Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Today ends my first year, of a three-year “Certificate in Spiritual Companionship with Practicum in Daily Life,” at St. Thomas University (for more information, https://www.stu.edu/theology/programs/spiritual-companionship-certificate-program).

This year’s focus was on Christian spirituality, faith development, and the basics of Spiritual Companionship (also known as Spiritual Direction).  Starting next fall, year two will focus on the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.”  The third, and final year, will focus on the actual practice of being a Spiritual Companion/Director.

Some enroll in this program simply to deepen their own spiritual practices.  Some do so to enhance the ministries they’re already doing.  Some will actually become professional Spiritual Companions/Directors.

But, what about me?  Why am I, after 24+ years of ministry and two seminary degrees, taking a course in Spiritual Companionship?  For several reasons….

One, I love learning, and felt like a specific program would be good for me.  And, a program focusing on prayer and spirituality was very attractive.

Two, though I’ve never technically been a “Spiritual Director,” I feel like I’ve done a lot of spiritual direction in my ministry, and would like to do it better.

Three, my current ministry role is not nearly as personal as previous ones have been.  As the “senior” pastor of a large church, there are more administrative responsibilities, less one-to-one contact, and fewer opportunities to be in ministry with parishioners more personally.  Hopefully, also offering the ministry of Spiritual Companionship/Direction will help me find balance in my ministry role and my pastoral calling.

What is Spiritual Companionship/Direction?  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a trained guide, who assists a spiritual traveler on their journey toward knowing Christ, and themselves, better.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a listener, an encourager, a resource, a fellow-traveler.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is not a therapist or an advice-giver, or even necessarily a pastor.  The task of the Companion/Director is to know Jesus, and to walk beside, pointing the way, for another to discover Jesus and themselves.

As I come to the end of this first year, one particular thought has become clearer to me.

Though I met Christ as a teen, at a Christian summer camp, I didn’t really begin my spiritual journey until I graduated from college.  But, then, my life turned in a surprising direction.  Almost as soon as my spiritual journey began, I sensed a call to ministry.  Within months, still early in my spiritual development, I became a youth director.  Before I read most of the Bible, or understood much about Christian theology, I was enrolled in seminary.

From the beginning, my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry have been intertwined, as if they were one in the same.  Though we never discussed this in class, I’ve recently realized, more clearly, that my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry are three distinctly different things.  Though they’re interrelated, and overlap, they’re not same.

My spirituality is not dependent on my calling or my ministry.  My calling, though important, is only one aspect of my spirituality.  And, my ministry is simply the context/role where I strive to be faithful to my calling and my spirituality.

Too often, I’m guilty of conflating the three.  Many pastors do.  We act as though our primary duty is our ministry role and responsibilities, sometimes losing touch with our actual calling, and treating our spirituality as an afterthought, or something we do to fuel our ministries.  But, that’s backward.

Spirituality – meaning a growing relationship with Jesus – has to be first, even for ministers (I would argue, especially for pastors!).  Pastors may have abundant knowledge of theology, Bible, and Church management.  But, if they don’t have an active, personal, current relationship with Jesus, how can they lead spiritually?  If my role and calling are to lead people to Jesus, to grow in spiritual maturity, to discover their callings, and to know Jesus personally, then all of those things must first be true in me!

How can a pastor offer something he/she doesn’t have?  And, knowing Christ and myself is the goal, whether I’m a pastor or not.

I value my calling.  I’m committed to my current ministry role and performing it as faithfully as I possibly can.  But, both are secondary.

My spirituality must come first.  Knowing Jesus must come first.

That’s true for me.  That’s true for you.

 

Unpredictable paths…

Unpredictable paths…

“History unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths. We have little control over the future; and none at all over the past.”  Winston Churchill

This week, I’m visiting Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela), Guatemala, speaking to English-speaking Middle and High School students at the Inter-American School’s Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The Inter-American School is a private, Christian-based, English-speaking school.  But, the students (mostly Guatemalan) come from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds.  This week, I get to tell them about Jesus!

The reason I’m this year’s Spiritual Emphasis Week speaker is, my daughter, Malinda (Miss Rains, to her students), is the IAS art teacher.  And, I’ve never been good at saying “no” to my daughter!  Actually, I wouldn’t have said “no,” anyway!

As I was about to speak to the students, this morning, a thought crossed my mind…

“How the heck did I end up here???”

How did a 50-year-old gringo end up telling a bunch of Guatemalan kids about Jesus?

