Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:
Turn and face the strange
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time
Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.
I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.
On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.
My new appointment requires that I say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.
In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.
For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.
They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.
They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).
District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.
My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.
Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.