career that allows you to do that week in and week out.
7.       Read & Write & Think: To keep on top of my profession I am asked to read and push my boundaries and comfort zones.  I am asked to keep pushing myself in order to be able to push my congregation into the place God is calling them.  I do so by reading, writing and thinking.  For my introverted self, this is a joy and a delight. 
8.       People:  Yes, church people can be draining, at times horribly insensitive, rude, cruel, and for lack of a better phrase, a pain in the ass.  Yes, I understand that and have experienced it from time to time.  But people also can be loving, accepting, understanding, caring, compassionate, fun and exciting to be around.  For every church person that is a pain there are five to ten more that are wonderful to have around.  May we look at the five to ten more than the one.
9.       Love:  I am called to love people.  I am not called to judge, to shun, or to banish people.  I am called to love them which leads them to a place and a sense of belonging, acceptance and peace.  It is there that lives can be changed, transformed, and recreated.  I am called to love.  I love that.
10.   God:  God is ever present in my everyday life.  I get the joy of seeing that through all the activities I do.  In the bulletin making, in the visiting, in the worshiping, in the praying, in the reading, in the loving, in the people, in the creativity, and in the everyday.  I am not in ministry because I want to be but because I am called to be.  My ministry is not reliant on me and my abilities.  I am simply asked by God to do my best with what I have and who I am and God will take care of the rest.  I love that covenant.

In all the negative aspects of ministry that can draw attention and headlines.  May we always remember the wonderful and constant reminders of why ministry is an awesome job to have.  May we always remember the God who calls us is the God who surrounds us daily.  This God invites us to join Him in his loving the world through His Son Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit.  It is a magnificent place to be.

Called By God…that’s why I’m here

I don’t think people realize the inner dialogue I have preaching every week.  I am sure there are these inner

dialogues behind every pulpit every Sunday, but since I am not invited into those personal conversations I cannot tell you what is happening.  Since I cannot escape my own, I can tell you what happens there.  Every Sunday, as I pick up the Bible in one hand and repeat the memorized phrase, requesting people to stand to hear the Word of God read today, it begins.

I never enjoyed speaking in front of people.  Scratch that, I hate speaking in front of people, especially growing up.  I remember ducking and cowering when the teacher was looking for a reader or an answer.  When I could not escape the call, my heart would pound, my tongue would feel heavy, and the nerves shot out of me a like a neon beer sign, begging everyone to witness my misery.  Honestly, after preaching for almost 12 years, it has gotten slightly better.  I am not in total panic mode and I am a little calm on the inside.  Yet, every week that inner dialogue starts in my head and with all the eyes on me and what I am about to say, I trudge forward into the preaching abyss. 
The conversation in my head has a lot to do with my ordination interviews and oh how I wish I could redo at least one of them.  I wish I could sit in front of the preaching committee once again.  They read my sermon and loved it.  Then they looked at my video and were puzzled.  They saw a monotone, nervous, statue of a preacher almost reading his sermon off his manuscript.  They confessed that after reading the sermon they had a picture of what my preaching style would look like and the one they witnessed did not match.  As those words washed over me I could not say anything.  I did not know what to say.  However if I could do it again, I would say this:
“I am called by God to preach the Good News to the people of this world, in the pulpits I am appointed to.  I do this because I am called by God and only because of that fact.  The nervous train wreck of a preacher you see on that video tape is a person who is scared to death to talk in front of people.  He is a preacher who never wanted to be the center of attention, an introvert stuck in an extrovert’s job description for an hour each Sunday.  I am learning to do better, trying to move forward in my calling but the only reason I am up there is because God has called me.  I am forced by God’s will to stand behind that pulpit and to find comfort, ease, and peace behind it will take some time.  When you see and hear me preach I pray you don’t see me, I pray you see and hear God because that is the only reason I am up there.”
I passed my boards, thankfully.  But the committee did not know whether to pass me because of my preaching style.  I think this is because we have a cookie cutter expectation when it comes to preaching.  We all want the charismatic, outgoing, showman/woman who thrives in the spotlight.  People want extroverts.  God called me, an introvert, to preach though.  Just as God called the stuttering and leadership limited Moses, the silent but always present Disciple whom Jesus loved, and the passionate, spiritual and “heady” prophet Jeremiah.  God called introverts into this extroverted position because we have something to offer, to say, and a calling to live out. 

The introvert heads to the pulpit not to feed an ego, have some “look at me” time, or become the center of attention.  The introvert heads to the pulpit because God has dragged him/her up there, sometimes kicking and screaming.  However, that preacher is up there because God called and only because God called.