I delayed sharing this post because it was scheduled to go out the day I heard about a horrific accident in “Down East” part of the Carteret County community — an airplane crashing with several local community members on board. In this post I am writing about my time serving as a pastor in Carteret County, and I wanted to focus on the grieving community. Much love to you all who are grieving. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Below is what I wrote a couple or so weeks ago:
My father absolutely loves quotes. He is a career nurse, currently teaching in a nursing program at a Community College. If you walked into his office, you could not get through the door without seeing several quotes taped up. As a child, I heard many wise aphorisms from the Bible and elsewhere coming from his mouth, passing on ageless wisdom to my still-forming brain. Some of these quotes have sunk roots deep and stayed with me, as has the love behind them.
Here is one quote that lingers. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” or so we say to people who struggle with being content. Over the years people have said this to me at different times. As far as colloquial proverbs go, this is a popular one. Here’s a problem though. It still focuses on the other side.
As a child, I was always filled with wonder, and this curiosity still makes it difficult for, as Mrs. Cynthia used to say to me in my first appointment, “my head to stay where my feet are.” What I needed was a quote that helped me to be content. At some point, I was told the Asian proverb, “The flower blooms where it’s planted.” That idea has helped me to find joy and meaning in whatever place I am appointed.
Going back in time ten years, I was not seeking contentment—to bloom where planted. A decade ago I was nearing the completion of my Masters of Divinity degree at Duke Divinity School and thinking about my prospects in rural ministry. As a Rural Ministry Fellow, I had pledged at the very minimum half a decade to the Lord, serving through rural congregations in eastern North Carolinian United Methodist Churches, roughly between Burlington and the Outer Banks. The poetic side of me sang a song of going to the forgotten, disadvantaged areas which had been stripped of their former glory by what we call “The Rural/Urban Divide.” At the same time, I could not help but be slightly envious of some of my friends.
“Did you hear that he is going to be an associate pastor at Edenton Street UMC?” I remember hearing. Or perhaps it was, “I’m so excited for them, going to be on staff at that big beach church.” With a subtle grumble, I prayed to the Lord, “Why won’t I ever get the opportunity to be at a big beach church? Why did you call me to rural space?” With a little bit of pridefulness, I saw myself as preparing to suffer for Jesus.
Fast forward to the end of my first appointment, and I received one of the most exciting phone calls of my ministry. Pastor Powell from First UMC Morehead City called and said that there was a possibility that I could be Appointed to FUMC as an associate pastor, and that it was technically a rural church.
With mucho gusto, my young family, including our first child, packed up and moved to the beach. So many things made this move a joy for me. I was able to:
1. learn administration from someone who had planted a church many years prior;
2. learn how to function as part of a larger team; and
3. to help give leadership to a contemporary worship service (where I preached more often) and two traditional services.
With astonishing and overwhelming love the people of First UMC supported their pastoral staff. Each year in October, Pastor Appreciation Month, they would fill up a laundry basket with gifts of love at the community dinner.
If you have ever heard of the proverbial “little mouse in the big city,” that is the complex that I wore, being in a multi-staff church with three worship services. While I did have specific tasks, like attending to the contemporary worship service and working with and implementing a new small group discipleship system, I was a “generalist.” This meant that any of the pastoral and organizational work of the church was fair game. Different tasks with different needs would periodically pop up. While I was used to this type of complexity as a rural church pastor, it was on a completely different scope at First UMC.
In these blogs, I have been explaining my journey in the Ordination Process, and this lays the backdrop for the next two delays I experienced, one in my first year in Morehead City and one delay in my second year there. In short, the first year I was delayed because I had not adjusted to the systems of the church, and the second year I was delayed for not appearing to work well with the rest of the team on the staff.
I remember reading the letter of delay to my wife in 2016, it saying that I had not done well to create new systems to welcome new visitors into the life of the Church. Her response was, “How are you supposed to have implemented something like that already? You have barely been there six months!” In my observation, the Board of Ordained Ministry saw me as being in a new context, and every pastor in a new context needs to find a way to get their job done. It seemed directly related, the next year, when I was delayed for “struggling to minister effectively in [my] work as a member of a church staff…and with congregational teams.”
In retrospect, I see how great the challenge must be for the Board, that many of them have either served or been part of multi-staff churches, and it might be difficult to empathize with someone coming from a small church context to learn a larger church context.
Since being ordained, I have seen the people I know on the Board of Ordained ministry working to understand the context and culture of the candidates. They have begun taking the “Intercultural Development Inventory” to help understand better when pastors are serving across cultural lines. In retrospect, it would have been helpful for us to talk about the cultural differences between me and the Church I was serving.
