My wife Beth doesn’t write regularly, but when she does, KA-BLAMO!
Read this. Or get a punch to the throat.
My wife Beth doesn’t write regularly, but when she does, KA-BLAMO!
Read this. Or get a punch to the throat.
It took me longer than I expected to get to this part.
I was super excited to move back to the St. Louis area. Which is weird. I hadn’t really lived in the St. Louis area since January of 1996 when I left for the Army. I lived with my mom for about nine months in 2000 between coming home from the Army and leaving for college, but the minute I arrived from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I had plans to leave for Springfield, Missouri.
This time was different. I wanted to come home and stay home, though I knew that the likelihood of that happening was slim in the itinerant life of the United Methodist pastor. But at least I’d be in Missouri, right? Which is better than Texas. But for one whole year, however, I’d be in Saint Louis.
I was excited for several reasons. First, I’d be close to my family and and some of my long-time friends. I was excited about getting to know my sister and her husband better, as well as building a good adult relationship with my brother (he was twelve when I left for the Army). Second, I was excited to be back in my home Conference. I had a contentious long-distance relationship with the Missouri Annual Conference, specifically, with the Gateway Central District Committee on Ordained Ministry. Long story short, When I left for Texas, I wanted to establish a better relationship with them since I was going to be so far away for so long. They didn’t seem to care. At the end of each of my first three annual meetings with them I had asked for a mentor, or at least an official lieson to the DCOM. I was turned down every time except for my last where one of the Elders on the DCOM volunteered to be an unofficial mentor to me. Then after one year she was appointed to a district on the other side of the state. The reason they gave me for not giving me a mentor or lieson was that since I was pastoring in Texas, I would have a mentor in Texas…even though I wasn’t going through the ordination process in Texas.
This was a sign of a big problem.
At the heart of my request was a desire for a relationship with the people who were charged with guiding me through answering my call to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.
They couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around anything beyond the simple function of the ordination process and their codified role in it according to what was written in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the Journal of the Missouri Conference, and their own District policies.
Deep down inside — and all over my outside — I am an idealist. I believed, and still believe, that the heart of a healthy church is open and honest self-giving relationships. Any church that doesn’t know this, accept this, and strive for this, is a dead church walking.
A few days after Beth and I arrived in Saint Louis, I was commissioned as a provisional Elder. This is kind of like a pre-tenure status as a pastor in the UMC. The next step was to work toward full ordination over the next two-plus years. This process is a big deal. So much of a big deal, that the Book of Discipline dictates that the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is to appoint an ordination mentor to me to guide me through this last part of the process.
For the entire time — 18 months — that I spent as a commissioned Elder in the United Methodist Church, I did not have an ordination mentor. There was supposed to be a guy in charge of that; he never returned my calls or emails.
So there was that.
Anyway, my first year in Saint Louis was also my last year in seminary. Perkins School of Theology requires a comprehensive internship for its Masters of Divinity students. I took the nine-month option. I had to write a ridiculous number of reflective papers and verbatims about different ministry events. Each one was to be submitted to my mentor pastor (who was the lead pastor of the church where I was interning) so he and I could discuss them. And we did that. Mostly. I was also supposed to preach a minimum of four times and design and lead worship twice. I had to develop a program, or something, and do that.
I’ll be honest. It was a shitty internship.
Now, I have to pause a minute and reflect on what I should write next. This is hard for me. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ll make excuses for others much more readily than I’ll give explanations for myself. I read something once by a famous biographer that went something like this: I write my story as honestly as I can. If you don’t like what I write about your role in my story, then perhaps you should have been a better person in it. So, here goes…
For a year, I felt unwanted and useless. Many times, I felt like a joke. Three months into my internship, I was having suicidal thoughts and was acting in a self-destructive manner. One evening, after a particularly hard day, after everyone had left I collapsed sobbing on the floor in the middle of the office. When I brought up how awful I felt about myself, my internship mentor pastor didn’t get me help but suggested I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor. Or, at least, that’s what I remember about the conversation; I was pretty fucked up.
