The Bi-Vocational Vision: Beginning Congregational Development and a New Priest’s First Sermon

When you’re a bi-vocational priest serving a small congregation, beginning to write a vision for congregational development takes a different approach then that of a stipendiary rector in a fully-funded large parish. In a bi-vocational deployment, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be partnered with a congregation that doesn’t have the advantage of historically consistent clergy leadership to build on. Some small churches go years without any regular clergy of their own. An absence of clergy leadership contributes to a lack of clear mission vision. Combined with the threat – real or imagined – of economic instability looming like wolves at the door, it is understandable why a small church’s energy gets funneled out of mission mode and into survival mode.

The sudden arrival of a bi-vocational clergy person can rock the already drifting boat. For the first several months, it can be a bit of a wild ride at times, as everyone – clergy included – comes to terms with a leadership shift which likely includes a redistribution of duties, worship changes and newly defined community relationships. The wise new clergy never makes too many changes at the beginning, least the boat rock so hard it turns over. But as an even wiser clergy friend of mine said, “Even if you don’t change anything, YOU ARE change.” Point well-taken.

This past Sunday, June 29, I was priested by Bishop Jeff Fisher as I knelt on the floor at the center of the worship space in my small East Texas congregation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, surrounded by a heartfelt group of fellow priests, all laying their hands on me, invoking the Holy Spirit and blessing my new priestly ministry. I was off to a great start, and I have to say that I have the good bi-vocational fortune to be leading a group of people who both enjoy serving the Lord and who are willing to try some new things with me, and that is primary to bi-vocational success. My congregation is blessed with dedicated members who have gifts for leadership grounded in a depth of experience that is the special charism of a congregation made up of mostly retirees. They are aware of their need for growth, and that is the secondary piece to a bi-vocational congregation’s success. The other pieces we’re going to discover along the way.

What follows is my first sermon as a priest, given Sunday, July 6, 2014, after spending nearly a year getting to know them as a deacon and their head of congregation. It is my first attempt at congregational development, and addresses an identity concern particular to the needs of bi-vocational congregations:

Well, what a week huh? Today I want to share some things that are on my heart, and begin to cast a vision for our new ministry together as priest and congregation. It’s said that when you are ordained, you go through an ontological change – a change in who you are, your whole being becomes something different. I kept running into situations this last week where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t the same any more – at one point I found myself sitting in the church office with my home Communion box trying to figure out the logistics of finding a priest to consecrate the elements for me. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah – I’m a priest!” That wasn’t just me making a mental adjustment – This kind of change required a whole lot more than merely adjusting, than just making a little room in my thinking. This ontological change meant me doing the work of accepting way down deep inside me who I now am – and beginning to live into who I have become. This is who I am – I’m a priest.

This is the first time I’ve stood at the St. Paul’s pulpit wearing a priest’s stole. Up until now, I’ve worn a deacon’s stole. The deacon’s calling is to represent Christ as Servant, represented by their stoles being tied to the side. The priest’s stole is worn with both sides in place and represents the priest taking on the yoke of Christ, serving like Jesus as Shepherd of the flock. A priest’s role in the church community is to gather and guide and protect the Body of Christ and to provide the Sacraments of his Church. But there’s a saying among priests that one is always also a deacon, because you were first made a deacon. By that reasoning, I am, and most of us here today are, first and foremost the Baptized. Before your confirmation, before any of us were married or ordained, or entered into any other sacramental covenant, you were baptized – you experienced the ontological change that happens at baptism, when something about your whole being changed. You were filled with the Holy Spirit and made one with God through his Savior, Jesus. And because that happened, you wear the symbol of the cross of Jesus Christ, the yoke that can never be removed – at your baptism you were marked as Christ’s own forever. Whether you were baptized into the Episcopal Church, or you were, like me, baptized into another Christian denomination, it is the same – we are at the moment of our Baptism filled with the Holy Spirit and made members in this Body, forever gifted to receive the yoke of the ministry of the Gospel. Forever called to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love everyone around us like they are us.

