Making place a priority

May 10th, 2022

Facebook has run its course in my life for the most part. There are few things on that platform that stimulate my mind or imagination these days. With that said, I do get a thrill out of the one or two days each year where my itinerant clergy sisters and brothers share their moving announcements. I enjoy reading how each one gracefully and carefully crafts their message of appreciation and gratitude for this place they’ve called “home,” and their hopefulness for what lies ahead at the new place.

I say the experience of reading the announcements of my fellow pulpiteers is thrilling only because I am not one who is having to carefully craft such a social media announcement this time around. Thankfully, in 11 years of ministry I have only had to make that announcement once, this past year. There was nothing fun about telling the community that my family had called home for 10 years that I was leaving; the in-person communication hurt far worse than the digital one. In a twist of irony, I made the moving announcement as I was completing a Doctor of Ministry degree that focused on best practices for placemaking, homemaking, and the appreciation of place for itinerant clergy who are moving to unfamiliar communities. I felt such work was necessary, and apparently God felt I needed an opportunity to put my thoughts into practice in a new and different way. So one day, my bishop calls me with a new appointment—clearly, this God has some sense of humor.

Aside from annual moving seminars offered by annual conferences and, if you’re lucky, a good seminary class that focuses on matters of home and place, clergy are afforded few opportunities to engage the practice of placemaking in a deep, meaningful, and formative way. As Jen Ayers pointed out in her essay on place-based pedagogy, Memories of Home, the seminary only has so much space to address such matters in electives, due to the delicate balancing act between denominational paradigms, expectations that they are already performing with so many other pressing priorities. 

Even though moving still happens often, there really are no textbooks on how to do it well. While historically our itinerancy as clergy made us fairly unique, in recent times there are more and more folks in our congregations who experience the struggles of moving for their work without much say in the matter. One group that’s been at this moving thing nearly as long we have is the military community. I have come to see our common thread with military families since moving to our new homeplace. For example, our church Ministry Assistant attended 11 different school from kindergarten thru 12th Grade as an Army child.

Where clergy may still differ in their experiences is the imperative that placemaking has for us in our work. As David Orr and Norman Wirzba have both noted, due to the global economy and quest for “opportunity” Americans are more mobile and prone to move now than at any other time in human history. As a result, the consideration of “place” as something worthy of attention and intention is practically non-existent in our society. The prevailing thought is, “Why worry about place, if I am just going to move anyway?”

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Itinerant pastors like myself are part of a system in which we will move multiple times, and yet we are called to a different expression of that mobility. One that is not based off the quest for opportunity, but one that is based on making the Kingdom of God more visible in the places we find ourselves. To thrive in our ministry settings as a called and set apart people, placemaking must be a priority for us. The nature of our work and calling makes us different. Our roots must be deep where we are, even if we are only there for a season.

For clergy entering ministry in a new place, beginning the process of placemaking is essential for fruitfulness to be possible in their ministry. One of the most important keys to good placemaking is “appreciation.” I am defining “appreciation” as the kind of knowledge that sees things in a particular place or situation not just “as they are” on the surface, but with a deeper, contemplative understanding that comes with critical attention and experience. I choose to use the term “appreciation” as opposed to “understanding” to describe this type of knowledge, because as Howard Thurman pointed out in his landmark work Jesus and the Disinherited, “understanding” can often be weaponized to cement one’s misguided, preconceived notions which ultimately lead to harm; namely an unsympathetic view of those you meet and their life experiences. With that said, appreciation void of understanding can be equally harmful. 

The sort of appreciation that I am advocating in this work can be likened to what Orr described as “slow knowledge.” It is an appreciation born out of a knowledge that is in turn born of intensive, immersive, wandering and wondering one’s way through the shared life of a place.

As a newcomer in a place, it is the itinerant pastor’s responsibility to become a student of the place, while the place itself becomes both teacher and curriculum. It is through such an immersive learning relationship with the place that a newly-relocated clergyperson can begin the process of coming to appreciate the place, in its human and non-human dimensions. Such appreciation begins to see this place as “home,” even if at first glance it appears desperately flawed and foreign.

For those of you who are reading this in a season where you are preparing to move, or perhaps have just moved, blessings to you as embark on your new endeavor. The place you will now be is a place worthy of being. It is a place worthy of appreciation, a place worthy of being called “home.” But first, disorientation must happen. Disorientation can be overwhelming, but it is a necessary first step upon arrival and on the way to appreciation. Godspeed. You are not alone.


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