On the end of a ministry

This time last year, I was anxiously awaiting the final say on whether I’d be hired as a campus minister (I wasn’t really sure until late July, and even then there was some ambiguity as to the length of my service). Anxious partly because this seemed like the only ministry work that I seemed likely to find up in my part of the rural mountains.

That uncertainty has returned. Do I, as suggested by a friend’s father, try to break into higher ed administration (as is the natural state of things with my family), committing myself to some sort of novel bi-vocational ministry that would likely not entail ordination? I have been contemplating the future of liberal protestant ministry, and wondering whether it is a return to the bi-vocational ministry of our non-conformist forefathers. But facing the reality is something different, especially as I watch so many friends receive their stoles. The polity of the UCC requires ordination into a call. My committee did not immediately recognize serving as a campus minister for a group with whom we were not covenantally tied as ordainable, and for financial reasons I chose not to push back on that understanding. So here we are.

But before that, a realization about this past year:

One reason I have been hesitant to pursue hospital chaplaincy is that I need a balance and a big picture to grow, learn and be satisfied. I found during my clinical pastoral education that I would quickly grow bored exercising only one set of skills. The campus ministry I served this year came from a very democratic tradition, and so I was carried where the students led. And, this year, a year of transition for them and the ministry, that was a very safe place. As a result, I found myself again in something of a box. While I loved working with the students, the ministry’s activities were not diverse enough for me to fit in; my strength has always been connecting disparate parts to make a whole, but there were no disparate parts, so I was trying to mentor the group members on the same things all year. And neither of us benefitted from that arrangement. It’s hard to draw out themes and connect dots without some continuity and variety, and yet that’s the way that I teach. I tried to create a space with more variety for the first few months, and to reach out to other campus ministries, but that’s just not where we were. It’s also a reminder that the terms of interim ministry need to be settled amongst all stakeholders up front. For various reasons, that did not happen this year, and that affected our ability to use the unique opportunity of interim ministry effectively. Rather than planning out an orientational shift or addressing the specific concerns that were needed to get from point A to point B, we started in a steady state, carrying momentum from the previous year, and waited for that steam to expire before coming to terms with the necessary adjustments. Interim ministry can be such a wonderful chance to understand identity without the burden of history and offense when done right, that it was a disappointment to waste the chance.

For me, personally, too, it was a reminder that a double context-shift might be too much. I am not a Baptist. I am UCC. And I am not from a small town in North Carolina. I’m from Iowa, raised by New Englanders and trained in Boston and New Haven. I think a move to a more urban-dominated Baptist chaplaincy, or a more rural UCC chaplaincy, would have been an adjustment that was possible for me, jumping from an urban UCC setting to a rural Baptist setting was difficult for me and for the students. I have always believed that ministry has a setting, a time and a place, and this was a reminder that bringing God into different times and places requires a mental and attitudinal flexibility that takes time to achieve. If I am to stay in this place long-term, I will need to understand what God needs me to be here. And that’s still hard and unfamiliar.

More to come as I process this past year and reflect on more general lessons for the future.

Missions

[written while on mission, edited afterward. This was originally the second of two postings]

Thursday night, on the eve of our departure from our mission site. I am feeling even more ersatz Baptist than usual, as our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship mission group now consists of two ELCA Lutherans and a UCC minister playing a Baptist on TV.

Yesterday was still somewhat morally and ethically difficult for us. We discovered that the sponsoring church for Monday’s food pantry chose not to accept USDA food specifically so they could proselytize there. At the food pantry they run in their church basement, they DO take USDA food, but of course recipients can see all the devotional messages on the wall. At the same time, the church provides free health services, too (and a very nice meal for volunteers), so it’s clear that they are committed to serving the needy. Where are the lines? a five-minute devotional at the food bank and signs up reminding folks that they need to turn away from sin? The issue is and has been, what happens to the people for whom this _is_ too much; too much pressure, too much of a reminder of hurt the church may have inflicted? At the same time, this is the mission work these churches and food banks feel called to. If nothing else, it expresses the tension that arises from religious organizations administering governmental programs.

Slightly more problematic for us was our time at a community center here. The services are wonderful-an after-school program for kids and a morning day-care for 3-4 year-olds to help them prepare for school (where I found myself working twice this week when other helpers were unavailable). But for some of the day care and food pantry services, mothers needed to come to their Bible Studies and do some quilting for the center (I’m a little confused here. It’s clear that some of the parents do not do anything with the center. So I don’t know if the requirement is just talk–this is the sort of place where kids won’t be turned away, for sure). On the one hand, we were a little uncomfortable with the mandatory Bible Study. But on the other hand, one of our big jobs was putting up fences around gardens the center had helped to install at the homes of parents. That’s just a really cool thing to do for the folks who have room (and, given the properties in that area, this means just about everyone). It’s such a great idea–modern day victory gardens–and adds a giant multiplier for donations (cheap seeds turn into expensive produce). I can’t really criticize the center; it is doing a ton of necessary and great work within its context. But, again, where do folks uncomfortable with its religious mission go?

I had a great time working with the kids, both in the preschool and in the afternoon. One lesson that was clear from our time: elementary school kids LOVE TuxMath and TuxSpell. Especially competitive network TuxMath.

