Called Home

April 29th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

February 2009

Like all employees, some pastors react to the itinerancy system by committing blatant character-sacrifice, kissing up to their superiors in order to get a better salary or a parsonage in a county-seat town.  Others become bitter and disinterested, and let the appointive machine run over them.  As I sat in my final interview before my ordination, a long-time pastor for whom I have great respect looked me in the eye and said, “Brian, stay in college ministry.  Never take an appointment.  It will suck the life out of you.”  None of the other pastors in the room argued with his diagnosis of the system.

So far, I have taken his advice.  I have found the Methodist equivalent of a loophole, serving in a pastoral capacity while also being an employee of a university.  That means that I have some freedom come appointment time, particularly since I am so far from my home conference in North Alabama.  Evansville, Indiana, is middle America—middle of the country, middle of the political spectrum, middle everything. It is 342,815 calm people, planted by a river.

And that is where we have been the last five years.  Those of you who live in exotic places like New York City or South Dakota may feel as if Alabama and Indiana have a lot in common.  And, for the distant observer, that may be true.  But after five years of putting our own sugar in our tea, explaining again why college football is far superior to college basketball, and finding elbow macaroni in places God never intended it to be, we are profoundly sensitive to how far we are from home.

We’ve met some of the kindest people the world has to offer, and developed friendships that I pray will last as long as we do.  Some of those folks are transplants like us, living here because of their work.  We sit around tables and talk about where we’ve been, and where we’re going, too slippery for this place to hold us.

Other friends were born and raised here, and listen patiently to our stories of home, then pour elbow macaroni into their unsweet tea and let their roots grow a little deeper.  It is these folks who have the most profound impact on me, because I see in them what I desperately want.  Home is not a place we choose based on a pros and cons list in a travel magazine, it is family. It is genetics. It is a gift. 

Every previous year, when the Alabama Methodists came calling, I had good reason to stay.  But this year it feels as if something has changed.  College ministry is no less rewarding, but I find myself in free moments sneaking off to nursing homes to visit the aged.  There is also a longing for home I can’t seem to shake.

A friend summed it up in a way I could not do for myself: “Brian, you have spent these past few years being a representative for the faith in a place that did not care about faith.  Maybe it’s time to be around people who can share faith with you.”

When I dream about taking a traditional appointment, I envision a tiny, inner-city church.  We know it will be a cut in pay, and a major change for our family, but it feels like the faithful choice.  It feels like the heroic choice.

So, in my first conversation with the conference leadership, I mention a church by name.  There is silence, and then, “You can’t go there.  That’s not how it works, Brian.”  It is not a malicious statement, more of a caring, paternal correction.  “That church is not available, and I don’t think that’s where your gifts would be best utilized.”

As far as the church sees it, my gifts would be best used in a predominantly white, suburban, middle-class church on the southern edge of metro Birmingham.  It is not what I had imagined.  Or, to be blunt about it, it’s exactly what I had imagined.

I am so steeped in the romance of biblical calling that I want my entry into congregational ministry to be as dramatic as Isaiah’s scalded tongue, or Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a fish.  Jesus’ words about the poor and suffering resonate so deeply with me, and they have certainly shown up in my preaching over the last decade.  But now I wonder how much they have actually shaped me.

I want the church to push me into something that guarantees integrity, that transforms me into something I am not.  The last thing I want is to have my white, middle class suburban-ness confirmed by the Body of Christ, but here I am on the phone with a District Superintendent, and that is what is happening.

It will be a promotion, a much better church than I deserve, and in a sea of unhealthy churches, this one sticks out like a lone, healthy thumb. It is a community that I would love to raise our children in.  The outgoing pastor is one of the best in the conference, and is leaving on excellent terms.

So why is this so hard?

Because it’s not hard enough.  At least a part of it is that I don’t want to be motivated in ministry by such earthly wants.  I want to be able to look into the eyes of these college students in Indiana and tell them that I leaving them to serve the poorest of the poor because Jesus himself has called me to suffer alongside them.  I want to walk out of this place in a hairshirt, ashes on my face, surrounded by the hushed awe of my fellow believers.  I want an appointment that shrouds all my selfish reasons for leaving this flock.

And in taking a “good” church, there is a new and unexpected fear: failure.  Everything in this church works just fine right now, in the pre-me era.  If this all goes south, there is no one to blame but me. If things were to go poorly at that inner-city church, there would be all sorts of demographic and sociological phenomena to hide behind.  I would go down fighting the good fight, still wearing my hairshirt, and my failure would be easily reinterpreted as moral courage.

When I was going through the ordination process, a pastoral mentor with a gift for unfiltered truth said to me, “Brian, you lack only one thing, and that is a major failure.  The day you fail is going to be a great day for you.” 

His words hover over me as I hang up the phone.


This essay is part of a four-part memoir. Continue reading, or start at the beginning.

comments powered by Disqus