“What will you do then?” was the question my Bishop asked when I said that, after thirty years of parish ministry, I was not interested in another appointment. For at least six years before that conversation, I had an unsettling call from the “knowns” of parish life, parsonages, board meetings and preaching that I had enjoyed as a first-career clergywoman. I had always wanted to teach and, while I found many opportunities in the parish to enjoy the teaching office, I was discerning a call to do that in a new setting. With research and scholars. With undergraduate and graduate students. I was being called to retool my ministry to go out into the world; specifically, the world of higher education.
So I set off on a completely new journey. A sabbatical. Not one, not two, but three years. That wasn’t the plan, but that’s how this time of retooling has unfolded. It has been a time of reflection, healing, and resting. It has also been an exhilarating time of new relationships, weekends with my family, and retooling a career of leadership, administration and ministry for opportunities to influence and shape new generations of scholars. Over these years, I’ve worked on a doctorate in educational leadership and been certified as a professional coach. In so many ways, my local church ministry has prepared me for this time to make the world my parish.
I’ve learned so much in what I call this season of “YES!” After working so hard over thirty years of parish ministry to learn how to say “No” for the purposes of delegation and time management, I’m practicing saying yes to new encounters and learning experiences. Here are just a few of my learnings in this season of “YES!”
- Set goals.
Making a transition from the known into the unknown causes you to lay aside old markers of progress that formerly helped you to measure success and growth. To retool for a new season of ministry, I had to leave old markers like the formality of appointments, charge conferences, and data reports to the informal feedback from the morning sermons or phone call about a decision I made. I didn’t realize how these markers of progress were circadian rhythms that had shaped not only my professional life, but also my physical, spiritual and relational life as well. Setting new goals with the help of a coach created new measures of movement and assured that the time didn’t feel wasted or unconstructive.
- Prepare financially.
I wish I had done this better prior to moving into this season of retooling. However, I quickly saw myself exercising my fund development gifts that I had cultivated as a parish pastor. Only now, the vision was my own and the funds developed were for pursuing a terminal doctoral degree along with my living expenses. The process of fund development including scholarships, fellowships, grants and loans provided me with an opportunity to hone my vision and practice articulating it to others.
I had not realized what a 24/7 demand parish ministry had on me physically and emotionally. As a clergywoman and single mother, my schedule revolved around the rhythms of church and young children. I had to newly discover what my schedule was while cultivating new patterns of play, recreation, rest, and relating with others.
- Be open to new communities.
Parish ministry is instant community….just add (baptismal) water. That instant community can bring safety, security, and most certainly, identity. I had to learn how to “date” new friends from new communities and become vulnerable when my identity was no longer “Rev.” It took risks and vulnerability to enter new communities-I instantly learned why it’s so hard for newcomers to come into the church.
- Be aware of the undertow of familiarity.
Just like the Hebrew people complained during the Exodus that the familiarity of making bricks in Egypt was better than the unknown of the wilderness, there is a great undertow that will try to draw us back into where we’ve been. This was especially significant during the seasons of Advent and Lent and clergy moving time. I quickly discovered that every institution has its calendared rhythms, and it has been gratifying to learn about those and find myself living those new patterns. Having covenant partners who have made these transitions in their past helps me navigate the undertows, and gives me strength to stand when the waters of the familiar tug at my feet and heart.
Shortly after announcing my call to retool my call to ministry, my 90-year old grandmother asked me, “What are you now?” She had been instrumental in encouraging my youthful call to ministry and beamed every time she introduced me to her friends as, “my granddaughter, THE United Methodist pastor.” She wasn’t the only one who asked that question, though. My daughters had never known a time when their mother wasn’t their pastor. Most of my adult friends always knew that I’d be at home on a Saturday night polishing up a sermon, instead of going out with the gang. How liberating it has been to shift the question from “What are you now?” to “Who are you becoming?” That answer hasn’t changed. I’m still answering my call to ministry for Jesus Christ, just in a new place, and in new wonderful ways.