• Happy birthday to my daughter Alison...tomorrow.  Next birthday maybe her kid (due the end of August) will be able to sing "Happy Birthday" to her.  or not
  • Since I've been teaching in License to Preach School this past week, I've mostly been reading papers (written by the students) instead of books.  This week's essay is about that school and those students.
  • The garden is flourishing, but still not much produce:  a few eggplants and pepper, okra about a week away, a few tomatoes, and some nice herbs.  My pole beans are all leaf and no bean so far.

July 22, 2018
A Crop of New Preachers
This year's "License to Preach School" is in the history books. As of Thursday night, we now have 16 newly minted United Methodist pastors:  the class of 2018.  This will not quite offset the 30 pastors who just retired, but it's a start.  

For the third year now, I was asked to teach The United Methodist Book of Discipline , a 900 page book written  by a committee of 900 people. If you suppose that such a book would make an awful read, you are right.  It  ranks 184,620 on the "religious" best seller list.  It's popularity would be lower, except that it is the rule book for all United Methodist churches.  Pastors have to buy it and pass a course in it before we will turn them loose in a parish.  

Granted, it includes some occasionally valuable information.  But that information is never where you would expect to find it...and it is always written in such a convoluted way that your first thought is always "huh?"

There are other courses offered during this 12 day grueling marathon:   Bible, Theology, Evangelism, Spirituality, Worship, Preaching, and Counseling.  And each year, our  fearless Dean (Patty Johansen,) scouts out the clergy of the conference in order to select just the right teacher for these beginning pastors.  She always asks the most dramatic orator to hone the students' skills in  preaching.  The holiest pastor is just the right one to teach  spirituality ; and the most tender and loving veteran pastor always gets slated to teach  pastoral care and counseling .  

But her most difficult decision of all is to find someone to teach  The Book of Discipline .  This very strange and very boring book requires a very strange and boring instructor.  And look who keeps getting picked for this spot:  yours truly.  I should not be surprised:  my wife tells me I am quite boring and my kids tell me I am quite strange.  And rumor has it that I'm penciled in to teach this class for the next ten years.

I tell my students that the Book of Discipline  is a big help when we need to deal with bullies in a church.  After all, a bully is someone who insists on making up his or her own rules and imposing them on everyone else.  Just learn the Book of Discipline and insist it be followed...overriding the willy nilly commands of some bully.

I also tell my students which 50 pages will be most useful to them as local pastors.  And I ask them if they have any questions.  And if they have questions in the future, give me a call.  But I am not going to lecture for eight hours on this book.  Then we spend the rest of the time talking about administration, systems, how to conduct meetings, how to be political and psychological while leading a church, and how to think strategically.  
After completing this year's school, one student wrote this about his experience: "Other than going through Army Basic Training, UMC Pastor Licensing School was the most intense, stressful,  exhausting, emotionally draining  12 days of my life." 

And the school is challenging. Students had to submit over 20 papers on various subjects, and all of them were rudely critiqued.  They preached sermons that were harshly analyzed for performance, logic, biblical accuracy, interest, and passion.  They were pushed and challenged on their preconceptions of theology and the role of the pastor.  They were given difficult case studies and asked to find their way out.  And of course, it was  torture to simply stay awake in my Discipline class, as it was always their last class of the day, when they were most fatigued.   
And now they are my new colleagues.  A part of me feels sorry for what they had to suffer:  the stress, the sleeplessness, the saturation, the sacrifice, the semantics, the sequestration, the setbacks, the soapboxes, the soul-searching, the sparring, the splaying, the squirming, the staggering, the stretching, and the suggestions.  And we are long overdue to have a talk about pedagogy, discovering the most effective methods for teaching pastors needed skills.  

But a part of me also knows that pastoring a church these days is far more difficult than this 12 day "boot camp."  Our changing culture, the rise of anger (in general) in our society, the arguments over social issues in the church, the blame put on clergy for declining membership in churches...it's rough out there in the average church. The help and the grace of God are always available, but a surviving pastor must constantly scramble out of the quick-sands of humiliation and back onto the solid grounds of humility.  Our students these past two weeks showed they could do that.  

So let me introduce you to your new preachers:  Some of them are young (the youngest was 23, two others were in their 30s.)  There were two in the class who are older than me.  The class boasts 9 women and 7 men.  All but two were from our annual conference.  Racially, four were black, twelve white.  We had no Asian or Hispanic students, despite those growing demographics in our conference.  

Almost all struggled to afford the school (over $1000 per person, counting books they had to purchase.) Some have not been to school in many years and struggled hard to get the readings and writings done.  

But all of them know the world out there better than me.  You can tell that by the various jobs they have had prior to becoming pastors. 

This group included people with many diverse experiences.  (You can decide how each one of these former vocations might give a pastor a unique angle on doing ministry.)  Here are their former jobs:  pest control technician, electrician, army sergeant, YMCA CEO, coach, PE teacher, pet shop clerk, nursing home aide, Rally's hamburger cook, economic forecasting, oil industry technical supervisor, bank supervisor, mechanic, truck driver, farmer, pre-school teacher, Denny's trainer, potato chip company office worker, school secretary, electronic sales, leasing agent, professor, researcher in cognitive neuroscience, school board member, administrator for the Society of the Blind and Visually Impaired, accountant, machine operator at Kraft foods, marketing assistant, church secretary, cafeteria worker, financial analyst, bookkeeper in the EPA, lifeguard, dog washer, noncommissioned Air Force officer, program manager for a state agency, funeral home administrator, and ASL interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing. 

One student survived a civil war and a refugee camp in her home country.  

Pray for my new colleagues.  And pray that in the future, these new friends and colleagues of mine will teach and bless me far more than I was able to teach and bless them. --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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