Retirement Offers New Fields of Ministry

April 1st, 2017

After fifty years of preaching and pastoring, six years as a district superintendent, two and a half years as the bishop’s executive assistant, and one year as acting director of connectional ministries, I’m not ready to quit. Even though I retired from itinerate ministry January 1, 2017, I believe I have a lot left to give. In our ordination vows we are reminded that we are “called to serve rather than to be served.”

As I approached retirement I did so with a lot of hope for our United Methodist congregations. What gives me the most hope—in addition to the church being of Jesus and God never being finished with us—is that I believe in the missional imagination of God’s people. By missional imagination I mean the capacity to imagine being and doing church in fresh ways that build on the conventions of what worked in the twentieth century but go beyond that. By missional imagination, I mean that we can dare to be and do novel things with our neighbors and communities now and in the decades ahead.

The missional imagination of God’s people doesn’t necessarily lead to a church doing more mission projects. We do a lot of those now using lots of energy and resources. Rather, the missional imagination is awakened by developing new relationships with new people in new places. After all, it is only through new and ongoing relationships that we can ever hope to disciple new people in deeper relationships with Christ and his church.

And if we don’t disciple ourselves and others in a sustained, life-changing, and lifelong way, simply adding new members won’t be enough. We will sustain neither our mission nor our congregations by striving to add new members. Further, new members no longer come our way simply because we have a nice building on a convenient and visible property that houses good preaching, worship, and programs. That used to work for us, but no longer. The people beyond the doors of our congregation are not going to be attracted to us the way they were generations ago. Only as the church regains its true nature as the apostolic church—the sent church—will we reach new people to become disciples of Jesus Christ. The “sent ones” must be the new twenty-first century missionaries in the neighborhoods of North America.

I have become passionate about the missional church. As a pastor and superintendent I saw the emerging missional church in ways I could not name at the time. I saw the missional church happen almost impulsively from UM lay folk who became determined to be and do church beyond the walls and among neighbors. And I have witnessed it firsthand by walking neighborhoods with pastors, youth, and laypersons, meeting people on their lawns and at their front doors. I have seen people’s missional imagination come alive in teams for visioning and missional planning.

Because of these encouraging signs and because I trust the missional imagination of God’s people, I have devoted much of my retirement time to “come alongside” pastors and leaders to help them ask good questions of themselves and their ministry context. Asking good questions is every bit as important as having answers. Believing that we have answers might not lead us in a missional direction. But asking good questions—God-sized questions—will lead us into faithful missional answers. Missional answers come as God dwells with us and as we open ourselves to the divine stirrings.

There is no set formula for discernment and planning that will lead to missional engagement. But I do believe there are some processes that are wholly congregational, conversational, positively oriented, discovery-based, and outwardly focused. These processes ignite the missional imagination of our people and release their spiritual gifts, resources, excitement, hope, resolve, and ingenuity. Then the people of God claim their own leadership and begin charting a course to fruitful ministry and missional engagement with neighbors and the community.

I call this “walk alongside” process missional facilitating. And I am never so excited about ministry and the church as when I am helping pastors and congregational leaders do this kind of work. Presently I am working with six different pastors and congregations, all at various stages and with novel approaches. I think of my presence as another set of eyes and ears, with fifty years of experience in ministry settings from small- to large-membership churches, rural to urban, local church to district to episcopal area. Each congregation and context is unique. But despite the infinite variety of mission fields, God, as missionary-in-chief (David Bosch), leads the people of God to discover strategic directions appropriate for that congregation and neighborhood.

I also enjoy simply listening to pastors and helping them probe possibilities for more fruitful ministry. The key to coming alongside congregations is helping them assess their core ministries of radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith-development, risk-taking ministry and mission, and extravagant generosity (Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007]).

Most of us, retiring from whatever vocation, cannot quit. We have to keep contributing somehow. So in retirement, I feel that a whole new field of service is opening to me. I can take some of the experiences of these fifty years in ministry as a pastor, superintendent, episcopal assistant, and connectional ministries director and put them to work helping my colleagues and giving inspiration and hope to our many faithful lay United Methodists.

It’s all a part of living into the missional truth that was reclaimed by missiologists during the twentieth century: The church does not have a mission. Rather, the mission of God (missio Dei) has a church (David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, Jürgen Moltmann, Alan Hirsch). Our churches exist solely to serve God’s mission-in-Christ with the Holy Spirit to redeem and fulfill God’s world. I look forward, God willing, to many more years of service to Christ and his church.

I encourage retired or soon-to-be-retired clergy to consider their gifts that can continue to be used for the good of the church and the mission of Jesus. For sure, those of us with a few years of experience can support and mentor younger pastors. We can encourage the laity, the people of God, the real body of Christ. And we can invest in missional and connectional ministry on the local level. So don’t quit. God willing, and if our health is still good, we can continue to serve Christ and his church in this new, unfolding mission field of North America.

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