What follows is my July 2020 newsletter article to the Roanoke District of the United Methodist Church.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” – Acts 17:22
A few years before I was born, Joni Mitchell composed a song titled “Both Sides, Now,” a song inspired by a novel by Saul Bellow. The song includes the lyric “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” I have to say that this lyric speaks to my life in this time and place as I learn to inhabit the ministry of Roanoke District Superintendent.
It is a strange and difficult time to be in ministry, as of course, you already know. When Bishop Lewis approached me about joining her Cabinet, I had no idea how much of the work would not be serving as “missional strategist” as the Discipline envisions, and I knew not how much of the work would be directed, if not dictated, by COVID-19. What I imagined would be numerous drives on backroads to churches and pastors across the Roanoke District has been replaced by things like Zoom meetings and reading reports from Healthy Church Teams.
I realized the other day that I have been a pastor for 1,196 Sundays, and a District Superintendent for two. Prior to moving to Roanoke, I served as the lead pastor of Reveille UMC on the Richmond District, and for my last quarter-year there, ministry was largely dominated by filming worship, editing video, uploading services, forming a Healthy Church Team, and learning how to do ministry in what felt like a distant, disconnected, bleak new landscape, as I partnered with anxious staff and anxious laity, all while trying to manage my own coronavirus-induced anxiety.
And yet, as difficult as it was, I give thanks for this local church experience. I am one of five active clergy in the Conference who have experienced ministry as both a pastor and D.S during this pandemic. and without this experience, I do not see how I could regard this odd and holy work God has called us to share from “both sides now.”
All of this is to say that I believe that those experiences at Reveille have helped me to read what you ask and send to me as a local church pastor as much or more than I do as a Superintendent. I find myself thinking, “Who would I have stand at the door to make sure masks are being worn? What would I say to someone anxious to complete a health form? How would it feel for me to preach wearing a mask? How would I help assure that the people in my charge were safe?”
I remember worrying about apportionments and waiting to see what kind of offering would come in for the week. I remember checking YouTube analytics to see how many views the service received and how it compared to the week before.
In Acts 17, a greatly distressed Paul stands in front of the Areopagus in Athens and speaks the words at the top of this page, greatly destressed because the idols were so many and the job seemed so large, if not impossible. So, what does he do? He simply starts where he can and he does his best: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…”
It is a profoundly difficult time to do ministry in an already post-Christian world. Even before I became your District Superintendent, I was convinced that at no time in the history of this land have clergy and laity had to work as hard we do today. And yet, as I read documents sent to me from so many of you, I find that they are not the dry safety manuals I thought they would be. Instead, they read like love letters written by the church to the people, members and neighbors, saying simply “We love you and want you to be safe and well,” all in the name of the One who described faithfulness as loving God and loving neighbor as oneself.”
Thank you for all you are doing. I know it is not easy. None of us are alone. God is with us, and I am grateful to the God of life for allowing me to be in this time and place together with you.
Grace and peace,