In preparation for pastoral ministry, I spent time reflecting on the vitality of the sacramental life of the church and the importance of visiting the elderly and shut-ins. One of the practices I have always wanted to incorporate in my ministry, which I had heard that some pastors do, is to share the Lord’s Supper with these folks. After all, as many persons get more aged and fragile and eventually come to a time when they are unable to physically attend and participate in the worshiping life of the church, then that’s when it becomes time for the church to care for those and make their attendance and participation possible in another way.

This is but one key way of making our ministry an Incarnational one. What do I mean? Reflect on these words of the liturgy of The Great Thanksgiving – “…Pour out your Spirit upon us gathered here and on these elements of bread and wine; make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood…”

The sacraments express the goodness of the physical, created order as God has established these elements of nature (water, bread, and wine) as the means by which God communicates God’s love and grace with us. Just as we were unable to attain eternal life where there will be a heavenly banquet and God took on flesh in Christ’s body to make that possible, so also we ought to take Christ’s body and proclaim his suffering, death, and resurrection with those unable to come and feast with us in the sacrament.

So I shared my desire to do this practice with the churches, and they were all for it! They gave me names of people who have been unable to attend, especially those members in rehabilitation facilities or nursing homes. I began practicing this last month and have found myself blessed beyond measure in the experiences of sharing the church’s sacramental life with them. Let me tell you why…

On one visit as I was going through the liturgy and began to serve an elderly gentleman, he raised his hands and began to cry. As he partook of the elements of the Supper and tears were streaming down his face, all he could say was, “Praise God!” I got choked up in that moment and became a witness to one who was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and had dedicated decades of his life to the kingdom of God in Christ’s church.

This is what Carrie put above the cabinets in our kitchen at the parsonage. I love it and a few of the people in the churches have said how much they like this. We hope our home is a place in which bread is regularly broken and our lives and stories are shared.

But beyond these moments of the actual partaking of the broken bread, I’ve been able to “break bread” with them on another level; that when one “breaks bread,” she is sharing some asset or possession of hers with you. This other way I’ve broken bread with the folks I’ve visited is through sharing stories and lives. And though I may have shared a couple of my own stories with them, I’m more interested in hearing theirs. Stories from a man with Parkinson’s who served as a fighter pilot in 3 wars (WWII, Korean, Vietnam), who, after his first wife passed away, rejoined with his high school sweetheart who was also widowed and learned the joy of marriage once again. Stories from a 97-year-old lady who was reading Scripture as I walked in and she began to share with me about the lessons she learned of having a good work ethic, building a loving home, and the pride she had in her children’s lives, one of whom was a United Methodist pastor in a neighboring state. Stories from a man, whose wife attends church regularly and visits him, who decades ago lived a handful of miles away from my hometown working for a few years before making his way back to Camden, and has known the joys of married life for 70 years.

I encouraged the people at my churches to visit just one person a month to “break bread” in this way. To ask to hear one story of their upbringing, of their travels, of their children’s livelihood, of lessons they’ve learned somewhere along the way; and maybe every once in a while, share a bit of their own stories and there will have been an experience of mutual blessing in this “breaking of bread.”

Caring for and visiting those who cannot care for themselves…this is (part of) what it means to be the body of Christ. “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

“We’ve got too many pastors serving 3-point charges in this conference…” a Bishop was quoted as saying in my United Methodist Polity class in seminary. The statement continued, “…the church they used to serve, the church they’re appointed to now, and the one they want to be appointed to next.”

The professor used this line as a way of discussing boundaries within pastoral ministry; that you do not (or at least should not) converse much, if at all, with parishioners who used to be under your care and/or are being served by another pastor now. There is great wisdom in this statement, though it is all the more challenging now in the age of social media where networking with friends and acquaintances who live a few hours or half the globe away is possible through venues like facebook, twitter, and so on.

While the statement that led this post off is certainly true of some who have been entrusted to lead in the United Methodist Church, it is my hope that it does not mark the attitude of many or most. Call me naïve, and maybe you’re right, but the fear that some other pastor may be “out to get me or my [current or desired] appointment” feeds a profound, even if subtle, sense of mistrust among United Methodist pastors.

Still, maintaining healthy boundaries is important during the steady or growing seasons when there is neither a need nor desire for a change in pastoral leadership of a charge, but I echo the suggestion Joey Reed, the pastor who preceded me at Liberty & Post Oak UMCs, has made in calling for more transparency when a transition is projected. (You can and should read his side of the story here.) It’s been four weeks since I’ve moved into the parsonage & charge he previously inhabited. I’m not sure where I’d be if it weren’t for his helpful responses to the many questions I raised in preparation for moving into pastoral ministry.

