Pastoral Care

The Myth of the Ten-Year-Full-Time Pastorate

By Rev. Mindi

I don’t know where I learned the myth—somewhere along the way in attending church in my youth to my college days and even into seminary and my first call—somehow, I believed that the average call to pastoral ministry in congregations was about ten years. After consulting with a few other seminary friends, they tell me that they also heard this myth in seminary. I believed that churches provided full benefits and adequate salary and housing that would help cover my student loans from college. I believed I would be able to have my own one-bedroom apartment and take my day off and work a 40 hour workweek.

That all changed very quickly. My first call was full-time and did offer me retirement and health insurance for me—but when I got married, not for my spouse unless I paid for it. My first call did not pay an adequate salary nor was the housing allowance enough to cover my rent—I found a house with three other roommates to split the rent four ways (I did have my own bedroom), and I was able to pay a car payment on a used car—but without consolidating my student loans I had $45 after every paycheck. After consolidation, I had $145 to pay for groceries and gas. Needless to say, I opened a credit card in order to survive that first year and a half until I received a raise. Then my roommates moved, and I had to move into an apartment with a roommate with higher rent. The debt caught up quickly.  This was all while working at one of the most prominent churches of my denomination in that state, connected to a seminary and regarded as a pillar church, a church that did not pay its staff a livable wage.  In addition, I was often working 50-60 hours per week. I was in charge of starting and building the youth group, running the church school, participating in worship and other duties in the life of the congregation. However, most of the time I did manage to take Friday off. I stuck with that, though I worked several 12 hour days during the week.

It wasn’t until my second call, just less than four years later, when I moved into a parsonage and I received a salary in which I could meet my expenses. Here, I was paid a livable wage, my family was covered under health insurance, and I worked reasonable hours during the week (40-50). In my first call I was an associate minister; in this call, I was the senior pastor of a smaller congregation.  It seemed perfect. I imagined myself there for seven, eight—even ten years. We wrote a family leave policy into my contract and I had a child. I began to work on writing in sabbatical leave, as the congregation wasn’t used to sabbatical leave before.

But even there, I ended up moving before four years. My husband received a call to a church in another state, and it seemed an opportunity he could not pass up.  It was bittersweet—a great opportunity not only for my husband, but for us as a family as I could be home more with our son—but leaving a wonderful church community and call.

To be honest, I really wrestled with leaving in this time. I felt that somehow I had failed to live up to the standard of a ten-year pastoral call. But then I began having conversations with other, older pastors and I suddenly learned that the ten-year pastoral call is a myth. And then it hit me: my grandfather, a pastor I had looked up to as the model of the perfect pastor, never had a ten-year call, either. Most of his were 4-5 year calls, several were shorter than that.  Many times it was because of unhealthy aspects of the congregations he was serving. Sometimes, though, it was because of family dynamics and choices made for the entire family.  Sometimes he served part-time congregations and did other work on the side. My grandfather had a slew of odd jobs over the years to help make ends meet at times.

I was so worried in leaving that church that I was leaving behind any chance of having a full-time, long-term call again. That somehow I would be marked by this. Thankfully, this has not been the case—in talking with search committees, most have been very understanding of the decision to leave full-time ministry to care for my child and to move for my spouse’s call.

At this time, I am serving at two part-time calls. I do not have full benefits—I rely on my spouse’s insurance to cover the family.  It is working, though it is hard to be in two places—as my husband, who also serves two congregations, can attest as well. Neither of us can envision a ten-year pastorate any more.

At a recent gathering of younger clergy, none of us saw ourselves in a ten year pastorate. Most of us were averaging a vision of about five years. Times have changed. And congregations, for various reasons, are no longer preparing for long-term pastors. It’s not only that fewer congregations are not providing full time salary, housing and benefits, it’s not only that there are unhealthy congregations that run through pastors every few years--it’s that our understanding of vocation, call, purpose—it is all changing. This is not to say pastors are still not called to congregations, but that perhaps the Spirit is moving in new ways.

It seems to me that one of the shifts that has happened is that the leadership within churches has become more long-term, fixed (even bylaws have been changed in churches I have served to allow for continuous terms), the pastor’s tenure has become shorter.  In congregations with history of long pastorates, often the leadership within the church went through periods of transformation and change. New people were brought into the lead, new styles brought on, new models tried out. Now, in my experience with congregations with shorter term pastorates, the leadership has stayed the same, but the pastor is the one who changes. Sometimes this is good; sometimes this is stagnant and the problems are associated only with the pastor.

A short term pastorate is not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy congregation or pastor—sometimes, the Spirit is doing something new, and the work that was done between the congregation and pastor needs to shift or move on. And often, in places where there perhaps was an unhealthy element within the congregation that didn’t get addressed by an interim (and intentional interim ministry is a key point that I am not addressing at this time) a new pastor is able to help the congregation move forward and become healthier, and once that new health is achieved, it may be time for a new transition, a new shift.  