In the first month there, I was told by the lead pastor that he had forgotten that I was going to intern there until a few days before I arrived in Saint Louis. I take some of the blame; I didn’t do anything to remind him, (even though they were preparing a parsonage for me and Beth…). But it never got any better. I felt like an outsider on the staff. One time, during a staff devotional, I pushed back on the lead pastor’s interpretation of scripture. I didn’t know that wasn’t acceptable. The icy silence that followed was message enough that I was expected to agree with what he said. I hated staff meeting. I did’t have anything to do that mattered. I had little for which I was solely responsible, so I had nothing to contribute.
I lobbied for more responsibility, but was never granted it. For Easter, I directed traffic. For Christmas, my job was to light a candle. It was embarrassing. I didn’t go to seminary to be an acolyte just like I had been when I was in elementary school. So I passed candle duty off to one of the greeters and went and bought a snow shovel. I shoveled the entire parking lot during the last three services. I wanted to feel useful, and that’s the best way I could fulfill that need that night. I don’t think anyone missed me. No one on staff noticed I was gone, or what I had done instead.
I helped with the youth. I helped with the college ministry. I helped with the children’s ministry. I was never allowed to take charge of anything in these areas.
They let me do announcements once in August. I prayed and read scripture once during Advent after being told I’d be doing it every Sunday. I presided over the table a few times when the lead pastor wasn’t there. I never once baptized, though I did every pre-baptismal pastoral care visit. The majority of the time, however, I was a professional worshipper. I went to all three services. Every Sunday. Sat in a chair. And did nothing.
I preached no more than my minimum four sermons: Labor Day weekend, the Sunday after Christmas, Superbowl Sunday, and the Ash Wednesday. For those not in the know, those first three are the worst attended Sundays of the year. I was told by the Board of Ordained Ministry that I needed more practice preaching. I didn’t get it that year.
I did start a once-a-month Taize prayer service. It was supposed to be my project with the help of the worship director. I could never get the worship director to work with me ahead of time and so every month it became this mess of last minute panic-driven preparation. The last one we did, the worship director assured me that he had done the publicity part to let people know about it. He didn’t, and no one showed up.
Seriously, it was just the two of us and the musicians. I made sure we did it anyway, because, dammit, I wanted to worship.
I didn’t know the rest of the services had been cancelled until I approached him two weeks later to get the next one lined up. He told me that he and the lead pastor had made the call a week prior to cancel the service. They didn’t bother to invite me into that conversation.
Here’s my deepest secret about the internship: the last two months I stopped writing my papers to see if my mentor pastor would notice. He didn’t. He had started canceling our meetings and then canceling our rescheduled meetings. So I stopped writing. I passed and graduated.
It wasn’t all bad. I made some amazing friends, met good and faithful people who were members of the church, and had some unexpectedly brilliant and transformative moments of ministry that I’ll never forget (I now know the answer to the Kobiashi Maru of seminary: What do you do when someone asks you to baptize their stillborn baby?). After my internship was over, I was able to start liking the people I had worked “with” and now count them as friends. Most of them, anyway. I think it was a very dysfunctional work environment and everyone was having a shitty time. It kinda makes it hard to be nice when you’re scared or angry every day.
That year hurt, because I was in a very vulnerable place and was looking for a few wins. Texas had been demoralizing, and I thought this would be the start of everything getting better. Instead, it was a year of being kicked while I was down.
My internship was just part of the awfulness that went on that year. In the next post, I’ll talk about the most horrible person I’ve ever met and becoming the infamous “Boy Who Said No.”
I’ve been putting off writing about this part of the story.
It brings up a lot of feelings. Mostly bad ones.
When I left off, I had just become a freshly certified candidate for ordained ministry on the Elder track in the United Methodist Church on my way to seminary at Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. I had my licence to preach, which gave me a peculiar status of being neither a lay person nor a clergy person. I was a pastor, but not ordained. My authority to do pastory things came from my District Superintendent who I suppose got his authority from the Bishop (who got his authority from a line of bishops going all the way back through the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church, or depending on whose story you believe, thought the Greek Orthodox Church). What I gained was the authority to order the local church to which I was appointed, to preach and teach, to equip the laity for ministry, and carry the vision of the congregation (things I had when I was a lay missioner supply pastor). I also gained the authority to priside over the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, the sacramental ritual of the marriage service, and presumably, the rite of confirmation (there were no children of confirmation age in either of the two churches I first served so I don’t know for certain), but only within the scope of my appointed ministry area.
