One More Step

This past Thursday night I took another step along the road towards the pastorate. One of the requirements in the United Methodist Church is for the local church, at its annual business meeting, to certify a candidate for ordination that it wishes to sponsor. This week, I had the rare privilege of being in that situation.

The District Superintendent, Jeff, was there for the annual charge conference, which is what it’s called, and he ran the meeting, including the time to ratify me. When that came, he explained the uniqueness of this proceeding, before supervising a written ballot vote whether to put me forward. I am humbled and honored to have had the support of all 44 church members present and voting that night. (Yes, apparently, Mary voted for me too.)

When the vote was announced, Jeff called me forward and everyone had a chance to lay hands on me and he led a blessing. I was touched, and moved, by the love and support of the congregation, and the unanimous vote really affirmed for me how much people are behind me, and apparently how much of a “duh!” this is to everyone.

There’s a few steps more to go before certification this winter. I have to complete my mentoring cycle, which will take me to January I expect; I have to review the results of my psychological testing, which will probably be next month sometime. And I have some essays to write about fundamental theological questions. But I’m thinking I will have achieved certified status by spring.

Then what?

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Here I Am, Lord. Send Me.

Here I am, Lord / Is it I, Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night / I will go, Lord / Where you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart.

Starting almost a year ago, I’ve been on a path of discernment. I’ve been trying to figure out what God is calling me to in the next chapter of my life, with an eye towards whether I am being called into a path towards ordination in the United Methodist Church. In this blog I’ve talked about discernment, about finding the breadcrumbs here and there and everywhere along the trail, about the times the Holy Spirit pokes me to get my attention, or gives me experiences of affirmation, and even the first steps along the path towards ordination.

This past weekend I took another. Publicly, I have declared myself to be a candidate for ordination as an Elder in the UMC.

If after about 15 months of signals I’m still feeling led in this direction, I think it’s time to make a decision and say, Yep, that’s probably right. In fact, I’ve spent prayer time over the past couple of months reflecting on all the green lights I’ve been seeing, and asking Jesus instead for disconfirming evidence: if this isn’t right, show me now! (And then crickets chirped, and tumbleweeds drifted through…nothing happened.)

In the spring, I was accepted into Asbury Theological Seminary–another piece of doors being opened for me, in fact. Asbury requires four reference letters; one of my four letter-writers told me he was slammed at work and couldn’t get to it for a couple of weeks. But then days later, I got the email saying I had been accepted. I assumed he had found the time and sent it in–but no, come to find out, he hadn’t…Asbury accepted me with only three letters, and apparently, a big enough nudge from the Spirit. I am humbled by that.

My brother Glenn had sage advice, as always: “Go take a class. You’ll know soon enough if you’re supposed to be doing this.” In May I started my first two seminary classes, one online, and one “intensive” in-person class that met at the end of June. I met some wonderful people and had a great experience, including more affirmation…I texted Glenn, “I hate it when you’re right.”

In early July I attended a discernment weekend sponsored by the Virginia Conference. At one point in the weekend we reflected on Matthew 4. We did a lectio divina exercise, in which we read the scripture several times, pausing to listen for what word or phrase God draws to us, or what else we hear. On reading the story of Jesus calling his disciples to go and become fishers of men, what I heard was, “Let’s go fishing.”

On Saturday, I transmitted my Statement of Call to our congregation’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, which is the first time all this has been public within the church. On Sunday, as the 11am service was wrapping up, Pastor Don called me up front and announced that I had put my name forward…so yeah, it’s a thing now.

I’ve begun to be more public in telling people about this, and almost unanimously, the reaction has been some form of, “Yeah? That doesn’t surprise me. What took you so long?” Why am I always the last to figure things out??