One of the biggest cultural differences that I never named well in that moment was the idea of what a pastor does. I grew up seeing how pastors natively walked inside and outside of the walls of the Church, as ministers to the community and the congregation. As John Wesley once put it, “The world is my parish,” or as we now say, “wherever I am in the world is my parish.” I struggled mightily in a culture that seemed to have unending pastoral work that needed to get done before “going out into the community.”* I must say this; First UMC had a huge heart for the community, and they had a heart for their pastors being connected with it. I did not know how to navigate that, and so I struggled endlessly, feeling pulled in two different directions. Being able to name the cultural difference at the heart of the challenge would have helped mitigate some of that challenge.
The cultural differences were one thing, and I will share another thing that contributed to my delays. I am not a self-promoter…unless we are playing a board game around the dinner table. You can ask my sister Tirzah, I will grow some claws and fight for the win! But when it comes to church things, I have a very strong sense of wanting to be humble.
This is something I really started to learn from my Latine, African-American, and charismatic friends while in Divinity School. I learned a beautiful sense of teamwork and trying to allow the team to take credit for accomplishments. In Spanish the term is “en conjunto,” or “as a whole/in conjunction with.” In several examples, I saw my friends working towards a certain end and feeling accomplished enough as part of a whole. I was happy to talk about how the Church was doing, in my ordination interviews, but I did not talk about the good things I was doing.
Contrarily, I talked about my faults too much. I drew from the Scripture where the Apostle says, “I will boast in my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest on me.” Looking back, it seems so stupid, how I talked so much about my faults. You may or may not know about The Enneagram, which talks about nine different ways of seeing the world. I am a Four, which is characterized by seeing what is left out. In the interviews, I was comfortable talking about what was left out and not about what was going well.
When I was delayed for that second year at FUMC, they felt so bad for me that they sent two people from the team, both immensely loving and wonderful people, to break the bad news to me. It is still clear in my mind, us sitting at my desk, them giving me the bad news.
They talked about me not working well with the larger team, and indignantly I said, “The Contemporary Service has grown by seventy-five people in the year and a half since I’ve been here! Many of those families were people that I had personally built relationships with through an exercise community. Does that not account for anything?!”
A stupefied look came over their faces. “Really? Wow, we had no idea. You should have said that in the interview. We had such an incomplete view of how things were going.”**
One of the paradoxes in the Church is that we value humility, and also, in our Ordination Process, it pays to have a bit of self-promotion. We value work outside of the Church in the community, and also, the Church as an institution runs like a business that needs to be cared for. We value people from other cultures and want to make the church culture safe for them, and also, the onus will continue to remain on the outsiders, until the ones in power have created better systems for cultural competence. I don’t know whose job it is to say these things, so I’ll keep saying them as loving communication to and through the Church I love.
That experience in Morehead City was one of the greatest in my life. The other pastors, ministers, and leaders of First United Methodist Church taught me so much about leadership through their examples and patience. The members of the Church showed me more love than I could have asked for. Before going there, I thought that “the grass was greener” at the beach. In some ways it was; in some ways it was not. Still today, as I serve in a rural congregation, the temptation to dream about grass enters my head. And then the Holy Spirit comes to remind me, “the flower blooms where it’s planted.”
*I’ll nuance that by saying I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning to workout with a group from the community, a connection that led many people to join the Church family. And the Church did have some official connections with the community, like with the Big Rock fishing tournament and the summer, minor league baseball team. I’ll also say that, if I did not struggle so mightily with executive dysfunction, I would have been able to do more work outside of the walls of the Church.
**At this point it is an open secret among my friends and close ones that I left Morehead City being medicated for depression and severe anxiety as well as ADHD, for which I was also given a blood pressure medication. This was not the fault of anyone, and I believe it has much to do with my not being able to name or learn well the culture that had formed me or the one that I was serving. Even though I helped see the Church attendance and membership grow, my mental health was also a sign of the fact that institutions need a lot of care, attention, and energy. The institutions for which we work do not care where our energy comes from any more than the car we drive cares where the gasoline comes from. A blessing for me was that my senior pastor and my closest friends took note of my mental health struggles and helped me do what was best, which for me was ultimately moving to a different Church. (I talk about those as scars, and working with a team for my own wellness, I consider myself as mentally healthy as I have been in adulthood) When I think about that move, to this day, I am most sad to have moved my beloved wife away from a successful youth ministry that she was in at a nearby United Methodist congregation.