Our nights have been spent talking and thinking about our past as it relates to our present mission work, except for Tuesday, when we turned on The Great Muppet Caper and had two of our four immediately fall asleep (only a fear my snoring would be too loud and a desire to brush my teeth prevented me from doing so as well. Particularly difficult for me, as I was lying on my own bed to watch said movie). I don’t think any of us expected to be quite as tired as we are proving to be at night.

I must say that I did not expect as much excitement as I got when I demanded we stop at a bookstore to get postcards to send home to Cullowhee. We showed up at the only obvious used bookstore in town and discovered that, while its antiquarian section was meh, its used section was outstanding and bountiful, with a particularly good YA section (unusual, in my experience). We wound up spending well over an hour and closer to two there. I think the proprietress was happy to see the back of us, but we all spent between $10-30 on books, and lots of time sitting on the floor examining lost treasures.

Of History and Religion

Last week at our Cooperative Student Fellowship Student-led Bible study, we had some guests from another, charismatic-leaning campus ministry. They invited us to attend their Thursday-night event, the showing of a 30-minute film showing that the Bible is totally historically true. Husband of an historian that I am, I immediately asked, “well, it makes an argument that the Bible is true, right?” and got in reply that no, it actually did. Around that time a member of my group chimed in and said, “he’s about to tell you he went to Harvard, so you know that he’s smarter than you.” That was interesting on two levels.

First, because my student likely shared my skepticism about what the video was going to do, and yet sought to discredit my question through a public questioning of my intentions. The goal was to end the conversation before it became uncomfortable and the means was to appeal to anti-intellectualism to do so (effectively saying, “he is only raising this question to show his own perceived intelligence”).

Both responses were particularly interesting to me because I was trying to suggest that we should use the techniques of history to evaluate the arguments of a video presented in the context of an event intended to bolster students’ religious interpretations in classes with skeptical professors. So, if the event is to have its stated effect (giving students knowledge for challenging skeptical professors), it ought to survive historical scrutiny. But with the first student, the film was not part of the same historical project her professors were undertaking, it was instead part of the world of faith-affirmation. For the second student, avoiding conflict was more important than contextualizing the information about to be received. Both undermine the goal of arming students for arguments in the academy.

After studying the Bible from a heavily historical-critical perspective, I’ve gotten a good idea of the range of things that can be proved and disproved in the Bible, and also of areas where the Bible contradicts itself. So I know there is ample ground to engage with hostile audiences about the historical basis of much of scripture, but only if it is properly framed and contextualized, given that there are many, many things that are outside the realm of archaeology and history to confirm or refute. Now, if one wants to have a hermeneutical approach that harmonizes those contradictions and incorporates both the confirmable and the impossible, that is a fine religious project to embark upon. But you cannot expect academics to respect that project on historical grounds; the historical project is quite different, and it is unlikely that the religious project will be persuasive to someone standing on the outside.

Ultimately, to care about the results of historical inquiry into the events of the Bible means being open to the limitations of the results and skeptical of the assertions being made. To do less suggests that history is merely a tool to be discarded when it does not fit the model of religion in one’s mind. But history can be a valuable tool in understanding a religious text and enriching the interpretation of that text. It’s just hard to fit the findings of history into a clear and straightforward framework of belief about what the text means–it was written over a thousand years in myriad contexts, and this makes it incredibly complicated.

You Had to Be There

Preached at Cullowhee Baptist Church 4/15/2012.

No text today. Ever since moving to the mountains, I’ve struggled to find my preaching rhythm. When it also happened to me in Iowa City this New Year’s (aided and abetted by a grueling travel schedule), I decided to abandon my manuscripts for my more natural extemporaneous preaching. Last month at Shepherd of the Hills ELCA, it seemed to paid off–while I lost some rhetorical flourish, I felt much better about the sermon than I had in some time. Today, though, I think I was undone a bit.

Today’s lesson was Doubting Thomas. My message was that the passage, taken as a whole, reminds us that we are not blessed because of our association with Jesus, as the disciples had been. Instead, we are reminded that his message is for the rest of us, and that he has given his spirit to all of us who believe. Similarly, we should take his lesson and take our value not from the adulation of the world, or the reflected glory of our better-known or richer acquaintances, but instead rest easy in the knowledge that we carry the spirit equally and get all the status we need from it.

 

But. I wasn’t leading the service today. So when it came time to deliver my sermon, I came in cold. Without my pre-sermon bantering and interaction with the audience to set the tone, I could have used a manuscript to pace me. Instead, I too quickly escalated into the intense Nathan that is so easy for me to summon. And that had the effect of obscuring the message that we are all loved children of God, and do not need the validation of society to be great. The tone conflicted with the message of confidence and hope in our embodiment of the holy spirit. Owing also to not having a lot of pre-sermon time prior to the service to recollect my thoughts, I spent too much time in the Biblical text early on, rather than making the parallel today part of the opening. The result was that I didn’t “go slow,” as the saying tells us, but got higher in the text and couldn’t dial it down for the application of today.

 

I’ll need some more reflection to figure out where my groove has been. I feel like part of it has been losing my sense of worship presence; my job as a campus minister is much more sitting in smallish groups and trying to pry information out of people than anything else. So I lose a lot of the performative aspects of congregational worship. Part of it could also be the knowledge that I’m coming at things from a different place from others I’m preaching to (the ELCA congregation of mainly-transplants was more natural for me), but I’m not sure. Regardless, I think the result today was that, while the sermon wasn’t a disaster, my presentation of it hindered the ability of the folks I had in mind while writing it to get the message I offered.

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