Pastors are all unique and have different gifts and abilities. As the kinds of pastoral ministry change along with the settings (there is no one-size-fits-all pastor for an “average” church, as may have been perceived in the past) perhaps certain skills and gifts are needed in certain times of the church’s life, and the pastor find themselves wanting to continue to use those gifts and skills in new settings.

Pastoral ministry is changing, as much as the church continues to change, as much as pastoral ministry has changed. I’ve reflected on this before: in my twelve years of pastoral ministry, I have gone from having a cell phone as an emergency phone for my car only, to using my cell phone as a way of providing pastoral care through text message, tweeting prayers, and connecting with others in leadership. I have moved from being in the office 8-5 to being at the coffee shop in the mornings and a bar in the evenings. As the world of pastoral ministry has shifted in the past ten to fifteen years, so has the focus of gifts and skills in pastoral ministry, and so has the vision of the pastor’s role within the congregation. And while there are still full-time pastors serving in congregations 10+ years, the ones I know I can count on one hand. The myth is not holding up as it once did--if it ever really did.

What’s in your collection?

By Rev. Mindi

A few weeks ago I hosted my family reunion at my church. Over thirty people came. This was the first gathering since my grandmother’s passing back in April, so it was incredibly important for us to be together, good—and hard. I had come up with an idea of a photo collage and had family members bring photos of them with Grandma and we put them up on a bulletin board to share our memories. However, my aunts also brought several things that had been my grandmother’s that hadn’t been given away yet.

My grandmother grew up during the Depression in the Colorado plains and scarcity had been her life. From the time I knew her, her home was filled with things. Some things, like the numerous photos of all of her grandchildren, little trinkets she had picked up while traveling later in life, had special meaning for her and were precious to her.  Other things, like the closet full of canned beans she had found on sale for 10 cents each, were not. Or the bags of things she got at garage sales. They were bargains that were too good to pass up. And we understood. If you’ve gone through a time where you’ve had so little, you want to make sure you won’t go without.

By the time she passed many of her things had been given away. She had a tiny apartment in an assisted living facility, and in that apartment were photos everywhere of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also had magazines and newspaper clippings. Though she had met AJ as a baby, she didn’t get to see him again until just before he turned four years old, and he had been diagnosed with autism the year before. When we visited her, she pulled out a few magazine and newspaper clippings that she had saved over the past year about autism. To others it might have just been stuff. To me, this was precious.

So on three tables in my church a few weeks ago were notebooks, journals, boxes of greeting cards, old “peel and stick” notes, markers, Post-it notes, and other writing items. And we all remembered how Grandma would write us letters and send birthday cards with $2.00 bills in them or write us notes when we were in college. There was a table of vases and canisters and we remembered the flowers she would cut from her own garden and how she had the greenest of green thumbs—she could save just about any plant that I could kill. And on another table were boxes of books she had read over the years—prayer books and short inspirational stories. 

Lots of things, lots of stuff. By itself, it had no value. But the memories of looking at those things remind me of the importance of what we value—the memories we have of the time together, the memories of the time taken to send a letter or pick up the phone, the memory of fresh-cut flowers and tattered books read aloud.

A few of those boxes now sit in my garage for the church rummage sale. We all took something, knowing that we didn’t really need another empty journal or a vase or a book, but there was a lot left over and hopefully they will go to others who need them.

And so my black journal with my grandmother’s name written in the front, but the pages empty, are a place maybe I will record other memories. It reminds me of the green dress that hangs in my closet.

The green dress was given to me by a woman I’ll call Ev. Ev was a member of the first church I served as an associate and as I was leaving to become the senior pastor at another church she entered hospice. Ev was the one who called everyone in the church. Ev was the one who knew everything about everyone, but not in a gossipy way. She sincerely wanted to know.  The last time Ev was in the hospital and I went to visit her with a friend, she told us about how the ambulance had come to get her, and she told us the ambulance driver’s name, where his kids went to school, who his favorite Red Sox player was, and many other details about him. She then stopped and looked at us and chuckled. “Some people collect things. I collect people.”

When I visited her at her home in hospice, she asked me to go back into her closet and look for this particular green dress she had bought but never worn. It definitely was not made for my height, but I have kept it and even worn it on occasion, thinking of Ev and her wise words.

I think my grandmother was the same way. Though she had a lot of things, the most important thing she collected was people, even if most of them were her family.

