So, now I will be a United Methodist Pastor. Just like that, I have been sent. Here’s how it happened.
…which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10
It’s a beautiful, sunny and warm afternoon on the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Our 2017 Session of The United Methodist Church New York Annual Conference is going well, and it’s wonderful to have a few spare moments to enjoy the sun and to reflect on the day – the day when our new Bishop affirmed my appointment as a District-hire Student Pastor at South Meriden Trinity United Methodist Church.
It is a time of joy, of humbling gratitude, and of preparation for the next step in a forty-year journey of responding to God’s call to ordained ministries. I’ve been pretty cautious about sharing this part of my journey up to now, because it is a time of transition from a church that I have loved serving passionately, and a time when I must be respectful of the process of transition for clergy entering their new assignments.
And, to be honest, I don’t want to boast about this. As the New Testament letter to the Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s good workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
So being called into this ministry by our church clergy is not about “winning” something. It’s about becoming who God intends us to become, on a path that is still unfolding. I am called to be sent into service to a community, like centuries of Methodist circuit riders before me. I can think of no higher privilege than to be a circuit rider, even in this provisional role. It is deeply humbling.
I am reminded of of the Horatio Hornblower books that I would read as a boy. C.S. Forester’s novels follow Hornblower’s rise from being a lowly British navy Midshipman on early 19th century tall ships through a remarkable career as a navy officer. In the first Hornblower book that I read, Hornblower and the Hotspur, he is given a field promotion to captain of a captured ship to take it to a safe harbor. My appointment is kind of like that – a new career is starting due to unexpected circumstances.
The circumstances of getting this appointment were far less dramatic than a sea battle, but God’s miracles come in their own beautiful way. It was a kind of gloomy, damp Friday in late April at Yale Divinity School, and I was feeling the emotional, spiritual and mental crunch of trying to finish major papers, classes, and projects all at once. As I was studying, I missed a call on my mobile phone, and read the transcript of the message on a break a few minutes later. It went something like:
Hi, John, this is Ken Kieffer, I am leaving the cabinet meeting, and we just finished our last appointments of the year, and you’re one of them, if you’re interested. Give me a call.
Reverend Ken Kieffer has been our Connecticut District Superintendent for eight years, and he makes recommendations to our NYAC Bishop’s cabinet on the District’s intent to hire provisional local pastors, for appointments that cannot be filled by ordained or licensed clergy. As I watched the appointment announcements fly by in my computer inbox early this year, I was not at all sure that there would be anything for a student pastor – I was aware of only two churches that it might be open, and they seemed to be unlikely candidates. When I called Ken back, then, I was very pleased and surprised that he was offering me an appointment to South Meriden Trinity UMC, in Meriden, Connecticut. I had preached there once before as a Certified Lay Servant, and I had enjoyed serving them.
I wanted to say yes immediately, but I told Rev. Ken that I would speak to my wife and to God in prayer, and get back to him within twelve to seventeen hours. I talked it over with my wife and a trusted friend, and it was clear that God was already talking to me about it anyway in my prayers. When I mentioned it to some trusted classmates, one said, “Well, now you have your OWN church!” Quietly, and calmly, and with a grateful smile, I responded, “No, I don’t.” I didn’t have to say the rest – I am just a servant in Christ for Christ’s church.
The main feeling I had was…peace. A peaceful joy.This was the path to which I had been called.
Saturday morning, I got up, prayed on my knees for a while, and texted to Rev. Ken:
Okay, let’s do this.
The next few days went very quickly, as I prepared for exams and crunched out the last papers of the semester. At the end of the week, I met Rev. Ken in South Meriden, where he briefed me on the details of the appointment and the hiring procedures. We moved up the street to meet with the church’s hiring committee. The interview was short and went well, and then Rev. Ken and I went out to the hallway while they deliberated.
It was then that Rev. Ken asked me, “Well, what do you think? Is this a match for your call?” I was taken aback for a moment, as I realized that it is up to those sent into a ministry in the United Methodist tradition to affirm that this appointment matches God’s call to them. We are a sending church, and I was deeply humbled to realize that I was now a part of this ancient Christian tradition, which honors the authority of the Holy Spirit that moves people into apostolic ministry in Christ’s church.
Soon afterwards, we returned to the church’s meeting room. I affirmed my acceptance of the church’s sending as a match for my call from God, the church members affirmed that my being sent was a match for their call. Rev. Ken smiled, and then said almost immediately, “Congratulations, Pastor John! What would you like to be called?”
I was rather humbled by the whole experience, and startled that it had moved so quickly to deciding what I should be called by my new parishioners. It’s a bit like getting married and realizing that you are now in a covenant relationship that changes who you are. The path that God prepared beforehand was now becoming our way of life, together. “Pastor John would be fine,” I said a bit sheepishly.
Rev. Ken took off, and then I had a tour of the church with the committee members. It is a beautiful church, and I will be telling you a lot about it in the weeks ahead, so I will save those details for later. We said goodbye to one another warmly, and I found myself in front of a building that was now the seat of my charge to serve God’s church. I walked quietly past it, honoring our tradition of keeping a respectful distance from our new congregations as Pastors until we begin our duties.
And then I began my first prayer circle around the church building and its neighborhood. I prayed for the homes and businesses and schools that I passed. At our conference this week, our Bishop has been emphasizing to newly appointed Pastors that they are not appointed to church buildings, they are appointed to the communities in which those buildings are a base of operations for Christ’s church. I couldn’t agree more – and I hope and pray that this will be true for South Meriden Trinity.
There is far too much going on than I can relate in just one blog post. And, although I now have this new charge, the main thing that’s changed so far is that I have this wonderful new name tag for the conference with a red tag holder – the sign of a provisional clergy appointment. I had registered for the conference as laity, and now I have a new role. No mantles, no stoles – just the grace to have been sent, and the affirmation of our clergy. And for today, that’s a joy that is profound beyond belief.
There are far too many people to thank, and they are all wonderful children of God, though my special thanks goes out to Rev. Ken Kieffer, who saw in me the readiness to respond to my call through this sending, and to the people of South Meriden Trinity UMC and their community, who I am now so delighted to be serving. I am joyful that I can now serve them alongside the remarkable clergy of the New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. To God be the glory in all things.