Letter to an Incoming D.S.–The Final Chapter

February 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

This is a continuing letter to a friend of my who was recently named as a new District Superintendent in his annual conference. You can read earlier installments, here, here, here, here, and here.

Dear ________,

During the past week to 10 days I’ve offered some of my thoughts on some of the things that I think are important for a District Superintendent from my perspective as a pastor. Who knows if there are helpful, or have any connection to reality in any way, but I tend to be an idealist and so I hold up an idealist’s vision of the job. While my last thought may be the final one in chronological order, it may be the most important of all.

6. Root yourself deeply in the love and grace of God, and model the life of discipleship to those in your care.

One of the great servants of the United Methodist Church that I am proud to have called both a mentor and friend is the late Bishop David Lawson, who served both the Illinois and Wisconsin Annual Conferences. Bishop Lawson and I worked closely together on several General Conferences, and he was a man of gentle spirit, great wit, and immense wisdom. One week while we were in school together Bishop Lawson came to be with us, and I was able to come have him meet a group for lunch over at our favorite pizza place. He was asked to share the most important thing we could learn in seminary, and he paused for a moment before saying: “You need to know how to pray deeply.”

“I had been successful in my ministry,” he went on. “I had been the pastor of several large congregations, and like most of us I developed a bag of tricks that I would pull out to be successful. Certainly I prayed in my ministry, but if I were honest I have to say that my success was more due to the bag of tricks than my faithfulness in prayer.”

He continued: “Then I was appointed as a district superintendent. All of the sudden my relations with my friends changed for colleague to supervisor. I wasn’t engaged in planning worship or preaching as wasn’t being forced to be in the scriptures they way I had to be when I was preparing a sermon each week. I felt isolated and alone, and I experienced a dark night of the soul. It got so bad that I wasn’t sure what to do, so I traveled down to the monastery at Saint Meinrad, threw myself before one of the monks, and asked them to teach me to pray.”

Bishop Lawson went on to share that he experienced transformation during his time there, and that what he learned about prayer would transform his ministry and give him the strength and wisdom to be sustained in his time on the cabinet, and later as a bishop.

You may not want to hear it, but the fact is that you set the spiritual tone for your district. Your example will be examined by the pastors you serve (and yes, you serve them . . . they simply report to you) and will set the stage for ministry throughout the region. You will absolutely have to be rooted in your faith, fully embraced and believing in the radical love and grace of God, if you are to avoid burnout and avoid the cynicism that can come when one is called to supervise a disparate group of creative people like a bunch of pastors.

One of the dangers and I think downfalls of our United Methodist system is that far too much of our language and practice is about administration rather than about discipleship, and that is certainly true at the district level. Certainly you will have the opportunity to share devotionally with your district leaders, but in all honesty they need more than that. They need someone rooted in faith who is concerned about their own level of discipleship, and who offers love and grace in helping them to be fed and nourished in faith. Yet far too often I’ve seen gatherings where the D.S. offers a perfunctory devotional moment, perhaps even some form of worship, but where a good 75% of the meeting is about administrative tasks. What could we be as a church if we were spending our leaders time less on administrative, institutional functioning, and more on ensuring vibrancy and vitality in prayer?

That is, in point of fact, one of the things that worries my about the Vital Congregations initiative. We couch everything in terms of “making disciples,” and we suggest, without much biblical or theological warrant, average worship attendance, professions of faith, and number of small groups is somehow connected to disciple making. These metrics are indeed important, but they continue to measure the breadth of ministry, not the depth of folks connection to God. No less than Bill Hybels at Willow Creek (generally seen to be an example of church vitality) has suggested that they may have missed the boat and created something that is broad, but not especially deep. We Methodists, with our obsession over methodical record keeping and administrative and structural solutions to the problems of the church can easily find us enamored with administrative functions and church programs rather than the condition of the soul, and the presence of God in our folks lives.

You have an opportunity to model for our leaders the life of faith lived out connectionally, with the assumption that God is indeed in our midst. You are the bringer of hope to both pastors and local congregations who haven’t heard a word of hope in a long time. You have a responsibility to not simply bring order to the district, but to bring love and grace as well. In a very real sense, you (as a representative of the larger United Methodist Church) have the ability to truly help folks to appreciate Christian conferencing as a means of grace. More than that, however, YOU are a means of God’s grace! The only way you can be that for your district is to be rooted deeply in the love and grace of God.

It’s not always an easy task to be the bearer of God’s grace to the church. There will continue to be those who write off any attempts to be engaged in prayer and discernment together as some sort of heavy handed manipulation. There will be folks who think that the business of the church is something other than searching the scriptures and growing in the grace and love of Christ. Even within the cabinet, practices of faith can become perfunctory, with your colleagues and even the bishop going through the motions rather than experiencing the presence of God. I urge you to maintain a winsome, and perhaps even naïve belief in God’s presence in all. It is the proclamation of that presence that will transform the church, and I believe transform the world.

Please know that you will indeed be in my prayers, and if any of the folks who are serving in your district are reading this, I sincerely hope they will be praying for you too. The D.S. is an easy target for our frustrations, but what they all need is not wrath but love, not anger but prayer.

Never forget that our God is bigger than the institution of the United Methodist Church, and that the God of scripture always seems to use the least likely ones to bear his presence in the world. Watch for signs of God’s grace where ever you go, and I am convinced that you will go far in leading God’s people to new and exciting places.

Go in grace. God is with you.

Jay

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