Young Pastors and Ambition – My Confession

Opening issue, from a Facebook friend: My heart is heavy today for the young pastors of our church who have passion, energy, conviction, talent and deep calling and are told (not so much by words but actions) “wait your turn and when you’ve proven (e.g. behaved, towed the line, made your mark) yourself you’ll move up…”. Church, I’m not sure they’ll be with us long enough for us to see where God is calling them to be.

My response:

There are a lot of quick answers one could make in this conversation, but I would like to gather some more information.
Who is not being given a chance?
What is their passion which is not being utilized?
Why are they making plans to exit?
Will the exit truly lead to a better place for ministry?

I can only speak of my own experience here.

1. I’ve been a full time UMC clergy my entire working life – 36 years now. In my youth my values were hard work over a foundation of ambition. I envied others and what they had. I coveted their churches and resented anyone who received what I perceived as “the good churches.”

I was married to someone whose values were similar. Achievement and honors were necessary to prop up self esteem and hold back shame. After 23 years of struggling to be good enough and successful, our marriage ended. I couldn’t provide her with what she needed to feel good about herself.

At age 61, I’m old enough to call that ambition a sin in my life. I deeply regret my desire even now to compete with others and win over them on the field of battle to win the Bishop’s favor.

I’m ashamed of the anger I still feel sometimes when I read over the list of new appointments … because I am not receiving that place of honor. It embarrasses me now more than it torments me.

2. I think that I understand the feeling expressed by the young, the middle aged, and the older clergy, that they have been “passed over” and their talents unrecognized and unrewarded, especially by those in power.

This offers a prime opportunity for those in authority: sow kindness. Recognize and affirm the good in people around you. And for me, could I refocus my attention from the hierarchy above me, and focus on the people around me (who are my appointment) and begin to recognize and affirm the good in them? Sow, reap.

3. A few years ago as an antidote to my coveting and ambition, I began praying the Wesley Covenant Prayer on a daily basis. It will change your life.

Not as a challenge but as a sobering word, if you think your current assignment is the result of the hierarchy blessing their cronies, handing out the best jobs to people whose theology they like or who suck up to them, and consequently depriving you of greatness … you may be right. People are fallible and denominations are political entities.

But if you think that they are Lord over your life … you are in need of a paradigm shift. There is a reason why you are where you are … be a part of the vine (John 15) and be fruitful there.

Jesus is Lord; he is aware of the appointment list.

Vines do not leave. If you’re in the ecclesiastical rat race, you’re not being a vine. Vines do not spend much time on resentment, but rats can rarely think of anything else. After most of my life trying to be a successful, popular and highly admired rat, I consciously decided to try to be more of a vine.

Specifically, I spent an entire DMin course seeking God’s will and trying to determine if it was God’s will that I remain in a denomination that is so highly distracted, almost ADD, with regard to my core values, which are to work to fulfill the Great Commission.

My conclusion, for me: you can’t be “a part of the vine” and leave. You can be transplanted – good symbol for itineracy – or you can be pulled as a weed. But vines fulfill that old Benedictine vow of stability.

This helped me greatly and freed up a lot of energy.

4. I’m reminded of these words from Paul in Phil 4: 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.

As the years go by, these words seem to grow in power for me. I’m not there yet.

5. If you are ambitious and want recognition despite all the caveats above, I would suggest making a study of what actually causes churches to grow and also how to prevent the conflict which sabotages growth.

If God is able to make disciples that make disciples that make disciples through you, the church where you are assigned will grow numerically. This will open many doors.

There is a God given reason why you are where you are. You are not a failure because you are there, nor would it be easier or a snap if you were somewhere else. Put your hand to the plow and tend your own field is the best advice I could give myself or anyone.

Again, these are the sermons I give myself. I am sadly an example of what I warn against.

6. A ommentor shared about the difficulty of moving from parish appointments to special appointments in teaching in higher education, back and forth. My reply:  I can see how a special appointment would certainly raise difficulties. I’ve been very candid above about my covetous ambition, which was primarily resentment for not being sent to the coveted church appointments – a serious ego problem.

When I set aside my ego and review my seven placements since 1980, however, I am astonished at how well these appointments worked for me. I had influence on two of them or there was some sort of tether/location restriction, and they were the least pleasant. For the other five, when I was thrown up into the wind like a feather, I landed in a place of beauty. I was sent out to places I would never have considered, or known about, and in each case it was deeply meaningful and rewarding, albeit not in a way the world envies.

I am likewise convinced that the Cabinet didn’t actually know me, personally, that well. I learned about 25 years in to speak very clearly to my DS in writing, in my annual report about my goals and gifts.

But I truly do believe that what’s been good is that God does rearrange the details for our benefit and that without knowing explicitly, the Cabinet did indeed discern for me an excellent place to live and serve each of those seven times.

I would honestly have to say, however, that I was also one who was optimistic, quick to see the benefits of a place and the people, and desiring to make the best of it. I was fiercely loyal to the church to which I was appointed. And so, I am not dissatisfied about where I’ve served; rather, it’s been a blessing to rest in the appointment system and not worrry about “my career plan” or my next promotion.

Others of course may have widely differing experiences. I have felt betrayed by a DS once, but it still did work out for my benefit. Others may definitely have been treated unjustly, and as a white male I likely have avoided some of the stress that falls on some.




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