As an aside, I was not permitted to preside at my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding without a fully ordained minister from the UMC or another denomination present to say the magic words at the end because neither my sister or my brother-in-law were members of my congregation. However, I could have done the wedding if they came down to Como, Texas and we did it in the sanctuary of where I served. I still feel like I’m going a little crazy if I try to explain the theology of that.
Now, it’s easy to gripe about the very difficult time I had in Texas and I’ll try to refrain. However, there was quite a bit of dissonance between what I felt called by God to do and the ecclesiology and polity of the United Methodist Church. Seminary exists largely to train clergy to do pastory things. I took clases in church history, biblical studies, theology, preaching, worship, pastoral care. polity, and doctrine. It made me an academic “Master” of pastoral theology. However, it never failed that I would be criticized by ordained clergy for speaking (and thinking?) like I was educated at a seminary. I felt like the secret message was that they wanted us to know our stuff so we could argue with conservative clergy from different denominations, but at the same time, they were warning us not to actually try to press our congregation members to expand their understanding of God beyond that of the pop theology of Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen.
Additionally, as a licensed pastor I had to be a part of a covenant group of other licensed pastors mentored by experienced Elders. In these groups we discussed the more practical aspects of day-to-day pastoral ministry. However, it was not uncommon that they devolved into bitch-sessions regarding the ordination process. Our mentors sympathized with us, but also offered weak arguments in defense as to why it was the way it was. A lot of time, energy, and money went into turning lay people into ordained clergy.
What we learned, mainly, was how to be in charge of a church while receiving a minimum compensation package and a health and retirement plan while calling it being a servant. What we learned was how to do theological gymnastics to hold together being a the CEO of an organisation which was to server as a dispensary of religious goods and services, and call it kenosis — or self-emptying. We were expected to grow worship attendance by the power of our will and charismatic influence, through dynamic multi-media preaching and professional worship shows, relavent programing and outreach schemes, to bring people into the church to get to know God-who-became-man who would likely never participate in such a spectacle.
There seems a lot of people in positions of power within the church saying, be like Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Mark Beeson, and these guys, and not a whole lot of modeling after Jesus. Not to say that pastors who are successful at growing worship attendance aren’t Christ-like, but their leadership styles look more like that of successful CEOs than a homeless wandering carpenter or his most well known follower, a transient tent-maker.
There are several things that occurred in Texas that set my mind toward examining how the church does church. First, was in the context of my appointment, the second, in my coursework.
Regarding my time at the church, it simply came down to money. Como, Texas was the poorest city in Hopkins County. The median household income was around $35,000. Usually that was combined incomes. Average rent was around $600 a month. Most of the homes were tiny and poorly maintained by the two or three landlords in the area.
In contrast, I worked as a half-time student local pastor and had a $36,000 compensation package. I lived in a 1,900 square foot home where I didn’t pay rent and the church paid my gas bill and all maintenance fees. Beth made just about as much as I did in take home pay at her full-time job, which effectively raise our household income to twice the median income for the city. I reckon that made us one of the richest households in the city.
I just want to point out that my compensation package was the minimum allowed by conference polity.
That’s not the whole of it. What really bothered me was that my $36,000 compensation package made up more than half the $63,000 annual budget for the church. The rest went toward paying the utility bills and maintenance of the church building, the multi-purpose building, and parsonage; Conference apportionments; and the salary for our piano player. By the time it was all said and done, there was very little money left to do actual ministry. There was no budget for mission, for VBS, for children or youth ministry. There was a very dedicated group of women who funded the children’s ministry out of pocket and Beth and I funded the youth ministry.
The church spent the majority of its money on its pastor and its buildings, not on the mission of the church.
