Thursday, December 21, 2006

Think-Tank Thoughts

This fall, my DS has been meeting with a small group of pastors and having us read together The Shaping of Things to Come, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. We're only a few chapters in so far, so I will save a real review for later. But the book has been making me think a lot about the in-between/torn feelings I wrote about a while back.

We got to talking in our conversation about why it is that we can all say we agree with this book, and think things need to change dramatically, foundationally in the church in order for us to truly be about building the kingdom of God, and yet, still not have anything change, anything grow differently. My former pastor, now colleague, offered this excerpt from Kent Carlson's Soul Journey as an answer:

"I am convinced that personal ambition, and a pastoral ethic centered around productivity and success is brutal to our souls and destructive to the souls of the people we lead. I believe there is a better way. But it requires us to walk right into the messiness of our own ambitious hearts, ready to die to those ambitions. We must become skilled at detecting the odor of personal ambition, then flee from it as if the church's future depends on it. For I believe it does."

I've been thinking a lot about these words since Bruce shared them with us - personal ambitions. We don't like to talk about or admit a lot when it comes to our personal ambitions in the life of the church. I think we sense that we're not supposed to have them, unless our ambitions are more Christ-like (that whole first/last last/first thing he liked to talk about) than is probable, and yet I suspect that we all have personal ambitions about where we see ourselves in the church and world.

Let me speak more personally, and own my words. I certainly have personal ambitions about the church and my life in it. I always joke with people when they ask me about my 'goals' in ministry, and respond that I hope to be the first female Protestant Pope. (Unless John's dating service for me works out, I've apparently at least got the single thing down no problem.) I respond this way because people are constantly teasing me about becoming bishop or DS or General Secretary or something equally thrilling. But, truth be told, if I was asked by my bishop and the DS to take an appointment at a three-point charge like the itty-bitty one I grew up in, with average attendance of 25 or less, in a town that makes Oneida, NY look like a mega-city, I would have a very, very hard time getting excited about things. Do I think I'm actually called to something else than this scenario in my ministry? Yes. But also, my personal ambitions wouldn't fit well there either.

Jesus' deepest and harshest words of criticism were for the religious leaders of his day, and he was most critical of them for taking what God had given them and trying to smush it into a box that they could control and monitor and limit. He criticized them for taking what God had given them, and fighting over it, and ranking themselves within it, and fighting for power to talk about it, power to lead others to it, power to control those they shared it with. If we are ever to become what God calls us to be as individuals and as the Church, we must "walk right into the messiness of our own ambitious hearts, ready to die to those ambitions." Perhaps this is the hardest, but first work we need to do.

Recently, a pastor-friend of mine was lamenting a situation in the well-to-do, large church she serves. They have millions in savings, endowments, special funds. But they spent a church council meeting fighting about whether or not to pay their final apportionment payment of the year. Could they afford it? She wondered how big of a nest-egg they would need before they would truly feel 'safe' enough to do ministry. She expressed to a parishioner how much she hated spending so much energy fighting about money, fearing that building the kingdom of God was an activity that was only going on outside the walls of the church she was serving, giving her time and energy to. She's been reading Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution - my copy - since during Exploration. She was flying through the book during the event, but now is dragging to finish. Why? She says she's afraid to read more because reading something like this book makes her think she really needs to change some things to be working for the kingdom of God, and she's not sure she's ready to do that.

An honest answer for sure. I love the United Methodist Church. And I love the structure - I really value the connectionalism and collegiality that is the UMC at its best. And I value the ministry that our structure allows. I value the ministry of the general church, and I value the ministry and giftedness of our district superintendents and bishops. My DS is retiring in July, and I will truly miss his guidance for our district and his role in my ministry at its beginnings. But the structure also surely encourages us - or at least enables us - to be personally ambitious to the detriment of the kingdom of God.

I'm not sure where I'm going with these thoughts. Like my pastor-friend, mostly I want to stop them here, stop writing, for fear of where the thoughts naturally lead. But, I've always believed that God's calling on our lives is never a done, completed, one-time event. And so I am trying to listen for how God is calling me now. And this much I hear clearly: Pope-hood is not in my future.
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