Today, I become a member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference. Today, I assume responsibility as the Director of Connectional Ministries in Wisconsin. Today, I leave behind fifteen years serving the national church to focus on the ministries of a single episcopal area. In one week, my wife Barbara and I will move from Nashville, Tennessee to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. So much change in a short span of time. This is a time of new beginnings.
On July 30, 2008, I was told by my former employer that my services were no longer needed. The past eleven months have been an interesting journey of exploring once again my sense of call, my sense of purpose, and my sense of self. Here are five things I have learned.
- Don’t let what you do define who you are.
- Losing my job was absolutely devastating to me, because what I do is such a direct expression of who I am and what I believe. It quickly became apparent to me that the boundaries between me as a person and me as an employee of the General Board of Discipleship had blurred beyond recognition. Losing my job felt like losing my sense of purpose and my reason for being. This is not a healthy place to be. What we do should be a reflection of who we are, but not the other way around. My value as a child of God and a servant of Christ has nothing to do with where I work. My ministry, such as it is, continued beyond the dismissal from my position of fourteen years in Nashville. It took me awhile to realize and recognize it, but God is my true employer, and thus far God is content with my work.
- Don’t believe the hype.
- Writing books and teaching seminars and speaking to large audiences is very heady stuff. People appreciate your work in visible ways. You develop ‘fans.’ People seek you out. People heap praise upon you. They make you feel valued and valuable. They make you feel important and necessary. This is nice, but it can be a trap. On July 28, 2008, I received a letter from one of our bishops telling me that my book Vital Signs was “one of the most important books currently available in our denomination,” and that “your prophetic vision can lead us to a much stronger future.” On July 30, my supervisor and a representative from the leadership of the GBOD sat me down, and said, “The leadership team feels that your work is not adding value to the mission of The United Methodist Church, nor does it align with the strategic direction of the General Board of Discipleship. Effective immediately we are closing the research office and have determined that there is no place in the organization for your particular skills.” WHAM! This is what is known as a “reality check.” Doing good work needs to be a reward in and of itself. Praise is nice, but it should never be the reason one does what one does. Popularity is subjective and transitory — one group may think you’re great, while another thinks you’re a waste of time. I need to remember to do what I do for God, always giving my best, and not get swept away in the opinions of others.
- Don’t compromise your integrity.
- There is a difference between futile tolerance and perseverance. Turning a blind eye to incompetence, ineptitude, lack of vision, poor leadership, and dishonesty is never a good idea. Keeping quiet in order to keep a job is a loser’s game. One of the real blessings I leave the GBOD with is that my integrity is intact. I spoke the truth in love, refused to compromise, and refused to allow my name to be tied to shoddy, disreputable work. I asked hard questions, held people accountable, and did everything in my power to help the GBOD be better. These things were not always highly valued by others, but they allowed me to leave with my head held high. I have been able to persevere through a difficult time because I refused to abandon my values.
- Don’t panic.
- Okay, I am learning this. I didn’t do this very well. Soon after I got canned, the economy headed south and I heard from more than one agency and annual conference, “gee, I wish we could hire you, but we just can’t do it right now.” Friends and family encouraged me by telling me that conferences, congregations, and boards and agencies would beat a path to my door once they heard I was available. This never happened (see #2 above…), and there were times when I wondered where I would end up. I knew that at the very worst, I would be appointed to a church or ministry in the Greater New Jersey Conference — I wasn’t in a panic about employment. My panic was the radical disconnect I was feeling between my sense of call and my options to serve. My spiritual director always said that my gifts were in teaching teachers, improving systems, and developing teams. In time, my friends and colleagues in Wisconsin came through, as circumstances changed and a perfect opportunity emerged. I cannot believe that I now stand on the threshold of an absolutely perfect opportunity to use my gifts and skills in a wonderfully fertile and positive environment. I want to look back and shrug, saying, “What? Me worry? Never!” I have learned in the past year that I need to practice what I preach and trust this “faith stuff” a little bit more.
- Trust God, trust your friends, trust yourself.
- Poor little me is very seductive. It is so easy to assume the mantle of the misunderstood victim, the oppressed innocent, the unfairly treated martyr. (Which begs the question, is there such a thing as a “fairly treated martyr?”) Standing on the verge of a new opportunity, I look back and wonder, “why didn’t I have more faith in God? Why didn’t I listen to my friends? Why was it so easy to lose faith in myself and wonder what went wrong?” Self pity is toxic. It poisoned me, and it hurt my wife and ‘those around me. It caused me to be less myself, and more a mere shadow of who I believe God wants me to be. I had not only a crisis of faith, but a crisis of trust.
I always believed — really, deeply believed — that everything would work out well. Life is, after all, what one makes it. No matter what “job” I have, I always bring my very best to it. But this whole experience pulled my life into focus under a microscope and forced me to ask the hard questions about who I am, why I’m here, what I am good at, and where I believe God is calling me to serve. This was a time of punishment, death, and resurrection (to be truly melodramatic about it) and therefore it has also been a time of epiphany (to mix seasons and meanings) where I emerge with a new beginning better able to say this is who I am, this is why I’m here, and this is what God is calling me to do. I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am that as I lost confidence in myself, my friends, my family, and my God never lost confidence in me. What a great life!