A Spinning World and the Ringing Grooves of Change

Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Borrowing Tennyson’s poetic imagery, I feel as though I am standing in a deep groove of change with my world wildly spinning. Each spin provides a different vantage point from which to remember the past, experience the present, and anticipate the future. Emotions are plentiful and bumping into one another with such regularity that it is difficult for me to determine where one emotion ends and another begins.

Today, December 31, is my last official day as the District Superintendent of the Butler District of Western Pennsylvania’s portion of the United Methodist Church—a ministry in which I have been profoundly honored to participate for the last five years. Since early 2018, I have walked alongside clergy whose integrity and faithfulness have shaped me and whose graciousness in sharing their hearts and lives with me has nurtured my own vulnerability. I have worked with dozens of churches, standing with faithful congregations in moments of grand celebration and heartbreaking grief. I have done my very best to help a number of congregations to navigate the new, complex, and unsettling terrain of denominational disaffiliation while at the same time providing leadership and encouragement to those congregations that will continue to be part of the United Methodist Church. I have toiled, discerned, laughed, played, and wept alongside a Bishop and Cabinet who have been my extended family and who are as gifted as they are knowledgeable, as pastoral as they are proficient, as wise as they are winsome. I have shared in ministry with a remarkable Conference Staff, the members of which honor and bless me with both their skillfulness and their friendship. I have experienced the ministry of the great Butler District alongside my dear friend and colleague, Thelma Castor, the Butler District Administrative Assistant, whose outstanding work has strengthened and graced the district for nearly three decades and whose presence in my life is a precious and beautiful gift that I will never lay aside. 

I am pondering some of what transpired during the last half-decade: A pandemic and the protective protocols it necessitated. The illumination of a changing church seeking to know its place in a changing culture. Denominational division and disaffiliation legislation. Hard conversations about racism and human sexuality, about Biblical authority and divergent hermeneutics, about church decline and missional engagement. Shared affirmation of the valuing of children, the hungering for justice, and the mattering of black and brown lives. A steady proclamation of a Gospel that both transcends and transforms politics. Hundreds of church conferences and dozens of pastoral in-takes. The consistent outreach of a mission barn that blesses the local community with its ramp-building and the entire United Methodist connection with its disaster relief ministry. Dynamic new initiatives, creative mergers, and grief-laden church closures. Long and probing one-to-one conversations with hard-working clergy who were frequently weary, occasionally wary, and always eager to speak with energy about their vision for ministry and the joy of their salvation. Lunch conversations, both serious and silly, in quiet corners of the Conference Center. Life-giving engagement and hearty laughter with dear friends in the Conference Center lobby. These have been some of the major plot points in the narrative of my last five years of ministry. I am wholeheartedly grateful for all of them, even the most difficult ones.

If I have been at all effective in my work as District Superintendent, to God be the glory. Wherever I have failed, floundered, or caused harm in any way, I offer a spirit of repentance and ask your forgiveness.

January will be a time of transitional leave in my vocation and a time of relocation for Tara and me. Stacks of packed boxes surround me as I type these words, reminding me of the nearness of our move date. On January 10, weather permitting, a moving truck from New York City will come to our home near Zelienople, thus beginning a four-day move that will hopefully conclude on January 13 with the successful unloading of our belongings at our new parsonage—a lovely condo in the Sutton Place neighborhood of Manhattan. On February 1, I will become the new Senior Pastor of a marvelous church whose history is richly textured and whose current ministry is wonderfully multilayered: Christ Church, United Methodist, NYC.

The yearlong process leading to my new appointment has been graciously and patiently overseen by two exceptional Bishops, an attentive District Superintendent in the New York Annual Conference, and two teams of leaders in the life of Christ Church NYC who were entrusted with the responsibility of participating in a lengthy season of discernment that demanded the very best of their energy. I have been well cared for throughout the process, for which I am deeply thankful.

This transition means a great deal to Tara and me.

It means leaving a Conference we dearly love—Western Pennsylvania. This is where we met Jesus and learned what it means to love and follow him. This is where we experienced our spiritual upbringing, our call to ministry, and our call to marriage. This is where I have served as a pastor for the last thirty-one years. I love this Conference, its ministry, its staff, its Cabinet, and its churches. Leaving it is hard—hard like leaving a beloved family and a cherished home. The grief that we carry is both lasting and painfully real.

Accompanying the grief is an authentic and joyful excitement over a new appointment that feels like a pathway into vocational renewal: 

This new appointment will mean a return to the rhythms and patterns of the local church. 

It will present a steep and exciting learning curve that will require the figuring out of what it means to live in New York (a city to which we have long been drawn); what it means to be appointed in a different United Methodist conference; and what it means to serve a stunningly dynamic church in the heart of Manhattan.

It will afford an opportunity to honor the extraordinary legacy of ministry and leadership bequeathed to me and to so many by Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman, who has served as the Senior Pastor of Christ Church NYC for the last thirty-five years.

It will place me alongside the creative, accomplished, and mind-bogglingly gifted staff of Christ Church NYC, the members of which have faithfully and skillfully helped the congregation to navigate this year of transition with hope, joy, and vision.

It will usher us into a beautiful and diverse congregation whose people are deep-hearted followers of Jesus—as prayerful as they are justice-seeking; as prophetic as they are hospitable; as brilliant as they are kind.

I am grateful for so many things in all of this:

For a vocational adventure that I neither initiated nor expected.

For the Western Pennsylvania Conference that is sending me forth and for the New York Conference that is welcoming me into its ministry.

For the Bishop and Cabinet whose table I am leaving and for the Bishop and Cabinet who will now oversee my ministry.

For a new congregation and staff that I cannot wait to join.

For Rev. Deborah Ackley-Killian, my beloved colleague and friend, who will succeed me as the Butler District Superintendent on January 1, serving as the District Superintendent of both the Butler and Pittsburgh Districts.

For the honor of being Tara’s husband; for her love, her music, her playfulness, her encouragement, her wisdom, and her relentless joy; and for her continuing employment as the Vice President of Human Resources for Vector Security—a work that she will now steward remotely and virtually from an office in our new parsonage.

For the saving, sanctifying, unsettling, and comprehensive grace of Jesus in which even newness feels like home.

It is this grace of Jesus that makes the world’s wild spinning feel somehow manageable.

It is this grace of Jesus that generates joy, hope, and purpose, even in the ringing grooves of change.