Why I Stayed in the Church of the Nazarene

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I have a few hours this morning with not much to do, so I am spending it jotting down some thoughts.  Unfortunately for the first time in awhile, I have several ideas for blog posts and not much time to write them all.

I am reading a book on Christian nonviolence entitled “What About Hitler?” but I am not through with it yet so can’t review it fairly.

I am also ridding my garage of a mouse infestation.  This has yielded all kinds of reflections about the brokenness of creation.  I might get those posted tomorrow.

Also my family is moving in two weeks to a new ministry assignment.  The move, like all re-locations, is teaching me a lot about discernment and the theology and practice of ministry.  I will post some of those thoughts over the next few weeks.

But all week long I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about the unique experiences of millenial clergy in the Church of the Nazarene.  My friend Danny Quanstrom has done several surveys of young clergy and is preparing to share his findings in several venues.

The discussion ranged from student loan debt (another topic for a future post), difficulties in finding assignments, the ridiculously bureaucratic licensing process and greater theological frustrations.

Out of that discussion, my friend Ric, who was educated by the Nazarenes but now pastors a UMC church, posted a blog detailing why he left the church.

Two huge factors dominated his narrative.  The first is that Ric never felt strong ties to any particular Nazarene congregation, just to the Universities.  He claims, and I believe it, that his professors were better pastors to him than his actual pastors.  The second factor was the growing divide between our universities and local congregations.  Ric had a growing sense (as did I) that he was undesirable as a pastor because he graduated from seminary.  This feeling was confirmed by a disastrous licensing interview where Ric was publicly shamed for not being able to quote the right Bible verses.

Ric’s story resonates with mine on several levels.  I too had to endure a licensing interview where I was asked awkward questions about the differences between the Church of the Nazarene and the Baptists or Assemblies of God.  The questions were not threatening but they did highlight the large chasm between our academic institutions and our congregations.  Our universities are not concerned with teaching us why we are better than the Baptists and Assemblies.  Their primary concern is teaching us how to think biblically and theologically.  But this older interviewer wanted to be certain I could argue in our favor.

More than that, before college I attended a private Christian High School that had been started by a Nazarene church.  Currently the High School is non-denominational and the student body composed of equal parts Baptist, Nazarene and Assemblies, with a few others thrown in.  My New Testament teacher was a Calvinist.  He taught us the New Testament and did a great job.

My Old Testament professor was a Nazarene lay person who taught us Republican politics and apologetics, particularly 6 day creationism.  I do not recall opening my Bible once in the two years of classes I took from him.  Instead he regularly named and listed off professors at the Nazarene universities that we needed to avoid at all costs.  These professors taught theistic evolution and voted for Democrats.  They could not be trusted.

With that said, I went to the University, took Bible and Theology classes and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I actually remember the point where I realized my High School teacher was full of crap.  It wasn’t a huge “aha,” paradigm changing moment for me.  Instead, it was a, “I always knew he didn’t know what he was talking about” moment.  Still, I was aware before most of the animosity between the university and some laity.

Unfortunately some university professors did respond by using class time to publicly shame students who graduated from my high school by responding to legitimate questions with, “You graduated from that high school didn’t you?” and then asking the student a series of questions no Freshmen would be prepared to answer.  In hindsight, I question their wisdom in doing so, though I was never a victim of such a barrage.

In fact, perhaps one point where Ric and my stories differ is that although I deeply respected my professors (or tried my hardest too) I was never really liked by them.  I have spent much time trying to figure out why that was.  I was then and am now hard to like and I could have done way better at reaching out to the professors and showing my respect for them than I did.  Still, they gave me an incredible education and rewarded my efforts with good grades and treated me with respect in class.  I own and read all their books and wholeheartedly support what they are doing for the church.  I just never would have called them my pastors, with one exception, namely my youth pastor.

That exception is probably why I stayed and why Ric and many others left.

I attended the church next door to our college campus.  The youth ministry there was incredible.  We went on mission trips to Mexico and discipleship retreats to monasteries.  We regularly had intensive spiritual formation retreats that involved fasting, studying Scripture, serving the poor, prayer labyrinths and the like.  My youth group had Ash Wednesday services and Holy Week services, all of which were completely rare in the COTN at the time.

On top of that I was a very nerdy Bible quizzer, which more than any Biblical or spiritual benefit, connected me to the other churches on our district and gave me some of the best friends I have ever had.

My senior year of High School, the Children’s Pastor arranged with my Youth Pastor for me to teach 4 year old Sunday School, which led to future leadership in the Children’s Ministry.

And the year after I graduated from High School my youth pastor was hired as a professor at the University.  Yes, that is a plot trope stolen right out of Boy Meets World but it happened.

So my positive relationship with my youth pastor carried over into college and continues today to yield incredible fruit.

With all that said, when I went to seminary, I became aware that my youth group experience was entirely unique.  In comparing notes with other students from around the country I realized that while I was fasting for Holy Week, other Nazarene teens were hiding Easter Eggs.  While I was spending 24 hours in silence at a monastery, other Nazarenes were bowling.  While I was memorizing John to compete at Bible Quizzing Nationals, other Nazarenes were watching Veggie Tales.

At the same I had a growing sense that I was not going to find a pastorate, at least not right away.  The economy was in a downturn and there was so much animosity being expressed towards the University and the Seminary that, like Ric, I supposed I was anathema.

But the opposite happened.  Through God’s providence and guiding, (or maybe just dumb luck) I was hired as a pastor on my home district in a church I had no prior relationship too.  I was ordained shortly thereafter and look forward to a long and fruitful ministry as a Nazarene.