I’ve been in professional ministry for almost twelve years, serving at four churches and as a hospital chaplain. As I reflect back, it’s not about the sermons I’ve preached that went well or didn’t go well, or the programs that went smoothly or the ones that failed—it’s about the people I’ve met on the way.  Whenever I have taken the time to have a cup of coffee with someone or visit someone in the hospital, I have gained something more. I know that when I have struggled with a church member, attempting to take the time to listen has often mended some hurt feelings and strengthened the relationship.

In the end, I hope that I look back both on my personal life and in professional ministry and think about the people I have collected on the way, more than positions that were successful or not or programs or growth or—whatever. I hope that it is the people who stay with me.

That Ministry Thing

By Rev. Charlsi Lewis Lee

Today is kind of a special day to me.  It’s the anniversary of my ordination—it seems sort of like a lifetime ago and yet, it feels like yesterday.  I remember my friend and colleague who preached a tremendous sermon.  I remember my sister dancing as my mother sang.  I remember the church in central KY that nurtured and loved me through seminary and cared for me in the years to come as well.  They were patient enough to listen to my early sermons, engage me in theological reflection, and challenge my ecclesiological understandings.  They blessed me with their presence and loved me into a ministry that has had many faces and expressions but has always been grounded in faith and shared in love.  

The other day my daughter and I swung by her dad’s house so she could pick something up for her big weekend plans.  A neighbor waved at me and I got out of the car to say “hello.”  It had been a while since we had seen each other and we exchanged the normal pleasantries.  And then, she asked me the question:  “Are you still doing that ministry thing?”  Ugh… I shouldn’t be surprised by the question because I have been asked that many times in my life.  The father of one of my friends asked me right after I had my first child.  Someone else asked me after my divorce.  And then, yesterday… Ugh, again.

I know, I shouldn’t expect everyone to be so evolved, and yet I do.  So, for the record:  I am still doing that ministry thing.  It looks different now, but ministry has never been a fleeting notion or a phase through which I was passing.  It has been the thing I love to do since the day I first spoke to my father about it at 16 years old.  

I remember sitting at a restaurant with him in the midst of our Sunday routine.  First, we would go to worship where my mother was serving. Then, we would grab lunch as my father prepared for worship at the retirement community where he served.  On this day, Dad and I were eating alone.  My sister was off at college and Mom had a meeting.  

I said something like, “Dad, I was thinking about going into the ministry.”  

He said, “If you can do anything else, don’t go into the ministry.”  

He was right.  If I would have been happy, really happy in any field but ministry, then my years in seminary wouldn’t have been very fruitful.  Ministry is what I love to do and over the years I have witnessed and understood that ordained ministry has many expressions.  It has been my blessing to experience this ministry in so many ways.  

Ordained ministry is about serving the church in everything we do.  It is about accepting a vocation that calls us far beyond a paycheck or even our training.  It is about listening to God’s call over and over again and being ready to hear the voice of God even when we believe we know better.  

I am not serving a congregation right now at least not as a pastor.  I serve as an elder.  I worship with the congregation and I help to lead a children’s worship ministry.  I get to celebrate in the pew and sometimes in the pulpit.  I preach where and when I am asked.  I have celebrated life and God’s presence in ways over the last few years that have truly surprised me.

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would spend 2 years watching the presence of God as revealed in children and young adults living with special needs.  But I am a better minister, preacher, friend, wife, parent and counselor because of the amazing love I witnessed and experienced working with this group of individuals.  I am changed forever because so many families shared their children with me.  

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would drive 100 miles once a month to join in worship with the same congregation that had been served by my uncle.  But my experience of church and my love of community have been made richer and fuller by the witness of that small community.   I am blessed today because God called me to preach to that small gathering of believers.   

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would be going to school and working as a substance abuse counselor.  Here I am, though, called to be a presence of healing and wholeness in a community broken by addiction.  I don’t preach.  I don’t teach bible verses.  I don’t sing hymns.  But I do sit with individuals, families, and groups who have known how addiction breaks spirits, ruins lives, and decimates relationships.  

I practice the presence of God every day at work.  I use the gifts I was given to share the love of God with the people who walk into the office.  So, yes, I am still doing that ministry thing.  I am still living into the vocation of ordained ministry.  I still hear God’s call and rejoice that so many people continue to nurture me in that calling.  

Church doesn’t look like it did when I was child, or a teen, or a young adult, or now as a mother of a teenager and two near teenagers.  Ordained ministry doesn’t look the same either.  But they are the same at the core because both the church and ordained ministry are about living the good news of a gracious and loving God.   

On this anniversary of ordination, I would like to say “thank you” to the people who have helped me hear God’s call most clearly—and yes, that includes the ones who have asked, “Are you still doing that ministry thing?”

