Downward Mobility Gets Personal

February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday is as good a day as any to reflect on what God is doing in one’s life, and anything that tends toward “examination of conscience” is particularly fitting during Lent. Lent for some is seen as a period of self-imposed “downward mobility” during which one denies oneself in order to follow Christ. This concept is taking on new meaning for me, as I examine the contours of my life and Christian service with an eye to reshaping my ministry life.  Since it has been awhile since my last blog, and inertia must be overcome, today I am going to share some random thoughts that may perhaps point the way for a more sustained reflection in the next few days. [I’ve recently learned never to promise a blog “tomorrow,” because life has been a little unpredictable lately, and tomorrow turns into “next month.”]

I attended the Orlando meeting of Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and ECO two weeks ago, and was gratified that several of my readers went out of their way to affirm Bringing the Word to Life and thank me for helping them sort through issues. You must know how much these greetings blessed me, and I want to extend my gratitude to every one of you who put your name to a face.  Thank you for reading my posts. I trust that you will use my blog for God’s glory and Kingdom purposes whenever a topic touches on something going on with you or your church.

My reflections today do not fall into any PC(USA) category, and maybe that is part of the news of this post. I am finding so much of what is going on—or not going on—in the denomination to be of little consequence to me, irrelevant to my call, and admittedly boring. This does not mean that I am beyond grieving for the Presbyterian church or that I am out of touch. Rather, it is my perception that we are in a slow leftward drift following a 2012 Tipping Point, and there is not much that can be done to change that direction. And I am tired of talking about it. I have spoken my piece in the last eighteen months, and harping on old themes just doesn’t feel helpful right now.

Nevertheless, I feel called to write, and this blog is a daily discipline of reflection that allows me to test out ideas and learn from the comments that come my way. The Word always needs to be brought to life, so I want to continue to encourage your faith in our gracious Savior and his Word written. Probably less and less of it will relate specifically to the Presbyterian church, but you know that I am coming from a Reformed perspective, just trying to teach the faith and spur us all on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:25).

It would seem that God has been channeling me into a writing track for several months now.  My role as an adjunct instructor for Fuller Northern California has diminished to almost nothing, due to policy and curriculum changes at the seminary. The Coalition leadership is on hiatus for a year, between Assemblies, though I remain Moderator of a small board. Every indication at both the local and national level is that I am an unsuitable candidate for pastoral ministry—lots of reasons for that conclusion, that have nothing to do with my gifts, abilities, energy, or passion for the gospel. I worked most of autumn on DOORWAYS: Study Guide for the Essential Tenets, which was finally put online two weeks ago by FOP but was downplayed at the Orlando gathering in favor of “The French Confession” (and Joe Small’s excellent introductory talk on the subject). So I do not think there is an ongoing role for me in the either the new denomination or the Fellowship.

What remains on my plate is a quarter-time parish associate position (they call me “teaching pastor”) at a large ELCA Lutheran church in my neighborhood. I preach every few weeks, teach weekly, preside at Communion every Sunday, and am on call for pastoral care needs. This has been a fantastic blessing all around, but it too will end when the new permanent executive pastor is identified and called, probably early this summer.

I am an almost-60-year-old female Presbyterian minister, with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and executive leadership skills. I am all dressed for a party, but have nowhere [organizationally] to go. I am sorely tempted to say, “There is something wrong with this picture,” but who is to say my life is not going exactly according to God’s plan . . .

Could it be that God is orchestrating a vanishing act, achieved by downward mobility, in order to put me in a place where I can write without interruption? After months of prayer, this is the conclusion upon which I am acting. I am turning over a new leaf and entering a new phase of ministry at home. As I say this, though, I see the tremendous emotional hurdle I have been [not] facing in the last several months, embodied in my inability to clean out my home office. Three lives (pastorate, seminary teaching, and denominational matters) are represented in the stacks and boxes and files that are now in gridlock. In response to this conundrum, one of my covenant group friends said last week, “Mary, it seems like you need to hold a funeral, and say goodbye to your old life.” That rings true for me, and I have adopted that as the primary task of this week.

Looking forward, I would like to know what approach or topics would be helpful to my blog readers. I am no longer sure where my particular value is, though I know that I have value in the Body of Christ as a teacher and perhaps a prophet. Don’t worry; I am not depressed or suffering from any sort of complex. It is well with my soul. I’m just looking for direction from my readers, and trust that your feedback can set me on a course of service as an observer and spiritual guide. I sure don’t want to waste your time blathering about stuff you prefer I keep in a private journal! So let me know what you are thinking and how you perceive my contribution to your spiritual journey.






24 Responses to “Downward Mobility Gets Personal”

  1. dbwest Says:

    I appreciate you sharing these personal thoughts. It is a time of change and many of us are re-evaluating whether to stay in the denomination. While my profession is not tied up on denominational issues, I have spent many hours dealing with these denominational issues in our particular church (which divides families and friendships) representing churches that have left the denomination, and representing a group in a case before the Texas Supreme Court in a significant church property case.

    At what point do those with orthodox views give up the fight? It is hard to be hopeful about the future of the denomination. On the other hand, we are called to faith.

