This weekend was the 237th Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Roanoke–and my first, ever–and the one at which I became, officially, the Rev. Eric Kleppinger.
When I first began pondering this path, nearly two years ago, I had absolutely zero expectation that if I found myself here, it would be this quickly. I thought, maybe in another seven years when I reach retirement age…maybe. But I have been at times blown away by how robustly God is clearing a path for me to “go, therefore, and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).
So how was Conference? Lots of words come to mind. Intense: at one point I was talking about an event that happened only the day before, but it felt like d-a-y-s ago. Affirming: it felt right to be in the clergy session, it felt right to wear the white namebadge of a clergy member, and I was reaffirmed by the presence and love of so many of my licensing-school friends.
- Thursday night, the night before the licensing ceremony, I didn’t sleep well. Woke up about 2 in the morning and couldn’t fall asleep for a couple of hours. Kept having memories of various steps along this path brought to mind: Music Camp 1984, Lincolnia and the saints there who helped get me started, etc., etc. At one point I told Jesus, “I get it, you’re excited too. But c’mon, I need some sleep here!”
- One of my L-school friends drove directly to the clergy session the first morning, at which we were being officially voted in as local licensed pastors. He arrived in a T-shirt and jeans, not realizing everyone else was a little more dressed up. I gave him my sport coat, and while the fit wasn’t perfect, he could at least go on stage more comfortably. Looked pretty decent, too!
- The atmosphere among us about-to-be-licensed pastors in the tunnel under the coliseum awaiting the procession in: it felt like a high school graduation. We’re all excited, taking selfies and pictures, a knot of happy about-to-be-licensed pastors. All the other groups were politely and demurely lined up. I hope we never lose that spiritedness.
- The old poli-sci major in me got to geek out a bit at all the parliamentary procedure in the discussion of motions and voting and etc. But not so much that I wanted to engage with it, let alone go back to that world.
- I can’t emphasize enough how great it was to have been surrounded at Conference by Mary, David and Sarah, and by Don and Bonnie Jamison and Don Curry. Not only were the Jamisons able to give us tips on conference procedures and the best places to get lunch, but having them present made it special in another way. And for David and Sarah to make the trek down to stand with me…absolutely priceless. I can’t do this without all their support and love.
People kept asking me how it felt, and I have to confess, it didn’t feel overwhelming. Perhaps that’s what they were expecting? It felt momentous, it felt very real, it felt affirming–but in the end, the phrase that kept coming to mind was, #letsgo. Let’s get to it, let’s get going, let’s go and make those disciples.
After we stood on stage and Bishop Weaver blessed us, we headed off and were handed our licenses and credentials as we left the stage. It truly is official now! So #letsgo!
For the last nine days of May, I and 29 of my newest friends (30 if you count the baby, Shay, who was there with her mommy) were holed up at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach for the Virginia Annual Conference‘s 2019 Licensing School. This is the annual set of classes put on by the Conference for those of us who are about to become licensed as pastors for the first time. There were eight 12-hour days that spanned over the Memorial Day weekend–no time off for that, and we came to think that was just like the jobs we’ll be stepping into.
I had been forewarned that there was a high risk of developing lifelong friendships here, and I think that’s probably a fair danger: this was a great group of Christians looking towards their first opportunity to care for others as people sent in Jesus’ name. And so we spent a lot if time covering topics we will need to know: from the more abstract, like Wesleyan theology, to the more immediately practical, like how to do a baptism or Communion correctly, to the intensely practical, like how to keep the wedding planner from taking over your church.
In fact, one of the more intensely special moments for me was when I had a chance to practice a baptism on a doll baby. Of course, it wasn’t squirming like real life will hand me, but even so, when it came time to pronounce the blessing, I was moved. And even a little bit intimidated: you mean somehow *I* am going to get to do this? That can’t be right!
We had a similar experience when we completed our practice Communion with the Hawaiian roll and grape juice: we were told to take the leftovers outside and scatter them, just as if it were real…as if we had really done it! But of course, we had, and we will…which, again, felt a little moving and intimidating.
The final night’s worship, one of the course directors said that he had met us as friends, and now he sends us forth as colleagues. That meant a lot to me: the acceptance, the trust, and the welcoming are all a part of what this past year-and-change has demonstrated. This *is* real! And it’s about to get a whole lot more real as I step into this role at Sydenstricker in just a few weeks.
I really don’t understand how it can be the end of May already. Didn’t we just have our trip to England, wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day, I thought Lent began last Wednesday…?
And was it really February that I had my DCOM meeting and got approved to become a local licensed pastor?
But in this second half of the month, the pastor train is picking up speed. Last weekend was the announcement that I would be staying at Sydenstricker UMC as their new Associate Pastor; there were actual whoops and “yay!”s from the pews when it was said. Which made me feel welcomed and supported and blessed all at once. I’m fortunate to begin my pastoral career among such people, and indeed, among people that I know and where I can grow, make my mistakes, and help move things forward in a supportive environment.
And now I write from the campus of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, where I and 28 others are spending nine days in Licensing School under the tutelage of leaders throughout Virginia, teaching us how to become productive, effective pastors. I’m among a group of folks who will be taking fresh the reins of two- and three-point charges in rural Virginia, mostly moving to new assignments; my friend John and I are in the minority for sure, where we are rising to be Associate Pastors at our home churches.
It’s a mix of practical advice that I’m trying to soak up, especially as they discuss smaller churches (as I will doubtless have myself someday). But it’s also vaguely intimidating still as well: I’ll be responsible for all this?? At times like this I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an in-place mentor who knows all this stuff, and worried for how well I will pick up on the subtleties and nuances of whatever charge I get next.
But in the end, as with this whole endeavor, it’s about faith. Faith that God has called me into this for a reason, that if I will only open myself to him, I can hear his voice and let him lead me into those changing scenes and different situations that I will face. So yeah, it looks like this is going to be A Thing now…let’s do this. Together, please.