Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Country Is Calling

This is the second part of my reflecting and answering more fully the questions I was asked when the EPC Presbytery of the Pacific examined me on the floor in early February, 2013.
The second question I received, just to review, was "Explain your sense of call to the rural church."
The answer to this question takes me back to my days in seminary at a school in New Jersey.
As just an aside, I usually obscure the name of my seminary for three reasons. First, the name of my seminary carries with it a certain amount of cache since it is the same name as rather highly regarded Ivy League university. I do not take praise well and my already bloated ego does not need more people feeding it due to the name of seminary. Second, I am at odds currently with some of the policies of my seminary regarding its students. Finally, I am fairly convinced that I may have chosen differently had I to go to seminary over again. While I am thankful especially for the friendships that I made and for the financial assistance my seminary was able to give me due to an ample endowment, I am not sure that I received the theological education for which I had hoped. I certainly learned how to be theologically educated, but I have had to learn on my own much of what I hoped to receive from seminary. In the end, however, because I carry no seminary debt I am able to serve the rural church I have come to love.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, I was remembering my seminary days.
When I went to seminary I had no idea what sort of position I would seek when I graduated. My wife was fairly certain that I should seek a solo or head of staff position since she thought it suited my gifts and abilities. I trust my wife and truthfully, she is a better appraiser of my gifts and abilities than I tend to be. Nevertheless, I needed to know where God was calling.
As providence would have it, I made quick and fast friends with a number of other married men attending seminary. At least in the three years we were in school together, we formed a fairly tight bond. One friend in particular, A, helped more than most of the others discerning my call. A came into seminary with the purpose of going out to serve as a solo pastor. I was fascinated by his sure sense of God's call on his life and to some extent, I must confess, a bit envious.
I spent much of my time both in and out of class with my friends. We had prayer groups that would meet my first and second year of seminary and I used to pray in these groups begging God to tell me where He was calling me specifically.
What came to me in pretty dramatic fashion was that I was being called to serve the rural church. I do not know how to explain this adequately with words, but I became convinced that this was my call from God. Well, A, and others became a big help as I began to detail out this call to the rural church. Most helpful of all was my wife. She affirmed my call to the rural church and prepared, as best we could, to live in rural America.
The important bit I have left out is that I was raised in the greater Seattle area, as was my wife. While I was only one generation removed from those who had grown up on a working farm/ranch/dairy, I had personally spent very little time in the country. I began to read works about serving in the small church (as rural churches are predominantly small, that is, less than 100 members), but I really did not spend much time studying the rural church itself.
When the time came to seek my first call, I sent out copies of my Personal Information Form to many congregations in rural America and received interest from many of these congregations. Ultimately, I took a call in Merrill, Oregon. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the good saints of the First Presbyterian Church in Merrill ('in', not 'of' reads the charter of the congregation). It was in Merrill that I cut my teeth as a pastor and learned, mostly through failure, how to pastor a rural church.
When the time came to leave the Merrill church, I once again asked that question: to whom am I being called? I wondered if God had released me from my call to the rural church, but a quick flirtation with a more urban/suburban church convinced me that I was still called to the rural church. I accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Omak where I currently serve as pastor in a time of transition for the congregation.
Now, this is all good biographical and historical detail about my call, but it does not explain my sense of call. Perhaps the easiest way to describe my call to the rural church is that I it is where God has placed me. In both of my search processes I was always surprised at how many rural congregations were interested in me. Ultimately, many, if not most, of these congregations made the call that I was not a good fit for them. I know that, as a pastor, I am something of an acquired taste.
I find my joy in the church in preaching and teaching and struggle with the administrative and pastoral care aspects of the pastoral life. I work hard at preaching and teaching because I love the people I serve and I make valiant efforts at administration and pastoral care. Both the congregations I have served have been patient with me in the midst of my struggles, and for this I am very thankful.
As a pastor who is an acquired taste, I have found the rural church is more forgiving. Merrill put up with a few years of me figuring out exactly what is it I do for living. Omak has been kind enough for me to continue to define my calling.
Both of these rural congregations have been full of people who love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and struggle with the shrinking population of rural America. Poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness are palpable problems in the communities I have served. Also present, however, has been a sense that Jesus loves his congregations in the rural church. It is Jesus' love for places few of us could find on a map that has led to my love for the rural church.
The rural church is really different than the church in other environments. First, there are fewer interests competing for the time and energy of the congregation. Second, the rural church still struggles with issues of attendance and finance, but these challenges are on a much small scale. Finally, the rural church is more in touch with the predominantly agricultural images of the Bible. I do not have to spend a lot of time describing to people in the rural church that sheep really are pretty dumb. They know this because they have been around actual sheep.
Rural life has many advantageous, but it is shy of ideal. Regardless, the rural church is in need of good pastors who find their call here. Too often I have observed pastors in the rural church who have settled for it while they wait to find something else. I am not one of these. The rural church needs pastors who are called by God to lead in smaller membership congregations nestled in smaller communities. It is God's call on my life and ministry. Of that I am certain.
My greatest hope in my current call is to continue to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the various people groups of Omak. My major frustration comes from a lack of technique and tactics to get the Gospel out faster to people who are being lost in the depths of hopelessness.
In the end, my call to the rural church is simply that; a call from God to serve the Church in rural settings. I do not know how long I will be in this current phase of my pastoral ministry, but I am glad for the time I am given.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Yes, I am a young pastor

This is my first time to sit with one of my questions from the Presbytery of the Pacific's examination for a little while longer.  In my last post I mentioned four such questions.  Today I will be exploring question #1:  Since you have been ordained for only five years, what has this transition been like for you?

