Redefining where and when church happens
A difficult truth for young church leaders
An experienced pastor struggles to prepare new leaders for disappointment without extinguishing their passion and vision.
by Mieke Vandersall
I lie in bed at Stony Point Center with the cicadas lulling me back to my childhood. The sound provokes in me a memory of being alone and quiet late at night, safe and at peace, feeling at one with God. But being a city girl now, there is no way that I can fall asleep to their calls. So finding my ear plugs with hopes to clear my brain of work, I begin to hear the late night laughter of the dozens of young adults about to venture out on their year of service throughout the world as Young Adult Volunteers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Though I was staying at Stony Point Center for a meeting unrelated to the YAV Program, I had gotten the chance to sit across from a few of them at dinner earlier that night. I enjoyed watching their excitement and marveling at the reality that so many of them will pursue ordained ministry after this year.
“This is our next crop of pastors, right here in front of me,” I thought to myself. “And they are excited and full of energy and will bring us into areas of the world and the gospel that we cannot predict.”
I remembered how badly I wanted to serve when I was their age, how eager I was, how optimistic, how I knew I could make a difference, how I was convinced the church could make a difference, how I was convicted to make a difference in the name of the very church that had baptized and loved me.
Now lying in bed, I flash back, with the help of the cicadas, to dusk at a retreat I led last year, a retreat for LGBTQ future Presbyterian pastors. I co-founded this retreat with Parity, the organization that I used to serve as executive director. This was the church—in the most informal definition of church—that I pastored for about a dozen years. In the flashback, I was standing on the porch to the house where we would worship and where I would preach to this community for the last time. It was my good-bye sermon. The cicadas were just beginning to sing, and my friend, another church planter, called, needing an ear. She told me of funding woes, how her higher judicatory was not listening to her, and how a sudden and unexpected loss of funding by this judicatory was threatening the continuation of her ministry.
She then asked how my sermon was coming along, and I told her I was scared to nervous to preach a potentially disheartening truth to these amazing LGBTQ people who wanted to serve the church with their whole heart—the truth of how the church will disappoint us. The truth of how the church cannot be our sole identity. The truth of how Jesus, not the church, saves us, no matter how bad we want to serve it. The truth of how the church is run by flawed people, not unlike ourselves, who have such a hard time getting out of our own way. The truth of how Paul calls us to live into the revolution of our God-given gifts, often in spite of the church, rather than through it.
Needless to say, that didn’t feel like welcome truth in the face of their excitement and thirst.
I felt like it was a truth that needed to be heard, one that I would have liked to have heard years ago, but it made me feel whiny and negative, and it’s been programmed into me that girls that tell truths like these are not girls people want to be friends with. My friend, though, told me that I had to go in there and preach the truth because people need to hear it, and no one told it to us before we were ordained. And so I did.
I entered into that room with my heart full of love for the amazing people I had served for 10 years. I tried my best to speak this truth without quelling their passion.
I only slightly miss my own unquenchable passion, as I find that it has been replaced with greater wisdom. I could not have continued with the pace that I kept in my 20s. Now that I have more years of professional ministry under my belt, I know that I can’t solve all the problems of the church and world on my own, and I don’t even really have that desire anymore. I have learned to depend on community and colleagues in ministry to help me discern what warrants my energy and what doesn’t. Without the feeling that singlehandedly I can move mountains, I have learned that if there is no energy in a community for an initiative I won’t be able to create that energy on my own. I have learned that there will almost always be another chance. I have learned, essentially, to not set myself up for failure, but to approach the limited work I feel I can accomplish with a sustainable, steady fire. My disappointments in ministry (as in myself) will not crush my spirit or ministry; they are simply opportunities to direct my energy elsewhere.
For the YAVs, and for the amazing LGBTQ folk whom I am so privileged to see enter into ministry as teaching elders, I pray that the church does not beat all the joy and fiery passion out of them. I pray that the church might provide spaces where they are able to come gracefully into their own voices, where they are able to make mistakes and learn from them, where they are able to serve the church and have the church serve them. And when the church is unable to embrace the callings of God and these young leaders, I pray that wisdom might take over.
Mieke Vandersall is the founding pastor of Not So Churchy and a fundraising consultant with Wingo, Inc. She lives with her wife and their dog in New York City.