Please, just let me read!

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Catching up on reading while on vacation — I HIGHLY recommend this wonderful book by Union Presbyterian Seminary’s 2017 Sprunt Lectures guest preacher, Rev. Otis Moss III (be warned, it can be a conversation starter!)

As a pastor, one of my least favorite questions when meeting someone new (outside of church) is the incredibly predictable, “What do you do for a living?”

When I was in seminary, I tried to drag out the response — “I am in school… in Richmond… studying religion… no, not at VCU or University of Richmond… at Union Presbyterian Seminary… yes, I am going to be a pastor.” Almost immediately, the new acquaintance would either walk away or launch into a confessional statement about why they don’t go to church anymore, or begin apologizing for a recent joke (which I laughed at), or their language. It gets old, very fast.

Now that I AM a pastor, I just jump on in with feet first and admit to it. The response is usually very similar. I have no problem with that, especially if they walk away and I was in a hurry or enjoying alone time. This is exactly why I figured there would be no problem sharing my profession when on a recent vacation (because who really wants to talk to a pastor while they are enjoying a poolside meal and drink?).

I couldn’t be more wrong.

I quickly learned a great deal about the people I was relaxing and swimming with as soon as they found out that I am a pastor.  I heard the story and fears of one individual who feels he might never be able to return to church because of his past;  the young mom who feared this would be the final family vacation because her child will likely run away when they return home;  the couple who still mourns the tragic loss of their oldest child but celebrates the milestones in the life of their youngest. Our first-name-based friendships grew quickly as we floated for hours, pondering the realities of life and affirming both hatred and love of God. We ate meals together and even danced together. We parted ways, grateful for the conversation, and with no way to connect beyond our small piece of paradise.

Early into the experience, I not-so-jokingly told my husband, “From here on out, I am a middle school teacher. That is it.” He wondered why, and as I explained that I just wanted to be on vacation and leave work behind, he helped me to remember that I can’t do that — I am someone who loves and cares for people in God’s name, and that can’t be left behind.

And that, my friends, is what it boils down to.

As pastors, as congregational leaders, we are called to love and care for all of God’s children in all times and spaces. Even on our vacation when we want to cry out, “Please, just let me read!” Even if it means losing a BINGO game because you were distracted.

We never know who we will meet, and we never know what their story will be. We can ALWAYS know that the individuals we meet are beautiful children of God, and we are called to share God’s love and grace with each and every one – those who are hurting, those who might never set foot in a church building again, and those who want someone to celebrate with who hasn’t yet heard their story.

I imagine I learned of the heartbreak and celebration filling the hearts of the other vacationers because I was unknown and we were all far from home.  I imagine I was seen as “safe” for those who couldn’t relax until they released some of the weight they had been carrying around.  I celebrate every lost minute of reading and swimming, because through each individual I spoke with, I saw a glimpse of God’s beautiful Kingdom taking form.

That is the beauty of being a pastor. That is the incredible struggle of being a pastor. That is why pastors NEED to make sure they take time away to refuel.

Loving those we know is challenging enough.  Loving those we have just met and might never see again is even more challenging.  God has called us to do this for a reason, though.  I pray that each of us is able to take these glimpses of the Kingdom and find more peace there, than in our poolside reading.

But please, take time with that book gathering dust on your shelf and go catch some Vitamin D!

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

“What Are You Building?”

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself thinking back on a mission trip that  I took as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. While Union does have an incredible travel seminar program, those trips are not actually mission trips. Every few years, however, we do send a group of students on a fantastic spring break mission trip!

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My first view of Haiti

During my final spring break in 2014, I travelled to Haiti with five other students and our leader.  I could go on for hours about what an incredible experience it was, but the thing which has been sitting with me lately was not the actual trip, but rather the perception of our trip when compared to other groups who were also traveling  to Haiti for the purpose of mission work at the same time.

I remember sitting in the terminal in the Miami airport, waiting to board our plane. Looking around, almost everyone at our gate was part of one of the many larger mission groups, all wearing brightly colored t-shirts with various scriptures referenced on them. Most of those groups were composed of white, English-speaking, and seemingly well-off individuals. I bring this out because this is the ONLY time I have seen such an overrun of the “minority” for the country I was heading to, sitting in the airport terminal waiting to board.

Excitement filled the area as youth and their leaders talked about what they hoped to see and do while in Haiti. Groups began to talk to one another, comparing projects and missions. Another “twenty-something” took a break in his group conversation to ask me, “So where will you be working?” I was initially caught off- guard because he knew that I was on a mission trip, but quickly realized I shouldn’t be surprised. I explained that our group was going to play with children, mostly through an organization that served children with disabilities.

“Oh.  So, you aren’t building anything?”

                “Relationships…”

                “No, like actual building. Who are you saving?”

In that moment, I realized exactly what I dislike about mission trips – groups of individuals going to “fix” life for those who “don’t have” what the group “has”.

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Playing a game of soccer with local children.

