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.