Handing off the baton in a relay requires keen timing, vision, and trust between relay partners. Listen to the way Gail Devers describes it about 20 seconds into the video of this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQCi3mayB3Q The implications abound for how this is analogous to changes in pastoral leadership. (Photo credit: blog.orgsync.com)

Yes, this is my first appointment, and that means that there were fewer responsibilities on my part as I wasn’t saying goodbye as a pastor to another congregation, though saying goodbye to our friends at Nicholasville UMC was difficult and tear-filled. Since I didn’t have the same sort of duties that most other UM Pastors have who go through the process of saying goodbye to one charge and hello to the new one, my preparation looked a little different than most. Still, I had in the back of my mind the territorialism I was warned about so often during my education. Therefore, I proceeded with caution when I approached Joey with a few questions about the Liberty and Post Oak churches, to which I was projected to be appointed. I even asked for forgiveness in advance if I happened to overstep a boundary.

I didn’t know Joey before my projected appointment but I had actually encountered his name before. I had been living in central Kentucky for the past decade before moving back to the Memphis Conference. I confided in my college roommate and longtime close friend (a United Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Conference) that I was pursuing re-entrance into the ordination process (another story for another day) in the UMC and hoping for an appointment in the Memphis Conference, in which I was raised as a child and youth and was previously a certified candidate for ordained ministry. Upon sharing this news with my friend, his wife said, “Oh, my cousin’s husband is a pastor in the Memphis Conference!” That cousin’s husband was…you guessed it, Joey Reed.

So I knew his name, but I didn’t really know him, so (again) I proceeded with caution. When I first made contact with him via email, he promised to be as open as he could, with obvious exceptions like maintaining confidentiality of conversations with parishioners where it was expressed or assumed. Needless to say, I was very relieved to have his promised candor, and he did not disappoint as he followed through in that regard. He and his family even opened up the parsonage for my family to view and measure each room. This was very helpful for my wife, an avid planner, who did a blueprint of each room to be able to plan out in advance how to arrange the furniture, etc. This brings up a significant issue in pastoral transitions and how more transparency can help: the role of the pastor’s family and the changes, emotions, and expectations they experience along the way. Joey’s family made us feel right at home as they sent pictures and measurements, opened their homes, and even gave gifts to our kids (ages 5 & 2 at the time; think about how much that meant to them!).

Most of my questions were logistical in nature, trying to get a sense of the way things were run at each congregation, the time of the services, how structured the liturgy was at each church, etc. We didn’t discuss personalities or mention names, except to point out the names of people in certain positions of leadership at the churches. But the questions I asked that required the more lengthy discussions (where he writes we had to take some breaks for meals…lol!) were the ones about the direction and vision of the churches. Now, these conversations should always take place between the new pastor and her/his congregation(s) and I would need to hear these matters from the folks at the churches themselves also, but knowing that Joey was transitioning out of Liberty and Post Oak on good terms made the dialogue appropriate, in my view, as he gave me some perspective in preparation. (Obviously, the pastor leaving on “good terms” is not always the case, so practicing discernment on which questions to ask and which to wait to ask until arrival is obviously significant.) That Joey left Liberty & Post Oak on good terms has had the blessings of being able to be more prepared, even if that meant more challenges in filling the shoes of one who was so well-liked by the people. I experienced and witnessed that he was beloved by the congregations in several ways and I especially saw this at a reception, a meet-and-greet of sorts for me and my family at the churches where both his family & mine were in attendance. I had already been told of the abundant hospitality of both the Reeds and the churches. When I experienced it firsthand and saw his encouraging them to warmly welcome us, that meant the world to me.

But even if you’ve read Joey’s previous post and if you’re reading this thinking I’m being too naïve and that little if any of this would work in many situations, would you please incorporate one thing into the life of your church the next time you are in the midst of pastoral transition? Please pray for the incoming pastor, by name, in the service, every week from the time when the projected appointment is made until the new pastor moves into the pulpit. As helpful as Joey’s transparency and the churches’ hospitality was in preparation for the move, these prayers were the most important part and gave fuel to the process that made my transition as easy as it could be. We Methodists believe in prevenient grace…that God’s grace has gone before us wherever we are. But belief in prevenient grace also includes the notion that God’s grace is going before us wherever we will go next. Once the projection of a transition has been made, as long as you’re alive and conscious there’s nothing (except your own will and pride) that could prevent your prayers for the new pastor and his/her family in the transition that lies ahead of them. And maybe, just maybe, if we genuinely lift up to God in prayer those who are heading our way, we might find that our hearts will be moved to make the landing strip a little more smooth than what has been the norm and fewer batons will be dropped.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

John Wesley wrote these words of the succession of the leadership of Israel from Moses to Joshua. In my sermon preparation last week, that statement caught my attention. I love that the hands pictured above are holding a cup. You can see the lifetime of the usefulness of these hands; hands that are continuing to be spent, even as they wither, in the most sacred of activities. These hands have been useful not because they have been on display, but because of what they have done and displayed for God and for others. These hands have been useful because they are the hands of one whose life has been spent in serving, not being served.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

From what I was told, when Papaw died he was found with three fence posts in one hand and the hammer he was using to drive them into the ground in the other hand. Papaw’s hands were calloused from hard work…good work…the holy work of tilling the ground, caring for God’s creation, and giving back to God what was already God’s and to neighbor what was needed. As I observe my hands while typing, I notice my hands are far less calloused and in need of being strengthened for the holy work still to be done in my life for God and those around me.

“Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.”

The burden/cup of leading God’s people to the next level was passed from the most useful, tried, and trustworthy hands of Moses into the younger hands of Joshua who dared to trust that God would do what he said he would in bringing them to a land he had promised long ago. Many of us have a great inheritance of something done by the most useful hands in bringing us out of difficult situations into just within grasp of something greater than what our ancestors ever could have imagined. May we respond with boldness and trust like Joshua who was told, “Be strong and courageous…for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Sunday was my first go at leading Post Oak & Liberty in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was really enjoyable to be able to guide the congregations in confessing sin and repenting, declaring the good news of forgiveness in the name of Christ, and expressing tokens of reconciliation as Christ would be present in the meal we shared together.

As I am in the midst of a series on “New Beginnings,” I read the Scriptural text of Luke 24:13-35, where the story of the walk on the road to Emmaus is recounted. Jesus joined two disciples who were walking along still puzzled by the events that had taken place, primarily of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus and the alleged report that he was alive again. The new beginning for these disciples was that Christ led them out of confusion into clarity of the identity and mission of the Messiah, who had to suffer before entering into victory (24:26).

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But even as their eyes were beginning to open and their hearts were burning within them, they still were unable to fully recognize Jesus until they had invited him to share the evening with them and after he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.

This Scripture passage leads quite well into the liturgy of the Service of Word and Table found in the United Methodist Hymnal & Book of Worship. The liturgy begins: “Christ our Lord invites…”

This notion of invitation is central to this passage of Scripture as well as the liturgy of Holy Communion. When we hear and read the story in Luke’s Gospel, our ears and eyes are alerted to the fact that the disciples urgently invited Jesus to stay with them in Emmaus and have fellowship rather than continuing on the road without them (24:28-29). But while the text speaks of their invitation, in reality and underneath the surface we can read that Jesus was inviting them all along. He met them on their road of confusion, disbelief, and despair, and opened the Scriptures (and their minds) to the reality of the suffering Messiah who would conquer death by death in order to bring the hope and promise of the resurrected life. That long walk down the road when Jesus revealed to them the nature of his Messianic role of rescuing us from the grip of sin & death was preparing their hearts, minds, and eyes for what they would behold later that day in the breaking of bread.

This is a great example of what John Wesley was speaking about when he wrote of prevenient (or preventing) grace. That is, God’s grace goes before any response or action we take in inviting Christ into our lives and living out his mission in the world. We love because he first loved us. We invite because he first invited us. “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another…”

As I officially embark upon pastoral ministry in the next couple of weeks, I decided to launch this site as a means to promote and share with you what has been and will continue to be shared with me (see tagline at the top referring to 1 Corinthians 11.23).

I am in awestruck wonder at the grace that God has given through Christ to me in my life. But because God’s grace is a gift, then I am not the proprietor of it. I am beckoned and charged to share that grace generously with those with whom I come in contact throughout my life. That’s what the theme centered upon at the Memphis Annual Conference this year, which concluded yesterday in Jackson, TN: “Extravagant Generosity” (see image below).

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At the conclusion of the conference, Bishop Chamness declared the fixing of appointments for the 2012-13 year, which means that my charge to pastor Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in Camden, Tennessee for at least the next year (and hopefully longer) is finalized. Immediately before the sending forth, those of us who have been appointed to pastor throughout the Conference covenanted together in declaring our vow to fulfill the call laid upon us. In this covenant we recited the Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.Amen.

I’ve said this covenant prayer in multiple services before this Annual Conference, but yesterday it took on a profound new meaning and I had a six hour drive home from Jackson to Nicholasville (where I’ll be residing for 12 more days before we move to Camden on June 19) to reflect upon the significance of this covenant and (God knows) where it will lead me. The first line sums it all up and brings our hearts and minds to the realization that we are not the proprietors or rightful owners of anything, including and especially the ministry to which we have been called. I am no longer my own, but thine.

We are, at most and at best, stewards, even of the grace that God gave in rescuing us from sin & death. Whatever we receive from the hand of our loving and almighty God, it is in order to give or pass on, not to hold up for ourselves. If you read the entire context around 1 Corinthians 11.23 (go back to verse 17 and read through verse 34, or read it here), you’ll see that stewardship and sharing is at the heart of the community meal we know as the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. St. Paul was aware of the lack of stewardship in the Corinthian church such that folks were hoarding up, consuming all the bread and drinking all the wine, leaving some without. Paul encouraged them (and the Spirit through Paul’s words encourages us) to follow his own lead by passing on what was passed to him. I am no longer my own, but thine.

It is true that I cannot share what I have not received. But if I do not share what I have received, then I will only bring judgment upon myself and others will starve. God, be merciful unto me where I have failed in this and enable me to give generously the gifts and grace you have entrusted to me! I am no longer my own, but thine.