In preparation for this trip, the group of students from Union read the book “When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself” (Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert). We spent a great deal of time talking about why we weren’t going to be building or passing out Bibles – because before we tried to take what we knew as “right” in our own homes, we needed to learn what was “right” in their home. I remembered the time I travelled to Mexico, moving from laughter to a form of lament as I reflected on how our group actually slowed the work as we took time to learn what to do and then completed the tasks incorrectly, leading to more time being spent as the locals repaired our work.

The lesson I quickly learned…not every mission trip brings a team of needed individuals, or the completion of needed projects.

I am by no means saying that every mission trip is not needed or hurts more than it helps. Many mission projects ARE needed, however they are not always the exotic trips that we seem to love so much. Rather, many of the most appropriate trips for these week-long travelers could be the local ones within our own communities and country.  Sorting donations at the food bank, helping communities to clean up after floods and hurricanes, or taking care of those “small” tasks which might be preventing others from completing the “hard” tasks might actually be more valuable.  (This was our goal in going to Haiti as we held babies and played with children so that their caregivers could focus on the other work needing to be completed).

I do not mean that we should end all global mission trips – we can and do learn a great deal about God’s children and creation as we travel and find ways to work beside one another. I do think that we would do well to have discussions with our youth and volunteers as we prepare to travel about the needs and our real goals, and even again as we return from our various mission trips both locally and around the world. We must strive to understand those we seek to assist rather than merely deciding what we think they need. Further, ALL trips regardless of location, should be planned and led in conjunction with individuals and organizations who truly know the community being served, and the most appropriate ways to ensure that they are cared for in the most appropriate and helpful ways.

 

Reflecting on my time in the airport terminal that day, I wonder how the Bibles and physical labor were received from those giving groups we met that day – I pray that their work and words were both needed and received in a way that changed every life involved. I pray the same of our own work and time spent with the children throughout that week. Mostly, I pray that as each of us looks at ways to serve God’s children both at home and around the world, we LISTEN to God’s direction and we strive to learn what each person really needs, and not simply what we think is needed.

What types of mission trips does your congregation take?
How do you prepare individuals for these trips, and reflect upon returning home?
What is the ultimate goal of the trip?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Redefining Membership

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How many organizations are you a member of? A quick flip through your wallet, and you will likely find several different cards representing different types of memberships.

In today’s world, it seems that membership has brought on a new meaning. We no longer regularly enter into membership through a series of promises and initiation – we buy into it. For $40 each year, a person can be a member at Sam’s Club or Costco. For $150 each year, a family can be a member of a museum. For $350 a year and up, a fan can buy into the membership branch of their favorite sports team. It seems that anything worth being a member of, comes with a price tag.

Looking at the multitude of membership opportunities around us today, I wonder if these might be among  the reasons that membership in our congregations is changing. Those who visit, even regularly, might wonder “how much is it going to cost me?” when they ponder becoming a member. Further, they might wonder what they are getting beyond Sunday morning for their money. It is a sad state of affairs, however I fear it might be a small piece of this very abstract puzzle.

As I travel around from one congregation to another, I have begun to look at the different requirements of members and the ways that members are categorized. In some cases, it seems that if a person comes to worship twice they are automatically a member… they just haven’t signed the dotted line yet. Other times, it seems that a majority of people gathered are regular visitors who have yet to be invited to join or share in the ministry of the congregation beyond Sunday morning. Then there are those occasions when a person is a member, however their membership seems to be ignored because they have not yet “bought in” financially.

There is no question about it — membership is a riddle and it seems that no one has the answer to it, and with that reality in mind I want to take a risk!

What if we changed the requirements for membership? What if instead of looking only at our Sunday attendance as a basis for how many active members and active visitors there are, we looked at the whole of our ministry? What if we remembered that more important than our membership in a congregation, we are all a member of the Body of Christ and began to minster to one another and our communities in that way? This is not to say that we should not expect for members to fill vital roles and contribute financially to the ministry of the congregation, but maybe that should not be the main focus and reason for bringing in new members.

I regularly hear stories about a group of people being involved in one or two ministries of a congregation, “but they don’t attend on Sunday.” Does this mean that they are to not be considered in the same way as the individual who IS a member but “only comes on Sunday”? What about the non-member who has attended, volunteered, and even helped to lead different ministries but has chosen not to become a member for any number of reasons?

I fear that too often, we put too much weight on this single number. Incredible ministry opportunities are placed on the back burner because of a “lack of numbers”, possible volunteers are ignored because “they can’t be relied on”, and individuals feel excluded and eventually leave our congregations all because a formal promise in a formal setting has yet to be made.

This summer, I encourage you to take a fresh look at those gathered in the pews and in the classrooms, on the buses and around the campfires. Who would not be there if we limited our ministry to those who paid their yearly subscription fee? What ministries would not occur if we checked for ID at the door each week?

The only membership, that I am aware of, mentioned in the Bible is our membership in the Body of Christ. What would happen in our congregations if we made that membership our focus rather than our yearly subscribers and card-bearing members?

How does your congregation define membership?
Who is being excluded by this definition?
Who might be included if the focus, instead, shifted to members of the Body of Christ?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations