reflections on 1 year in ministry

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As summer has finally come to a close and fall is once again in the air, I find myself with some rare down time reflecting on my first year in ministry. I hesitate to say that it has been a year of ups and downs, only because the phrase is tired and overused. However, it is certainly an accurate description. Though ministry is something that appealed to me, returning to my hometown to begin that journey was…well…less than appealing.

While I came in full of energy, ready to change the world, unyielding in my desire to transform the heart of a city most known for being the first capital of the Confederacy and the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, and yet a city that still bears the scars of racism and classism, perhaps I should have taken note of Jesus’ warning that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

In my first year in ministry, I have learned a lot; mainly because I have a lot to learn (something that I foolishly was unwilling to admit 12 months ago). I am grateful to work with a team that challenges me to dream, applauds my ministerial victories, and is so willing to show me grace (more than I deserve) when I screw up. While I have learned a lot about the institutional church, and the role it plays within people’s lives, I have learned much more about myself, and the role that I believe I am to have within the church in the future. These scattered thoughts of self-awareness came into focus about a month ago.
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In August, I was given the opportunity to attend a regional simulcast of the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit. I thought it was good and helpful, highly pragmatic, and I am glad that I went. However, I was a bit embarrassed at how bored I got from time to time. As an active twitter user, I didn’t even find myself inclined to share a lot of quotes from the conference. Don’t get me wrong, the conference was good for me, but kind of in the same way that brussel sprouts are good for me.

On Thursday night, after the first day of the conference, I came home to an email from a friend that included the link to an episode of Krista Tippett’s “On Being” dealing with the relationship between the science of physics and the mystery of faith — and I was going bananas. I felt like all my senses were alive and engaged. I wanted to tweet every single line. I devoured the conversation like a starving man.

I realized, more importantly, that this contrast probably says a lot about me. I am grateful for the people who get into the discipline of “leadership.” You will know them by their maxims/axioms. God bless them all. I realized that in my first year of working in the church, I’ve often felt compelled to alter myself to fit into a particular “leadership” model. And yet, I still get bored when people talk about mission statements. (Gasp!)

I am hopeless!

I don’t play golf. I don’t sit around talking about John Maxwell & Patrick Lencioni books (mainly because I have no desire to read them). I am utterly unqualified to be a CEO/administrator and I don’t try to be one. I don’t think that is superior or inferior; it just is. I love theology and literature. I am moved by beauty in God and in the world.

I appreciate the business-savvy leadership guru pastors like Andy Stanley and Bill Hybels, but I will no longer apologize for not being that guy. I just wish there was more room in our churches for those of us who are drawn more to the beauty of God than to leadership maxims. To be clear, I think there are times and places to think pragmatically, but I also think there is a dangerous tendency in leadership, proper, to be driven exclusively by pragmatic concerns. Put differently, I just think there are a lot of ways in which a life with God is the opposite of pragmatism. God often does things that are the opposite of pragmatism. God often does things that do not make sense to anyone. Sacraments, for example, have little “pragmatic” value. Baptism and the Eucharist always take us deeper into the mysteries of God.

My other concern is this: the more initiated we become in the language of the leadership world, as opposed to our native language found in the Christian story, the more tempting it becomes to reduce the mystery. In one of her podcasts, Krista Tippett says that scientists often have a sense of beauty and mystery that people in religion often lack these days, and that we need to relearn the mystery from the scientists. What an indictment! The more pragmatic we become in our approach to church leadership, the further we get away from mystery.

If I can offer you any axiom it is this:
Knowing God will always immerse you in greater mystery, not solve the mysteries for you.

When pragmatic leadership drives Christian communities, the end result is always the same: we tell people, “here are the things you’ve always wanted to be and do…follow Jesus and He will help you be successful at these things. ”

So simple. So clear.

Yet Jesus becomes a means for a people to get better/be better at something. Ironically, my experience tells me that its the “failures” that seem to know Him best. Walking with Jesus is hardly ever simple or clear. The true path of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord may bring some clarity to your life but often times it is as much about unlearning the things that seem clear in this world and embracing ambiguity.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the mystery of faith.

It is this mystery that I will continue to immerse myself in during year 2 of ministry. I’m simply looking for people who are willing to join me in this journey.

But be forewarned…

It is beautiful, but it is messy, counter-intuitive, and largely not pragmatic.

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