This symbolism of the yoke is powerful – a yoke is what binds one animal to another so that they both can pull together to get something done. Throughout biblical history yokes have also represented slavery, or a burden to be escaped. But here in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus provides another image of the yoke. When you yoke two animals together, the wise farmer will partner a more experienced animal with the one who is new to the yoke, so the older one can teach the younger, and guide them in the work they share. Jesus evokes this when he says “learn from me – you who are weary, and heavy-laden, take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What comfort God offers us here! That when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, Jesus comes alongside us, gently and humbly, and invites us into relationship with him, teaching us to experience the world in a whole new way through him.

If you have not been baptized, you are invited to be. You are welcome, and you are loved, and we want you to be a part of this amazing family we call the Body of Christ. We want you to be a part of this portion of God’s Kingdom that we have been given to care for known as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This is the Gospel message to take to your neighbor. This is the Good News to take to the person you run into when the Holy Spirit deep down inside you won’t leave you alone, but keeps calling to you to do something for them, or to say some words of God’s grace to them.

Looking back over the last week, I think there was a tie for the most popular question folks asked me leading up to and including the ordination. It was a pretty even heat between, “Are you nervous?” and “How you holdin’ up?” But I noticed something, whenever that happened, when one of you asked those questions, you would always follow the question up with something else, like humor, or reassurance. I don’t think any of you asked me those questions because you didn’t care, or because you were just morbidly curious how I was doing. I believe you asked me those questions because you knew it was a challenging and stressful time, and you were ready to offer me real and practical comfort and real encouragement. I didn’t hear anything impractical or fake like, “It’s going to be perfect.” Or “Nothing will ever go wrong.” I heard you saying things like, “It’s ok, we’ve going to take care of you,” and “This is going to be so wonderful – we are so excited!” There were so many of you who despite doing your own hard work and preparation, took the time to stop and really care for me, and my family. And it wasn’t just me – you cared for each other. I saw it happening, several times. It may have seemed for a little bit like the world was threatening to rotate around this one event, but the truth is that life and ministry and the mission field was still going on all around us, and I know that several of you were right in the middle of that holy work. You loved on John and Betty Sisson, you visited Kay, encouraged Jim and Glenda, and BW and Wayne, you loved on Leon, you sent Keith letters at Camp, you supported each other in countless ways, and you invited the community to be a part of our mission and our worship.

Over and over, you wore the yoke of Christ in private and in public. There may have been times when it felt like that yoke weighed more than you could bear – You may have thought, Lord, do I HAVE to be Jesus to that person today? Because I don’t think I have the strength to do it. But Jesus tells us not to worry about it – because he’s got this. His burden is easy, and his yoke is light. When we take on the new life in Jesus Christ, when we wear the yoke of God, we don’t pull the weight ourselves. We first have to show up – to offer ourselves in his name, and in that beautiful paradox of the Gospel, our freedom happens when we give ourselves up to serving God. It’s not about making an adjustment to our former life – wearing the yoke of Jesus is about accepting that something deep down inside you has changed – you’re not adjusting, you have a new identity, and you are beginning to live into that new identity. You are a Christian.

One of the dearest things I remember hearing in this precious time around my ordination has been from Bob Payne. Bob and Betty are quiet folks, but they love and serve the Lord and his Church with everything they are. They don’t just make adjustments. That’s who they are. They are faithful.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with Bob in the Parish Hall on what was my last Sunday before coming back here for ordination. He said, “Bye, I’ll see you next Sunday,” and I said, “No, I won’t be there for the next couple of weeks. I’ll see you on Ordination Sunday.” Without missing a beat, he said, “We’ll be here waiting for you, and we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

That crystallized for me what the heart of this church is. It’s said that every congregation has a personality, has a general character that is made up of the combined charism of its people. A church’s personality is brought to life by weaving together for a shared purpose the different gifts and spirituality of its members. Since the first moment I found out I would be assigned to St. Paul’s, and would one day become your priest, I have looked forward to finding out what your character is.
You’ve weathered a lot of changes over the years, and a fair amount of upheaval, and as a congregation, you have endured and come through together strong. You’ve endured a lot of time without being in regular relationship with a priest you could call your own. In fact, St. Paul’s has spent so much time in that place of managing inconsistency, that you started calling yourselves, tongue-in-cheek, the Church of the Holy Adjustment.

