May 14 Sermon

Discerning Church
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For May 14 2017, Mother’s Day
Based on John 14:1-6

This is a story about Pat – and just for the record, that is not her real name. Pat was a member of a congregation I served. She was – and still is – ordained in the United Church of Christ.

Before I met her, Pat’s husband had been diagnosed with cancer and died rather abruptly. During his illness Pat’s daughters were concluding high school, and Pat felt she did not have the emotional and spiritual resources to lead a congregation. Pat had been placed on leave of absence by the Conference. In that time, Pat sought out a spiritual director, someone to help her actively seek the presence of God in new ways. In those times together, the spiritual director affirmed that Pat possessed gifts of being a spiritual guide. Sometimes discerning our gifts and calling comes from the observations of others.

When I met Pat she was concluding her training as a spiritual director. Her daughters were now adults, graduated from college and beginning their careers. One daughter was engaged to be married. Pat felt she was ready to re-enter ministry, and so was beginning to apply to churches who were searching for a pastor.

In fact, she had applied for the position I was now holding. The Pastoral Search Team had discerned that while Pat was a gifted minister, as a member she was too connected to the congregation to be able to challenge the congregation to change. They discerned someone else – me – possessed the gifts the congregation needed at that time.

Discernment is not done by any single individual. Even when an individual – say, a pastor – is seeking to discern God’s call on their life, the discernment is done with others. Along the way we have to accept the decisions of others as they, too, discern. Sometimes we agree with their discernment. Sometimes we wonder just how they got to that conclusion.

The search team’s discernment stung for Pat, but she supported me as a colleague… and she eventually came to me as the pastor of her congregation. “May I talk with you about discerning my call?” she asked.

“Pat, what are you talking about. You’re already ordained. You’ve clearly discerned your calling to ministry.”

“Yes, but I am now sending my profile to congregations. And I have been sending out my resume to a couple places looking for chaplains. I’d like to talk with you as I discern to what ministerial setting I may be called.”

Naturally I said I would.

The search and call process seems to oscillate between periods of slow and tedious activity and sudden bursts of very hurried moments. Pat wanted to be prepared if any of the places where she applied expressed interest. She didn’t want to have to create a bunch of material in a rush. She didn’t want to find herself hurriedly shifting through her feelings about a location. She named that when it came to hearing God’s call, she needed help in sorting through the emotions – because her emotions were being pulled by her daughter’s wedding only a few weeks away. She asked for my prayers – for wisdom, for discernment, for God’s presence, for stability to get through the wedding. She then said knowing I was holding her discernment in prayer gave her permission to set it aside until the wedding was over.

The invitation to return to discernment with Pat came about a month later. I remember this particular conversation vividly.

Pat lived in beautiful Victorian farmhouse. I forget the precise story, but it was family property. It was where she arrived as a young bride, where she birthed and raised her daughters, where she nursed her ill husband, and even where her husband died.

This particular afternoon we were sitting in the parlor enjoying afternoon tea, talking about where Pat might be called next. I was having trouble keeping the various places straight in my head, so I asked Pat if we could make a map of the places. As we marked the cities of the potential calls, Pat repeated to me information she had already shared: “I like this one because … “ “I have reservations because …” It was a variation of listing pros and cons in two columns on a piece of paper.

I pointed out a pattern: the further away the potential call was from her farmhouse, the more reservations Pat had about the call. ”Yes,” she admitted, “I do not want to leave this home. I am called to do ministry, but I do not want to leave here: this home, this town, the nearness of my children, the places that hold memories of my husband.”

My first question was one I did not feel comfortable asking, so instead I sat silent. I was waiting for a nudge from God, waiting for Pat to speak, waiting for a different question to ask. But then Pat spoke aloud my question. “Is my commitment to family holding me back from following God’s call?”

We remembered Jesus saying (we looked it up later: it’s in Matthew 10:37): “Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. “ With tears falling down her cheeks, Pat said “I cannot believe God would call me to ministry only to take me away from my family.” That’s when the nudge came from God.

“Perhaps what is making this such a struggle is that you have more than one call. I have no doubt that you are called as a pastor – and that can mean a lot of things. But you are also called as a mother. You were called as a wife, and it has been difficult to lose that call. You are called as the matron of your family, and you are to be a pastor.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Yes! No one has said those words to me before! I have always felt called to my family – that all the stuff I do as a pastor I have done first in my family. Why hasn’t anyone ever acknowledged that part of being called?”

So we talked about feminist insights regarding call and vocation, that males tend to make decisions based on principles while women make decisions based on relationships, that the church never asks its members to sacrifice their family relationships but often demands that clergy place their family commitments second to their careers.

In a pause of those heady theological and sociological assessments, I came back to where I had been nudged. “Pat, I think the dilemma you face is how to fulfill both callings that God has placed on you. How will you fulfill your called identity as an ordained pastor, and how will you fulfill your called identity as matriarch of your growing family?”

She gave me a steely stare but with a smile said “You haven’t made this any easier for me.”

With a broader grin I replied, “I didn’t promise to.”

I look back on that day with great tenderness. We used a lot of tools for discerning God’s call. Existing relationships. New relationships. Scripture. Memory. Intuition. Intentional conversation. Intentional quiet. Lots of study. All of our experience. Waiting.

Sometimes discernment requires that we get impatient and demand something happen. Sometimes discernment only happens when we set aside the project and move on with life. Remember John Lennon’s line “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Pat was waiting: waiting on search teams to contact her; waiting to be accepted into a program to become a spiritual director; waiting for God to be clear. Wanting something to do, Pat enrolled in a watercolor class. Her daughter announced she was pregnant.

It was a couple of months before Pat received an invitation to a second interview and then a neutral pulpit. And she had been correct: when they called, she had only 10 days to prepare for the interview. The congregation was just two hours away from her farmhouse. Before she departed, I told her she was in my prayers and I looked forward to hearing about it when she returned. The night before her neutral pulpit, there was a heavy snowstorm, so prayers for safe traveling were added.

It was several days before Pat called me. “What were your impressions …” I began to ask. “Oh, Thom, the entire experience was horrible.” She began to list the unpleasantries: the difficult drive in the heavy snow, so it took longer than anticipated to make the drive; the snow meant a very poor attendance for worship; the organist was unable to get to worship, so they sang the hymns acapella; there was no choir; two of the search team members couldn’t get off their properties so they were absent.

“Do you think God is sending me a message?” she asked. We laughed, because Pat already knew my thoughts on that. (I don’t think God uses the complexities of the environment to send just one person a message.)

While laughing, I asked Pat “So where is God in all of this?”

Discernment is not a straight line. Discernment doesn’t happen quickly. Discernment requires that we wait, and it also requires that remain persistent.

To no one’s surprised, Pat was not considered as a pastoral candidate at what we began calling The Snowstorm Church.

Two months later Pat was interviewing at a nearby hospice center. It was about an hour from home – a reasonable commute in the direction of her daughter’s home. This particular hospice was looking to develop a program offering spiritual direction to family members. They wanted to be able to include the arts in spiritual direction.

Another month, and Pat was called to serve as a chaplain. It had been almost a year since we had begun our conversations about discerning her call. She sent me a thank you card. The cover is a watercolor of a campfire. The interior reads “God calls us to more than one thing.”

It’s complicated, but it is a good time to be the church.

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