The second factor was my schooling. I had some brilliant professors. From Ted Campbell and Billy Abraham I learned about the history and theology behind a brilliant lay movement called Methodism. From Elaine Heath came the spark of renewing the church in kenotic, non-institutional means. Both Dr. Abraham and Dr. Heath, in particular helped shape my understanding of salvation as a process of catechesis in community. Theirs were the two voices in my seminary wilderness that helped me see different ways of being the church. The New Day Community is a chief model for Simple Church.
Anyway, I spent a lot of time during those four years very angry and frustrated as a subject of a system with which I did not agree with its means nor its goals, but had no other options presented to me on what it meant to be a pastor or to do pastory things. I just wanted to live out my gifts as God called me to do. But I had to do all this other nonsense that had nothing to do with the gifts the Spirit gave me, the work God called me to do, and really, little to do with being a member of the body of Christ, which is the church.
That’s a bit of a simplification, but I’m tired, and this was taxing to write.
I have a feeling, this next part will be the hardest. The events that happened during my first year back in Saint Louis lead me to leave the United Methodist Church. It may take me a few days to get myself jazzed to write about it.
Even from the very beginning I didn't like being called pastor.
I remember a conversation with my District Superintendant after about two months pastoring Fairview United Methodist Church. She called to see how things were going. After chatting a bit, she asked if there was anything wrong. I said no. She asked me, why, then I hadn't deposited any of my pay checks?
Last night we talked about hospitality. The hospitality is defined differently here but with the same goal. It is the warmest and most loving community. It was so hard to walk away from kids that you can't talk to besides through body language - yet we had a whole conversation. I feel like the changes and goals I had set for myself for this trip were reached with in the first few days...then they were exceeded.
Even from the very beginning I didn’t like being called pastor.
I remember a conversation with my District Superintendant after about two months pastoring Fairview United Methodist Church. She called to see how things were going. After chatting a bit, she asked if there was anything wrong. I said no. She asked me, why, then I hadn’t deposited any of my pay checks?
I loved preaching and leading worship. I just felt really weird getting paid to do it. (The conversation got even more awkward when she found out that they were paying me $100 a week when the agreement was for $125 a week.) I loved feeling needed and appreciated for what I could bring to the church community. I had wanted that from a church for a long time. It was enough for me. But I agreed to actually deposit my paycheck from then on.
Churches are weird, however.
Turns out that sometimes, a young single pastor can have other expectations put upon him by some of his congregation members. Like, date the recently divorced daughter of the Church Council chair. I asked the DS about how to handle that one. She told me to play dumb and never get caught alone with the woman. That lasted for a while until they figured out that I was playing dumb. Long story short, there was an attempted coup to get me kicked out as pastor. It didn’t help that the former pastor, who resigned before he could be removed, was trying to get back the church through nefarious measures, even though that’s not how United Methodist polity works. This is the cliff’s notes to the story, there was a lot of other really weird stuff that went on, but it ended with an ultimatum from the DS the Sunday after Easter in 2004: Agree to be moved to another church, or quit. So I agreed to move.
The week after Easter, I found myself as the pastor of New Salem UMC just north of Springfield, Missouri. The former pastor had reduced their numbers from about thirty to around three. I got it back up to seventeen. Go me. It wasn’t hard, I simply didn’t turn every sermon into a diatribe against homosexuality in a church where the most faithful leader was a gay man.
Where my first appointment had a lot of passion, just misdirected, this second church had very little passion at all. I think they were just…beat down. They were tired. They were very patient with me and let me do all sorts of new stuff. I did the stations of the cross with them on Good Friday. We worshiped outside once (kinda). They let me bring the Wesley Foundation to lead worship one morning. They put up with my awful guitar playing. We studied what it meant to be a United Methodist. They even agreed to do an evangelism event. But nearly all of it was driven by me. I could get folks to go along with me, but I could never get anyone to take the lead or come up with their own ideas. It drained me dry.
So I quit.