I don’t believe that is your real character. I don’t believe that is who you really are. That may have been who this church used to be – that may have been who you had to be at times to survive. But I don’t believe this is now who you are. And I know it’s not what you are called by God to be. Since last October, my knowing of you is that you are the people who love others fiercely for Jesus, the people who come together and give everything you can to help someone in a crisis. You dig deep, emotionally, spiritually, and materially, into who you really are as Christians. Over these last several months, and in these last weeks especially, you have shown me that you can get some serious Kingdom work done! With God’s help, you make and execute plans, you face challenges head on, you work with everyone in this community, and you have a lot of fun along the way. There’s a LOT of joy here. You are the people of the Jesus Welcome – you are St. Paul’s!

Our patron saint is St. Paul, and last Sunday was the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul is really unique, because he has two feast days. We are named after a man who gave his life believing that we are the saints of God by God’s own calling, and by the blood of Jesus we are gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve our Creator with a CLEAR and STEADY vision. We are called to respond with the faith of those who know that whatever comes, whatever we face – we have the cross of Christ to guide us and we have the gifts of the Spirit to use in every kind of work – every situation, every tragedy, every victory, every opportunity to live our congregation’s mission to be a light of Christ to the world. Paul knew he couldn’t be defined by what was going wrong, nor defined by whether he himself had any ability to make it all come out ok. Paul knew that from an outside perspective, heck even from an inside the church perspective, he knew that things were going to wrong. God didn’t send me because I’m clever in how I talk, he said. But to those who are called, Christ is our power, he is our wisdom. In him, everything is made ok, whether the worlds sees it that way or not.
My friends, no matter what we do, not matter how hard we try, there will always be a need to make adjustments. That is not unique to us. That is life in every Christian community. And like Matthew tells us today in our reading that even when we do things right, there are those who will accuse us, and who will misunderstand our intentions. But it is the work of our prayers, and the work of our testimony and the work of our hands that will teach people what the Jesus Welcome is. So when things don’t go like we planned them, don’t worry – we are St. Paul’s. God’s got this.

The Gospel of Christ wasn’t given to us because we understand it all, or because we have it all together and we know exactly what we are doing – it was given to us because God loves us, he cherishes us, and wants us to live in his grace, and to offer that grace to everyone.

The next feast day for St. Paul’s is on January 25, right around the time we will be having our next annual meeting when we look back at where we’ve been, and talk about where we are going. That day celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – when the man who was Saul experiences an epiphany from God, and understands his new calling to serve God in a very active and vibrant ministry to those that used to know him in an entirely different way. Paul discovered his true character formed in picking up and wearing the yoke of God through a really dramatic conversion experience. Some of us come to God in a dramatic moment – for some of us, it’s a quieter experience. Both are ontological changes – both redefine who we are.

This is not the Church of the Holy Adjustment. That is not who we are. St. Paul’s is a church built on the solid foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We may not have a deacon any longer at St. Paul’s, but I’m always going to have that deacon side of me, and together we are always going to be called to meet Jesus in those places in this community where the world would rather not look – the darkness where the Light of Jesus that is in us is really needed. And when things happen that we don’t expect, we’re not going to adjust – we’re going to trust. Because God’s got this.

My brothers and sisters, we are who God has made us to be – every morning that you wake up, before you even get out of bed, pick up the yoke of Christ and put firmly around your shoulders, then go out into the world and love everyone, and welcome them with open arms. We are Christians. We are Episcopalians. This is our character. This is who we are. We are St. Paul’s.

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