To be perfectly honest I’m a little…nervous? Scared? Intimidated by the prospect of all that’s ahead of me? And I was certainly a little bit of that standing with Don Sunday morning. Oddly enough, the people called “Methodists” have a very methodical process that this will entail. This is a long road ahead: on my current pace, it’ll be about six years to get my M.Div. But I’m also taking steps to make myself available if called sooner: I’ve completed my first interview with the local Alexandria District Committee on Ministry, and they passed me on to the next stage, mentoring with another pastor. In seeking our church’s SPRC recommendation, I put myself in a position to be approved at the charge conference next month, and in line to become a certified candidate this winter…and eligible for assignment as a part-time student pastor thereafter. Yes, while working full-time. Yes, while taking five graduate courses a year.

Pray for me. But all the more, pray for Mary: she’s entering into this wonderfully supportively, but also (like me) with very, very little idea of what we’re getting into. This really is a step in faith for us both. 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good, and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  (Jeremiah 29:11)

 

Baby Steps

Lead me through the darkness / Lead me through the unknown / Oh, lead me, Holy Ghost. (MercyMe, “Ghost”)

I’ve written before about my very much ongoing efforts at discernment, to determine if perhaps I am being called into ordained ministry after five decades on this planet. I guess it’s time for an update.

Over the past couple of months I’ve started private mentoring and counselling sessions with my pastor, to try to gain insight into what’s going on. They’ve been very helpful sessions, which have explained some things and given me other things to think about.

At this point, it seems to me, that there’s enough “there” that I need additional help in working through the prospective call. And so I have taken the first steps down that path, by submitting my name (and the first bits of paperwork) to begin the formal process of discernment in the United Methodist Church.

When I hit Send on that email, I had a sense of reassurance, that this was the right thing to do. My first hurdle will be the District Committee on Ministry interview, which could be later in the spring; they will either pass me along and assign me a mentor to undergo the discernment exercises, or tell me I’m not ready. I find myself hoping to be passed along to the next stage. We’ll see.

If I were to go through with this, it could be another decade (!) before ordination. Lots of work to do between now and then, and that’s a bit intimidating. But it hasn’t scared me off yet. On to the next stage.

Not *That* Way

I’ve previously written about hearing the news that our Division at work was potentially going to offer early retirement, and how almost immediately I felt pricked by that–“You paying attention now?”

I learned this week that while that is true, my boss has made the ruling that no one on her staff will be offered early retirement (because then she’ll lose the position and can’t replace us).

OK, so I’m a little disappointed and perplexed. I really thought I was supposed to pay attention to that. And so while I did think at the time the likelihood of actually being offered early-out was slim, I did feel it was a nudge.

So quite clearly now, that door is closed to me. And we all know what that means: God’s opened another one, and is standing next to it patiently tapping his foot, waiting for me to get around to noticing it. In all likelihood, it won’t be as grand a door, or as easy an exit as early retirement would have been. But maybe that’ll be the point. I just don’t know.

Give me a revelation, show me what to do
Cause I’ve been trying to find my way, I haven’t got a clue
Tell me should I stay here, or do I need to move
Give me a revelation, I’ve got nothing without You

–Third Day, Revelation

Breadcrumbs, Part II

So what are some of the other signals I’m getting that perhaps I’m being called into a deeper relationship with Christ? It’s more than just how often I find myself thinking of church and Christ while wandering the halls at work:

  • I’m someone who is always trying to improve. At work, at home, wherever. And so when I learned of a free (free!) executive coaching opportunity through work, I made the time to explore it. I met with the coaching coordinator, I reviewed resumes of potential coaches, and I picked out one to try to connect with. I called her, and we had a great first conversation about perhaps establishing a coaching relationship. She then sent me her getting-to-know-you questionnaire, in which I was encouraged–in complete confidence–to write down what I wanted to get out of coaching, what problems I wanted to work on. But one question brought me up short: “What do you truly yearn to do?” And before I knew it, Bing! went off in my head, and I heard the answer. It wasn’t the next promotion, like I always assumed it would be. It wasn’t becoming Somebody in some new executive role. No, what went off in my head instead, as what I truly yearn to do, was the Great Commission:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

  • We’ve been in the midst of putting together the next year’s budget at work, a process which has been both intense and filled with long days and late nights at the office. One day, in the midst of preparing for a senior leadership meeting, my boss was meeting with a group of us. She became animated in trying to understand one particular number, one which didn’t strike me as worth the amount of time we were spending on it. Very clearly I heard, “This just isn’t important” in my mind. The implication was, the important thing was Christ.
  • I’ve finished reading Kyle Idleman’s Not A Fan, and I had a sense of conviction there as well.  Idleman uses Luke 9:57-62 to show us that when we choose to follow Christ, we’re expected to make that the priority: follow him wherever, whenever, immediately. And here I am struggling with that! I really felt the Spirit nudging me: “OK, you want to follow? Get going then!”