To many who know me, the answer might seem obvious…

  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala.
  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala, because she went on a mission trip to Guatemala, with her mother and me, when she was in high school.
  • We were on a mission trip to Guatemala, because I’ve been leading mission teams to Guatemala for years.
  • I’ve led mission trips to Guatemala, because I met a missionary, working in Guatemala, in 2007.
  • I met a missionary in Guatemala, because I was a campus minister at Florida State University, looking for a place for my students to serve internationally.
  • I was looking for a place for my students to serve, because I was impacted by a mission trip to Mira Flores, Mexico, when I was 22-years-old.
  • I went on a mission trip to Mexico, because I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and the trip was already planned.
  • I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director, because I had just (VERY UNEXPECTEDLY!) felt like God might be calling me to become a pastor, and the Youth Director position became (unexpectedly) vacant at the same time.
  • Before that, I had recently begun attending FUMC Orlando, AND LOVING IT.  Before that, I had recently graduated from college.  Before that… well, lots of things happened!

Looking backward, of course I ended up here, this week, doing this.  But, if you told me, when I was in school, that some day I’d be visiting my adult daughter, in Guatemala,  telling Guatemalan kids about Jesus, I’d have laughed.  I didn’t know much about Jesus, and I couldn’t have found Guatemala on a map!  My family didn’t go to church, nor did we travel internationally.  I studied German in High School, because I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak Spanish (even if I never came to Guatemala, living in Florida, Spanish would have been a LOT more useful than German!)

How, on earth, did I end up here, now?

The truth is, even if you’re never invited to speak to kids in Guatemala about Jesus, most of us end up in different places, doing different things than we ever would have imagined.  We set goals.  We make plans.  We have dreams.  But, life usually has unexpected twists and turns, altering the course of our paths in surprising ways.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly.  He delights in every detail of their lives.  Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”  (Psalm 37:23-24)

“This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow.'”  (Isaiah 48:17)

How did I get here?  It’s God’s fault… or blessing!  I choose to believe the latter.  And, I speaking of choice, I believe our choices also have a lot to do with where we end up.  In fact, I increasingly believe that every choice we make – every step we choose on our journeys (including choices ignorantly chosen) – have a lot to do with what steps will follow.

So, that’s how I ended up, sitting in my daughter’s classroom, this morning, and I’m so thankful!  I never would’ve predicted it, but I’m so thankful for it!  And, I can’t help but wonder what this moment of my journey will lead to next!

So, where are you this morning, what are you doing, and how did you get there?

And, I wonder, what’s next for you?

 

To love and be loved…

To love and be loved…

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”   St. Augustine of Hippo

As I was praying, this morning, I sensed God saying, “Your calling is to love and be loved.”

When I “hear” things from the Lord, in prayer, I’ve learned to simply receive, as humbly and gratefully as possible, without too much skepticism, over-confidence, or over-analysis.  I try to be equally open to the possibility God has actually spoken to me, and that I might just be talking to myself.  I try to pay attention, listen, and receive.  Time tends to reveal what is of God, and what isn’t.

But, this morning’s word, “Your calling is to love and be loved,” feels like something God would say.  I wasn’t praying about “my calling.”  The words just came.  When a word comes, that clearly lines up with Scripture and Truth – like the Great Commandment, say – why wouldn’t I accept the possibility God has spoken?

But, God took it further.  As I heard it and received it, I first assumed God was talking about people – love and be loved, by people.  Let’s be honest, that’s not always easy.  Some people are easier to love than others!  And, some days, I don’t feel very loving.  But, God wasn’t talking about people.  He was talking about my relationship with him.

My calling is to love God, and be loved by God.

That probably sounds pretty obvious.  Truth usually does!

My calling is my vocation, my life’s purpose, my destiny.  My calling is how I am to use my time, energy, talents and abilities.  My calling is giving all I am to all God has given me to be and to do.  My calling is my first priority.

So is your’s.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”  (Matthew 22:37-38)

I think it’s easy to forget that.  If we care about love, and I think we all do, I suspect most of us focus more on how much, or how little, we love or feel loved by others.  And, if we don’t love, or feel loved, by people, we might assume God doesn’t love us much either.

We might wonder why certain people don’t, or can’t, love us.  We might show love to others, and feel rejected when they don’t love us in return.  We might try as hard as we can to love certain people, and feel like failures when we don’t.

But, if our first love is God, and we allow ourselves to be loved by God, the degree to which others do or don’t love us becomes less important.  If we can grasp how much God really loves us, that’s enough.  Thankfully, others – some others – will love us, too.  And, that’s wonderful.  And, I truly believe God often loves us through the people who really love us.  But, dare I say human love is just a bonus, if we already know how much God love us?

And, if I really love God, in return – with all of my heart, soul, and mind – am I not more capable of loving the people God loves?  Do I not have a greater capacity to love as God loves, even if they are hard to love, or don’t love me in return?

If my first task is to love God, and be loved by God, and I am faithful to that task, won’t my heart gradually become more and more like God’s?

As I pastor, I think about my calling a lot.  Calling is a pastor’s modus operandi.  But, I tend to associate my calling, primarily, with a particular role, or place, or mission, or set of pastoral tasks.  Those are not insignificant.  They are part of how one responds to a particular calling.  But, I am realizing they are secondary.

My primary calling is to love God, and be loved God.

St. Augustine writes,“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” 

I suspect love is your calling, too.