Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Our Changing Calls

Is it possible for a pastor’s call to evolve over time?  How about a congregation's mission?  Most definitely.  That's really what this blog and this website have been all about.  In this day and age, it is rare when a pastor stays in the same setting for the entirety of his or her career.  Most pastors will move to another church at least once, and some do it many times. In other cases, we might  find ourselves moving into different types of ministries, often serving God in places beyond the parish.  And in my case, I moved from life as a parish pastor into theological education and then back again.  It has been a most unusual and rewarding journey.

Churches themselves need to face the changing dynamics in the local community and the way faith is viewed and lived out in a world that doesn't always value God's teaching and very often plays by a different set of rules.  We are in the process of finding ways to be God's ambassadors in a 21st century world, often with fewer resources, fewer members, and limited opportunities in our rural contexts.

After graduating from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, I served congregations in Vail, Iowa and Worthington, Minnesota. Both churches were full of faithful, caring people who loved the Lord and had a heart for mission and ministry beyond the walls of the church building.  Looking back, they were patient teachers who helped me understand the importance of sharing Jesus’ love in contexts where hard work, faith and family connections were both valued and essential. They reminded me that regardless of the size of the congregation, most ministry is very personal.

After 17 years as a pastor, I was invited to serve as Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry at UDTS, where I had the opportunity to share my pastoral experience with men and women who were learning to become leaders in the church. I was privileged to be involved in theological education during a period of incredible transition in both the church and the academic world.  Part of my calling was to help interpret the needs of the larger church through the lens of one who had been there. Through it all I never stopped being a pastor and after twelve years and hundreds of students, a strange thing happened – I felt that God was calling me to go back out into the church to practice what I had been teaching.

I am now serving as Senior Pastor and Head of Staff at the Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a dynamic congregation that straddles both rural and suburban contexts. And every day when I go to work, I am grateful for the lessons I learned along the way. The experiences of my earliest congregations are still formative for me as a pastor.  And I am still a teacher, just as I was at UDTS, but in a context that requires me to practice what I teach and not just lecture about it. Although the church is a very different place today, those basic lessons first learned in the seminary classroom and now practiced in the congregational context, are as relevant now as they were then.

No call stays exactly the same for very long.  How is your church changing?  How is your call evolving?  How can you as a leader and your church as a representative of Christ, reach out into your local community in more effective ways?  Those are questions that every rural pastor must face as we serve God in this rapidly changing world. Change is not to be feared or dreaded.  The fact that our churches are not the same as they were in the past does not mean that we cannot be effective in the ministries we now have.  Helping our members realize that change represents new opportunity rather than an attitude of decline is the first step in developing a new sense of identity and purpose, both within the congregation and to the larger community as well.

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