I wish I had better clarity on what I’m being led into.

 

A Path of Discernment

I’ve been sharing with you a little of my life and walk. I want to start a conversation that I think will run a lot longer, over the course of several weeks or months or who knows, even years, so up front I ask your forbearance, since I don’t know where this will go.

I have taught, and written, on the idea that into every life, God will issue a call. Through his grace, he will call each of us. All are given the most elementary call: come home, turn back to me, come back. And those who heed that call, find Jesus and find even more grace as they grow. Some of those, he will call into service–and I absolutely love the stories of people helping Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey. Some he will call into teaching, some he will call into counseling.

And some, yes, he will call into ordained ministry.

I find myself over the past weeks and months sensing a different kind of call for me: that Jesus has something else in mind than I’ve been doing for the past 25 years–heck, for the past nearly 50. But I am still very, very, very unsure as to what that new call is. I’ve talked a little with my wife, and she’s been gracious enough to say that if it’s a call into ministry, then she’s in, and I need to heed it. It’s very possible it’s a call to just “go deeper,” to turn more and more of myself and my world over to Christ, to become more like those giants in Christ that I see around me. And that would be fine. But I also cannot shake entirely the sense that it could be “the” call. My own pastor says he senses me being called into something, but he doesn’t know what it is.

I’m very uncomfortable not knowing. I’m the kind of guy who likes certainty, and so if there were a burning bush, I could handle that. Listening for the faint whispers…that’s hard, and I’m probably not very good at it. At least I fear I’m not.

With your indulgence, I will try periodically–maybe not every post–to explore where I am and what I am able to discern is happening. I have absolutely no idea where this will end up. But come along…this could be a fascinating ride.

Discernment

How do we know when God is steering us, versus when it’s just what we think we want to hear?

My daughter’s been wrestling with a pretty major school decision, and in the next couple of weeks she’ll have to make a decision. She’s been in prayer about it, but asked for advice on how to tell if it’s God’s will that she’s hearing, or if it’s just her own preferences that she’s picking up. We talked it over, and talked with our pastor, and here’s some of what we came up with as ways to tell if it’s God we’re hearing.

  • Does what we’re hearing draw us closer to God, or push us further away? Jesus said there are false prophets, liars in our minds, and that we will know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20). If what we’re feeling urged to do helps advance the Kingdom, that’s a good sign. If it tends to make us focus on our selfish desires, then it’s not.
  • Meditative, contemplative prayer. Emptying the mind is a fiendishly difficult thing to do (and I do mean fiendishly–the tempter is always there to draw us away from focusing on God), but if it’s possible to do so, pay attention to the words and images we may get in our minds. Then try to erase them, and see if they recur. Words, images, or feelings that keep being brought to mind could be God’s efforts to break through the noise of our lives, and for his “still small voice” to be heard (1 Kings 19:11-13). I find it very, very difficult to turn off all the noise in my head–my brain is always running. But this might work easier for some who are more blessed than I with the ability to turn that faucet off.
  • Trying it on for size: If we think we get a sense that God is nudging us in one direction or another, then in prayer we can “try it on”–“God, I seem to sense you saying yes, we should go on the trip…is that right?” And then being still, and seeing if you feel affirmed in the choice. And if not, if you still feel uneasy, then perhaps it isn’t.
  • Closely related: do you find peace in the decision you’ve made, or do you feel still in chaos? God brings peace with him, and so a sense of peace with the decision may be a strong indicator it’s God’s will coming through.

What other techniques do you know for being able to tell when it’s God’s voice you’re hearing?