I was a inquiring candidate for ordained ministry by this point. I was going to go to seminary. I had been a pastor for two years. I had been the pastor of two churches. I had never been a particularly faithful lay person. Plus, there was another question I needed to answer: Did I love the church, or did I just love being in charge? So Beth and I co-taught Sunday school for high school freshman. I was a youth group sponsor. I went to church every week. I was in a men’s group in the Wesley Foundation. I was a participant–not the leader–of a couple of Bible studies. I did mission work.
But I still felt called to do something more. I wanted to teach. I wanted to encourage others. I wanted to baptize. I wanted to preach and prophesy. And the only logical thing to do all of these things together in the United Methodist Church was to submit myself to the ordination process.
As a side note, my ordination mentor was going through crisis of call. he left the ministry when I left for seminary. I valued my relationship with Stewart, but I wonder how his own personal struggles with ministry affected me. I knew he was frequently angry and frustrated with his church, his community, and the hierarchy of the UMC.
One more thing: though my time as a pastor in those first two years was rough, I had the support of a great community of believers in the Springfield Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist college ministry. I still hold true that best I’ve ever seen the UMC was in the life of the Wesley House. It was neo-monastic before neo-monasticism was kinda cool. Communal worship, rule of life, covenant, community meals, ecumenical prayer nights, worship nights, mission work, leadership that was raised up from within according to spiritual gifts….I hope that Simple Church one day grows into something like it. It wasn’t perfect — anything with people in it rarely is — but its the closest I’ve ever been to what I think church is supposed to be.
The next post is about the longest four years of my life.
When I was 18, I joined the Army. In March of 1996, I was in the Basic Parachutist Course (a.k.a., Airborne School) at Fort Benning, Georgia learning how to safely leave an airplane at mid-flight. One Saturday morning I took a mile-long walk to the area of post where the movie theater, library, Burger King, and arcade were located. Along the long stretch of road I was walking were the 250-foot tall towers, the swing/land trainers, and another training/torture divice of which I have long forgotten its name.
It was a quiet morning, like most weekend mornings on a military post, as most of its residents are still sleeping off their hangovers. I was too young to acquire alcohol on my own and I had not made any friends who would buy me anything. I woke up with the sun and had nothing better to do than to go to the library. There was no traffic, foot or wheeled. It was quiet, a little cold, and very windy.
The week prior I had suffered a slight injury on the swing/land trainer, when I stepped off of the 12-foot high ledge, and my instructor let go of his end of the rope on the pulley system that was to slow my fall. he was frustrated at the clumsiness of a young soldier who had — only eight weeks prior — had been living several years in a 215 pound body and was now trying to figure out how the brand new 165 pound version worked. When I hit the ground like a sack of shit and found I couldn’t climb the stairs back up to the platform, I had, in effect, failed the second of three weeks of “jump” school, dubbed “tower week.” The Army doesn’t like to be or seem inefficient, so I was “recycled” into the next class which was a week behind the class where I started.
During my recovery time, I spent a lot of time in my bunk with only the Gideon’s New Testament and Psalms to read that the church patriarch, Ray Hodge, had given me before I left for Basic Training. Though I was baptized as an infant in the United Church of Christ, had attended Sunday school and was in the children’s choir in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, and had been confirmed in the United Methodist Church and was part of the adult choir, it was the first time I had read the Bible without the prompting of a pastor or Sunday school teacher. I made it through all of Matthew and part of Mark. I then flipped to the back where there’s a pre-written “sinners prayer” and a place to sign your name as a commitment to Jesus. So I prayed. And I signed.
That was three days before my Saturday walk to the Library. As I was walking along the desolate path, with on the red and white 250-foot towers in the distance for company, I heard a voice. It said clearly four words:
Kurt, be a pastor.
At first, I thought that someone had come up behind me and was trying to get my attention, but I was alone. There were no vehicles to be seen in any direction; it couldn’t have been the misinterpreted words of a song on a car stereo. I had no framework by which to interpret these four words. I went to church for social and communal reason, not because of particularly spiritual ones. So I did with it what my brain is particularly good at; I stored it away for later use. My mom says she remembers me mentioning it in passing while we were on the phone later that week. But not much came of it for seven years.
I’ll tell you the next part of the story tomorrow.