True life confession time:  I am a young pastor in just about every sense of the word.  In just over five years of ministry I have served two congregations.  All that equates to not much time in the pulpit and not much of a variety of experience.  Also, age wise, I am considered a young pastor at 35--despite our Lord and Savior giving his life for us and for our salvation, as tradition holds, before this age.  Compiled on top of all this, I look young, or so I have been told.  I was told that this will be blessing later, but can be a drawback at the present time.
All of the above is just to say that I understood why I received a question like this, even if I was not prepared to answer it on the spot.  What I had prepared for were questions regarding my various theological positions.  What I actually received were questions regarding my ministry.
So, what has this been like for me?
In a word, challenging.  When FPC Omak began this process I was convinced that it would be brief and that I would skillfully lead the congregation to my predetermined conclusion that we would just swap the sign for ECO and move on with our life.  It would be a simple switch without much pain.
My youth was on full display in my approach in the early months of our process.  I wanted to define who we were as a congregation and then use that to determine our best fit (which I was already convinced was ECO).  What transpired was a good lesson in humility for me.  I learned that the congregation I serve is not confused about who it is--not even the slightest.  Some of our official language (e.g. our mission statement) is lacking, but the sense of identity of the congregation is firm and firmly grounded in the Word of God written.  We are people who put faith in Christ front and center and follow the Holy Spirit as we seek to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of the community.  There is room for improvement on this front (some will say a lot of room), but that is who FPC Omak is.
It also became clear to me in the course of our process that ECO was not a good fit for me or for the congregation.  The thing that disturbed me most was the continual top-down approach of ECO regarding its formation, despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary.  When the Fellowship leadership made wholesale changes to the Essential Tenets document in the Theology section regarding the doctrine of election without consulting the membership, I became greatly vexed and disillusioned by the new body.  Further, ECO seemed to have a focus on large suburban, urban and ex-urban congregations and FPC Omak seemed outside of its wheelhouse, so to speak.
Further, as we began to explore the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), I learned that I had been fed a lot of misinformation about the denomination.  I instantly knew that I had found a denominational home for myself and the congregation had found not only safe harbor, theologically speaking, but also a greater focus on evangelism and ministry both collectively and individually.
The process was challenging and we have seen members leave the congregation.  The process generated stress and conflict both in the congregation and in my own relationships, both personal and professional.  For those who like to avoid conflict, this was almost an untenable predicament. Conflict has not really bothered me and so I simply needed to deal with the stress of the situation--which I handled mostly unsuccessfully, but now it has passed.
The reason for making the move was the theological unwinding of the PC(USA).  As the denomination that nurtured me through its member congregations into being a pastor continued to walk away from the unique Lordship of Christ and downplay the authority of Scripture, I knew that I would not retire as a PC(USA) Teaching Elder.  Much like my seminary experience, either I would go now or I would go later when it was more difficult.  My response was to go now and trust that God would lead us all through, which, of course, He has.
I am sure in my rambling response now and then, I have begun to answer this question.  As we complete the process I may revisit this.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Brief Review of My EPC Examination

It has been one week since I was received as a teaching elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church's Presbytery of the Pacific.  I went into my floor examination down in Orange, California, at the interesting independent Covenant Presbyterian Church [not a member of any presbytery, though it has called an EPC pastor].  I could fill a number of paragraphs describing the location, the overwhelmingly loving hospitality I received there (with Elder Dave Bishop) and the prayerful tone of the proceedings, but it let it be suffice to say that it, in the words of my little Marian, made my heart happy.
I was given James 5:16 as my text to give my sermon.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
My sermonette (five minutes) concentrated on Christ overcoming both the evil we do (sin) and the evil that befalls us (sickness) on the cross .  The righteous person, then, has power in prayer because Christ, the Righteous One, is our intercessor.  As the Church, the community of Christ, his bride, we confess our sins and pray for another for healing because this is the way of Christ.
Following my sermon, I was asked four questions, each of which will be a blog post in the coming weeks.
  1. Since you have been ordained for only five years, what has this transition been like for you?
  2. Explain your sense of call to the rural church.
  3. Tell us about your commitment to Calvin's lectio continua preaching style.
  4. What has been most challenging to you in ministry?
I look forward to exploring these questions further through the blog in the coming weeks.
Long story short, though, I was received as was the congregation pending our dismissal.  The Session, our negotiation team and the Presbytery of Central Washington still have work to do as we move toward dismissal, but we are moving and the end is in sight for this process.  Praise the Lord.