Three Beat Up People, The Art of Discipleship, and Questions About the Pastoral Role

The Setting

On Sunday evenings, I’ve been holding a remarkably well-functioning Confirmation class consisting of several young teens, one older teen, and four adults, ranging in age from early 30′s to mid-70′s, a mixture of men and women.

The teens get drilled first. This is a “no-frills” confirmation regime: the faster they learn the material in a thoughtful, integrated way, the faster they can join the youth group which is also taking place. Once I am satisfied they’ve accomplished the learning goals for the evening, they are dismissed and we adults go into a more leisurely time of free flowing discussion that centers on the question of sanctification.

We’ve been reading CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce to give us a common jumping off place for our discussion.This past Sunday, for a variety of reasons, I just had two of the adults in class. I was extremely tired–an almost three hour finance meeting after three powerful and emotionally draining All Saints worship services had left me with no refresh time at all. I was also hungry, having eaten barely anything for lunch and breakfast by then 11 hours away.

We talked about just going home, but I decided to see if any important questions were lingering first.

To Be Real Christians

Today, I have no idea what the question was that ended up sparking a powerful time for the three of us. But we landed on the same question that had driven so much of John Wesley’s thinking, “How can we be real Christians?”

How can we indeed become so fully sanctified that all of our lives come under the Lordship of Christ? I spoke to them of Wesley’s contention that we can indeed become perfected in love and we began to address just what that means.

As with just about everyone I know, the three of us agreed that the people we have the most trouble loving perfectly are the ones closest to us. Sometimes I think that “punching one another’s buttons” should become an Olympic sport. We’ve all experienced it done exquisitely well–and we’ve all done it to others.

By then, we had started talking about Wesley’s accountability groups and the human challenges of being truly vulnerable with others. All share the same fear: “If you really know me, will you actually still love me?”

I began to speak of some of the most dark and painful times in my life, and how they had shaped me and taught me things I could never have learned firsthand any other way.

One stated, “Why is it that I cry nearly every time I’m in worship?” I knew this person’s history in a religious group that systematically demeaned people and reminded them of their unworthiness.  I responded, “I suspect you are just beginning to understand that you are a beloved child of God, that you are fully forgiven, and that grace cushions you now at every turn. Tears of gratefulness are a natural response to this.”

The other person began to speak of a friendship that had recently come along that permitted total honestly between the two of them and how that had freed them both to come closer to God.

At this point, I looked at my watch, startled to note that we were thirty minutes over the usual ending time. All of us could have continued the conversation for some time to come, but suddenly my weariness reasserted itself and we agreed it was time to close.

The Pattern of Discipleship

Later, I thought hard about the way I had just spent that hour and a half. Essentially, we were three beat up older people sharing stories, seeking the face of God in the midst of our daily challenges.

By church planting growth models and techniques, this was a poor use of my time and energy. Neither of them would ever distinguish themselves as magnets to pull people into this church community. They are not “movers and shakers” or “people of influence.” Neither has any money, so they are not going to help with financial issues. They are both quiet servants of God, willing to help where they are able, but not “take-charge” leaders nor charismatic visionaries who would invite others onto this bandwagon.

I’ve become aware that this is a pattern for me: a willingness to go deep with those who very much desire a well-integrated Christian walk. But despite the deep discipleship that is clearly taking place here, this type of methodology does not build big churches. It doesn’t attract crowds, my blogging about this brings only a few dedicated readers, and extended writings about this will hardly hit the best seller lists.

My Questions About Discipleship/Shepherding

All this has me asking questions about the role of United Methodist pastors (or of any denomination, I guess). As a pastor/teacher, clearly shepherding must be integral to my work. But if I am primarily shepherd, that role automatically slams a limit of the numbers that can be well reached by me.

The quick answer is always, “Well, you are not much of a shepherd if your groups are not multiplying. You should be creating other shepherds who will disciple their own flocks.” Yes . . . but I need to explore this analogy a bit: can a sheep ever turn into a shepherd? Can they shapeshift that way? Or could it be that shepherds are especially formed and gifted for this role?

If I understand correctly, shepherds, in the times and culture in which Jesus taught, had extraordinarily lonely and often dangerous jobs. They had to both protect their flock against multiple dangers and possible attacks, AND they had to make sure that proper nurturing took place so their flocks would have adequate food and water and and could reproduce healthily.