God sent me an email

The healthiest, longest lived relationship I have ever been in broke up a month ago.  The breakup-with-the-possibility-of-future-friendship was put to rest this last Sunday and what I thought was a broken heart before became a wasteland of grief and desolation.  “Where is God in this?” I asked myself as I always do.  “Nowhere.” was my tear stained, honest answer.

Two days later, I spoke with a friend, an ELCA Lutheran Staff Person with responsibilities for group ministries and education.  Pastoral care was not her job description, but it was her job that morning.  I cried out my anguish, particularly at feeling so distant from God in the situation.  As all good pastors do, she sat with my pain, neither trying to fix nor mask it.  I don’t remember what she said, when she finally spoke.  I know it had something to do with prayer, because later that morning, I moved into the side chapel, lit some candles and tried to pray.  Finally, I just prayed with sobs and “sighs too deep for words.” And God answered.  From my friend’s email box, God sent me an email that said, “You are in my thoughts, and remember, you are loved by oh so many people.”  That’s all.  No prophetic word of healing, no lamentation, no parable.  Just a “You are in my thoughts and loved by oh so many people.”

Sometimes that is all God needs to say.  Sometimes that is all the church needs to say.  It doesn’t matter if we are Evangelical or Progressive, Mainline or Emergent, Shrinking or Vibrant.  Our doctrine and dogma (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter at all if we can’t sit with and be the hand of God for the hurting in our congregation. Because I am a Queer woman and my partner was another woman, I couldn’t turn to my biological family for that support.  If I had a traditional workplace, I might or might not have had friends whom it would have been appropriate from which to seek solace.  But THE place for comfort, presence, ministry is the church….doesn’t matter that she was ELCA instead of DOC….in fact, Jesus never asked for a denominational status, not even for a statistical purpose.  But, in the worst moment I can imagine, I did learn that God sends emails.

When Whistling a Happy Tune Isn't Enough

Whenever I feel afraid I hold my head erect And whistle a happy tune So no one will suspect I'm afraid.

He was much too young to die.  Only 16 months after we graduated from high school one of my best friends died when the aneurism in his brain blew while he was out with his Navy buddies enjoying an evening of leave.  The doctor said he was dead before he hit the bathroom floor in the Pizza Hut in Jacksonville, Florida.  Our crew of friends gathered on a cold, Indiana October day to say farewell to one of us.  His minister, a nice enough person, told us that if we had faith we would be rejoicing now that Tim was at home with the Lord.  I felt a lot of things in that cold cemetery, but rejoicing was not one of them.  I was scared—scared of the reality of death that was no longer an abstract thing for old people, but had taken my bud Tim.  And even more scary was the possibility that the God I thought I knew wanted me to “whistle a happy tune” instead of being a God who would meet a group of sobbing 19-year olds,  offering us comfort and peace.

Jump ahead 30 plus years, and now I’m scared of some other things.  My doctor says my weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels are all way too high.  One of the elders in the church I serve decided to be proactive and asked me to start walking with him.  We negotiate our schedules and off we go –two middle aged, overweight, out of shape guys out walking around the park.  Quite the sight –especially when we take his two Brittany spaniels with us.  While we walk we talk–talk about all kinds of things.  As we who serve the church are prone to do, I replay those conversations.  And what I keep hearing when I listen to what we really are saying is fear: Fear that the church budget numbers aren’t where they ought to be.  Fear that the ‘worship wars’ might consume us.  Fear that the capital campaign will fall short.  Fear of denominational structures that are no longer the source of strength and stability we thought they were.  Fear about the economy.  And fear about our own mortality.

While I thought I had decided long ago that ‘whistling a happy tune’ wasn’t the way to find true peace, when I’m honest with myself  I find that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time.  Believing if I thought positively enough, if I prayed hard enough, if I worked enough, I wouldn’t have to be afraid–or at least no one would notice.  Well, guess what?  EVERYONE knows!!!  They know about those things and so many more.  Fear of talking about the inclusion of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters.  Fear of conversations around the issues of war and peace.  Fear of offering a position from a faith perspective about the Federal budget mess that differs from that of the Tea Partiers.

If whistling a happy tune like Anna did in The King and I isn’t the way to go, what else might we try?  Maybe what I believed as a 19-year old.  If I’ll just admit that I’m afraid maybe I’ll hear a voice echoing through the ages telling me to not be afraid for there are tidings of great joy of one who has come who replaces our fear with hope.  Just admitting we’re afraid is the first step to begin to find some peace.  We go about our business, believing that being positive and upbeat is the way to have hope.  Maybe what we need is a hope that’s a little bigger than that.  A hope that remembers our souls are thirsty until that thirst is quenched by the God of the Ages.  Now that’s a tune worth whistling either in cold, October graveyards, or hot and sweaty parks, or maybe even in our sanctuaries!!!