In conclusion, there are a few things that make my story unique from others’ stories.  The first is that through Bible quizzing and an incredible youth group experience with an amazing youth pastor I had very strong ties to the church.  I do not believe that is the norm.  In fact, most evangelical youth ministries are incredibly shallow.

Second, I was involved in congregational leadership (albeit very minor) when I graduated high school.  Note that was not youth group leadership.  It was a position in another ministry in the church.

Third, even with those two things going for me, I am still a member of the Church of the Nazarene because a congregation took a risk and hired me to be their pastor.  If that had not happened I very well could be United Methodist or Wesleyan by now.

I know that what I just wrote is hardly an endearing vote of affirmation for our denomination but it is a story that should be told, if not to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of our current context and the unique frustrations of Nazarene clergy who are educated in our universities.

Confessions of 30yr Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay at Home/Work Dad

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Over the weekend I ran across a number of articles and blogs about bi-vocational ministry, especially as it relates to a rural, small church and its declining (or non existing) budgets.  Since I am a bi-vocational pastor in a rural, small church that doesn’t have or need a budget, I thought I would weigh in.

The challenges affecting the traditional* job descriptions and salaries of professional clergy are many.  There is the declining church membership and declining percentage of giving per church member (source).  There is also the upcoming (or all ready here) clergy shortage (source).  Then there are greater theological and ethical concerns which my friend Marissa brings to bear here.  Outside the church there is the decline of the middle class and the vast changes in the 21st century work force, which you can read a little about here.  There is also the crisis of higher education (source).  Lastly there is the reemerging factor of the working mother (or put more politically correct, the double income family).

To try to tackle all of these issues in one blog or article would be a weary task and one for which I don’t have time.  However, all these issues and more certainly come to bear in my own biography.  So my goal today and tomorrow is to throw my narrative into the mix and use the hard date of my life to offer clarity, advice, predictions but most of all compassion.

As my unnecessarily clunky title suggests, I am a 30 year old bi-vocational pastor and father.  I pastor a church of about 90 people where only about 45 show up on any given Sunday.  My church is in a rural small town in Eastern Oregon.  It is a fairly impoverished town with 10 percent of teenagers homeless at any given time.  My wife works full time for a university in a town 20 miles away and we can only afford daycare once a week.  Our families live nowhere near us so my 6 month old son and 2 year old daughter accompany me everywhere.  The church lets me live in a rather large parsonage that nevertheless is aged and has many structural problems.  They also throw in a cash salary and a modest spending account.  I receive no benefits because my wife gets them through her job.  In addition to being a pastor I am also paid a fairly decent salary for coaching the local High School’s Cross Country and Track teams.

My wife and I came out of college and seminary okay with just $30,000 in student loans.  We pay $500 a month on them and hope to have them paid off by 2020.

With that basic biographical information in mind, I want to say that I love my life.  I am doing what God called me to do and I am doing it where God called me to do it.  I am doing what I spent 8 years in higher education to do and I have felt nothing but confirmed in my calling since I got here.

There are some great blessings in my current life.  There are also severe limitations and unique challenges that I will tackle tomorrow.  But today I want to count off some of the blessings.

1) My local congregation is incredibly understanding.  I have friends who are pasturing other churches and they are not so lucky.  One congregation told their pastor that if he took another job in order to pay the bills they would reduce his all ready meager salary, which ironically would mean he would have to take a full time job over a part time one and give the church even fewer hours.  My church couldn’t be more different.  They arranged for me to be a coach before I got to town.  They helped my wife find a job.  They have never once complained about me missing ministry work because I have been tied up in family or coaching duties.  They are an incredible blessing.

2) My wife’s job doesn’t just pay the bills but helps her keep her sanity.  My wife grew up in a suburban town and has had a bit of trouble adjusting to such a rural setting.  However, she is one of those wonderful women who is called to be a working mom.  Not only does her job save the church $1000/mo (which is a fifth of the annual budget), but her job gives her friends, a sense of purpose, professional development and that coveted sanity.

3) I love coaching.  Being a coach is an extension of my calling.  In fact, whenever bi-vocational ministry came up in seminary I fretted because I thought I didn’t have another vocation.  So it was quite miraculous when God opened up the opportunity to use my distance running knowledge in town.  When I get to teach teenagers how to train hard, eat right and treat their bodies well, I am not just doing a second job.  I am shepherding them into a better way of life.  Also, the connections with kids and parents in the community have been invaluable and helped me pastor my own church flock a bit better.

4) I would be a pastor for free.  When my church board hired me they guaranteed me I wouldn’t starve to death.  And that was really all I needed.  In fact I didn’t really take the financial package into account.  I was more worried about whether God wanted me here and I figured if God wanted me here the rest would fall into place.  And it has.  God hasn’t let us starve and we have more than we need.

5) The ladies who babysit my kids have become surrogate grandparents.  I can’t say enough about the women who have stepped up to watch our children while I coach and pastor.  The conversations with them and the ability to speak godly peace and truth into their lives would not happen without my kids.  To be sure, they also speak a fair amount of godly peace and truth into my life as well.

So my life is choatic but not overwhelming, challenging but not impossible, difficult but quite enjoyable and I thank God for such a high calling and the means to carry it out.  However, I do think the church needs to rethink the professional clergy model and tomorrow I aim to do just that.  Click on back then!

*Note: I use the word traditional here very loosely.  What we understand to be the traditional salary and description of a professional clergy is only about 50 years old.  In a 2,000 year old tradition that isn't long.