Shepherds had to be pretty self-sufficient and extremely watchful and wary. Surely that constant watchfulness, coupled with their loneliness, took an emotional toll of them. I wonder if they burned out, as do so many modern day “shepherds,” i.e., pastors.

Now, as to the reproduction: at first glance, it looks like I’ve just lost my argument here. But, here’s the catch. When a flock did reproduce rapidly, part of those sheep had to shifted to other shepherds because there is an upper limit of sheep that one shepherd can effectively watch over.

Size and the Itinerant Life

We live in a world where size rules. If it is bigger then it has to be better. We certainly think that about our churches. But is it? Can we really do intense discipleship with large crowds? We can certain have great programs and create lots of energy and come up with full offering plates and fabulous plans for expansion but can we shape disciples, those who will follow Jesus all the way to the cross?

I ask these questions in light of the renewed talk about itinerancy that permeates much clergy conversation. We United Methodist Clergy, following John Wesley’s pattern, “itinerate” from place to place, going where the Bishop sends us, hopefully being the right pastor for the church to which we are sent.

It is my understanding that one of the reasons Wesley used this model is that he felt strongly that most preachers really only had a very few excellent sermons in them. By keeping them moving, he could ensure powerful, well-planned preaching with different voices being heard in the local congregational, and the localized pastors did the hands-on work of discipleship.

Current Realities

I, however, am expected to deliver an excellent message weekly, to the same congregation so messages must be prepared freshly each week and can’t be repeated, AND do all that the localized pastor did.  That is, I must  ensure that people are discipled with its intense person-to-person contact, that mission takes place, and that temporal affairs are properly administered, as well as marry, bury and baptize. AND I’d better show good numbers in both people and monetary growth (not necessarily growth in spiritual maturity) or risk being called “ineffective.”

It this possible?

I face my failures daily in multiple areas. It is because I am not suited for this work? Or could it be that we’ve got some of this wrong?

If you have read this far, I’d surely appreciate any thoughts you have on these subjects.

9 thoughts on “Three Beat Up People, The Art of Discipleship, and Questions About the Pastoral Role

  1. Christy, I am an elder who follows your blog. I think you got the right word when you used “called” — you are “called” to write, among other things. I usually can discern what God is leading me to do at a particular time and place; right now, it seems to be straightening out financial lack of accountability in my Charge. These financial situations just keep presenting themselves, and it seems lately that I must repeatedly require the churches to deal rightly (sometimes legally!) with them. I could try to ignore the situations, but I feel God saying pretty clearly this is what I need to do right now, even though it is often upsetting and emotionally draining work. I think you are rightly perceiving what you are to be about right now, in your time and place. It’s too bad our UM Church has the primary yardsticks of numerical and financial growth to measure effectiveness. Despite the rhetoric, I often think what the powers-that-be really want is more and more members, not disciples.

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    • Thank you, Cheryl. I am also thinking hard about my call to write–and I do agree that is an integral part of the way God shaped me–and how to put all this together. Appreciate your words and encouragement here.

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  2. Christy, I suspect that your influence extends further than you realize. Some of my favorite scenes from The Great Divorce are the triumphal parades that welcome the saints into paradise. Selfishly, I hope that C. S. Lewis got that part right. But, the point they illustrate is that, in this life, we do not know how or where our influence for the Kingdom will spread. I am encouraged by the story of a man who felt called to evangelism and was frustrated by his apparent ineffectiveness — during his life he only brought three people to Christ. However, one of the three people whom he brought to Christ evangelized D. L. Moody. The train of saints extends from the time of Christ until his return and we don’t know the specific role God has for each of us. What we do know is that God has placed us where He wants us to serve. Our part is to be open to God’s call and to answer it as faithfully, obediently, and gratefully we can. If that brings worldly success, we should praise God for it. If it leaves us in humble circumstances that the world judges to be failure, we should praise God for working through us.
    I do not see evidence that disciples can be mass produced by programs or techniques. Jesus limited himself to twelve and took three years! And He was really good at discipling!! However, i don’t believe that disciplers need to be shepherds. You can be a Paul to a Timothy without being a church planter or pastor. I believe that we are failing to make disciples because we don’t encourage growing disciples to mentor others. I am sure that seminary and church leadership experiences are valuable. However, I am not convinced that you need those to be a disciple or mentor others in their walk with God. I thinking learning to be a disciple is much more like learning a skilled trade, where you are apprenticed, than learning to be a physicist, where you are formally educated. So I would say keep doing what you are doing mentoring your flock in discipleship; but pray abut whether some of those whom you are mentoring are sufficiently mature to mentor others. Everyone progressing in sanctification should have both a Paul and a Timothy. That, and much prayer and abiding with the Lord is how we make disciples, slowly, prayerfully, joyously, and faithfully.

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    • What you wrote here seems so right on, ” I thinking learning to be a disciple is much more like learning a skilled trade, where you are apprenticed, than learning to be a physicist, where you are formally educated.” No way to learn that skilled trade well without hours and days and weeks and years of patient practice, with the more skilled one offering correction and guidance along the line. Just extremely time intensive.

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  3. Christy, as you know I’m not a minister nor Methodist for that matter at this time, but you did ask for comments. As a loyal reader of your blog I just had to put in my two cents worth on what you’ve said and the questions you asked. In response to your questions, I have some thoughts. First off, if you look at Jesus and the church during his time we see him traveling, but we see others staying in the same place. I believe that there is a difference in those called to pastor vs those called to be missionaries. By missionaries I am thinking of those that travel to spread the word and start churches. Jesus was more of a missionary as were the 12 that he picked to go with him. He sent them out to spread the word. Then along came Paul and we see him going around to start churches as well. We don’t hear who did the preaching in these churches, but I’m betting that it was not someone who traveled around like Paul. All that being said. I think if the Methodist want to have fresh Paul like sermons that they think are fantastic, then hire men and women who feel called to preach and then send them on a circuit to just preach. The pastoring or teaching of the word and caring for the sheep needs to stay local and should be small enough that the shepherd (pastor) can know his or her sheep by name and sight. It needs to feel like a family. Yes the large churches have small groups in them, but the worship time his usually huge. In my experience the act worship is much more powerful with a smaller congregation. I’ve been a part of both large and small churches and I prefer the small ones because of the intimacy you have in them. As for you changing the world, you touch far more than you think with what you say and write in your blog. So don’t stop writing and please write more.
    I can only compare what you do as a pastor to what I do as a teacher. You will never know my friend how many lives you touch by taking the time to do what you did by spending the time that Sunday night with those two older adults. You do not know who or how many they will share their experiences with and how that will shape others. In the end my friend, it is not the quantity that counts. It is the fact that you spent the time when there was a need. That is what Jesus would have done. He wouldn’t have asked how many more it would gain for him, he would have just seen the need and then met it were the person was. That is who and what I think a true pastor is and should be.
    Thank you for being that type of pastor to me.

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  4. Christy, this is an incredible story. I think you have to be involved in some intense relationships like this – by personal experience they can actually increase your effectiveness in ministry with groups. I am pastoring a thriving small-town congregation. In the last year, a big chunk of my ministry has been in a very intense nurturing relationship with a young man who lives out of state, and who for the last seven months has been in prison. I have flown up there twice to visit him – once on the day of his sentencing – once in prison. This has been profound for my ministry. It does not have ANY primary benefit to my congregation in Texas, but I believe it does have secondary benefits. However, this MUST be only a slice of my ministry.

    If this is the type of ministry to which I am called primarily, I might do better as a chaplain, or as a small group leader.

    I would challenge you to look for ways that you can do both.

    For the vast majority of us UMC pastors these are just the realities, unless we are willing to be appointed one-quarter time, earn our bread elsewhere, and free ourselves from any institutional constraints of maintaining a viable congregation.

    I should probably proofread this and re-write it, but hopefully you get the gist. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Robert Stutes – Bellville TX UMC

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    • Thank you for sharing this Robert. It is the challenge of doing both–and either well–that is getting to me. I also know I am called to write, and am not sure yet how to pull all this together. Really appreciate your story and insights here.

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  5. I clicked on the link and read your blog post for the first time. Thank you for your calm spirit, clear articulation, and great questions. As a deacon my call and charge is a bit different, but I do struggle with how to have discipleship & growth in our children’s ministry where I serve rather than being a glorified party planner.
    Also, I hadn’t made that connection before between the role of local pastor and itenerant pastor. I’d like to bring that up to some other clergy and hear how they respond. Thank you.

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