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    • revmary Says:

      I feel for you, bro, having “been there and done that” on the judicial process within the church. An appropriate response to the current realities is found somewhere along a continuum, which to its extremes ranges from destroying to affirming. Short of those extremes, acquiescing has never been my thing, but fighting has. The question now is whether resistance to the world’s ways can take on a different form than in-fighting. I too am not hopeful about the future of the PC(USA), but it is a mission field. It is worth exploring the forms resistance can take that keep us sane, faithful to God, and engaged with people who need exposure to the biblical challenge. Thanks for writing, David.

  2. Don’t have directions to suggest, pal — and it would be presumptuous of me to search for some, since we know we perceive things from different promontories. But am called to say how much I value our friendship, how rare it is in kind, and how good it feels to stroll (or wander, or ramble, now that we’re not marching) the path where I get to see and hear you from time to time.

    • revmary Says:

      You are a sweet man, Houston Hodges, and I am grateful to God for you. What we know of each other is that our path-finding and honest and humbling, even when the roads diverge in a yellow wood. Neither one of us wants the other to get lost, for which I am glad.

  3. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you so much for writing this Mary; it resonates so much with my own feelings and groping. While I am not dealing with a paid job-I haven’t for 50 years: ) I none the less find myself in a spot where it seems almost everything i have done in the last ten or more years is over, and yet I know God is never finished with us. I will enjoy listening as you write about your “down-ward mobility” and where it leads.

  4. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart’s response to God’s movement in your life.
    When you started the series on Essential Tenants on this blog
    I felt like it was about things that those reading already
    held as essential. The people who need to hear your words
    have stopped listening…..they have a veil over their eyes and ears. Your work on essentials has not been in vain, but the ones who need to hear it are not willing to heed this word.

    I have been leading a Bible study of 1 and 2 Corinthians
    this year to young moms. I think Paul was in a similar situation
    to you and many in this time of change.
    He was bombarded by people who had expectations
    of what a leader should be like, letters of recommendations
    with lists of doing and being, and flamboyant speech etc.
    as well as false teaching.
    All his credentials were stripped away in favor of total submission to God, and faith in God’s ability to work.
    Doctrine was important, but relationship with God, knowing and experiencing God’s power in the midst of things falling apart, building faith not is an institution, but in a relationship to God
    was more important. It was all about God and what God was doing.

    I am cheering at where God is leading you and that He
    has a new way for you to fulfill the task needed for this time.
    We need leaders who know the essentials, but are willing
    to lead us to dwelling, listening, believing, utilizing the power
    of God, moving as God leads and leaders who Glorify God.. You are such a person
    and your personal sharing is part of this, so thank you.

    Linda Lee

    • revmary Says:

      Dear Linda from Mukilteo, thank you for the kind words and encouragement. Your take on 1-2 Corinthians is insightful and true about Paul; may it be so in my life, too. I will try to honor your confidence in me as I machete through the jungle to find the path of righteousness.

  5. Gerry Says:

    Sent from my iPad

  6. Thom Fultz Says:

    Wow! You have been an extraordinary encourager to me and your blog has expressed my concerns so often and dealt with them faithfully, you have given me the way to frame so many issues of our day. Your commitment to each of the Great Ends of the Church is a testimony of a heart of obedience and leading by the Holy Spirit.

    I recall so many years ago of Art Chartier, while serving as an Interim Pastor at Westminster, Mobile, speaking of your ministry and determination towards discipleship. I have watched that continue ever since.

    Hang in there – transitions are the hardest – preparation times of waiting – a Lenten experience of listening to God’s still small voice!

    Thom Fultz
    Ruling Elder

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Thom, and the fond memories of my own mentor Art Chartier, who supervised my pastoral internship before I was ordained. I will keep listening and writing, glad that “framing issues” and putting often complex matters into organized language is helpful.

  7. Gwen Brown Says:

    Mary, our lives have only touched briefly through the years, but each time you have been a source of insight and encouragement to me. First as a woman changing into ordained ministry and next as a PCUSA pastor hungry for solid Biblical teaching. Now as a solo pastor in one of the smaller ECO churches I am blessed by your honest personal reflections and wrestling, and welcome your lessons on essential tenants to aid my elders. Whatever you do, you do to the glory of Christ Jesus. So write for your larger congregation, bless your local congregation with your in-person teaching, and wait on the Lord for the PCUSA, FOP and ECO leaders to realize what a treasure you are. Blessings, Gwen Brown, Teaching Elder.

  8. Dear Mary,

    I don’t often reply to your blogs but I do read them carefully and prayerfully, permitting the Spirit to strengthen my own faith. This new blog gives us a 21st century face for costly discipleship. To God be the glory. And I thank you.

    I wonder if the church is merely adopting lessons from partisan politics: more supporters, more money, more power through outreach and inclusion of new groups while softening the line between personal morality and social justice. To what degree is the church controlled by the surrounding political culture than by the spirit of Jesus and the prophets? How is God-centeredness to offset self-centeredness in such an atsmophere?

    Just a thought,

    • revmary Says:

      Eleanor, this is an interesting and complex topic worth a good look. I also observe the mirroring of political methods in and outside the church, and it’s not pretty. I will chew on this idea for a few days. Thanks for chiming in!

  9. Joe Duffus Says:

    Mary, I’ll offer you an idea that hit me a few weeks ago.

    Don’t know if you saw the USATODAY write-up of the Lifeway survey that reported only 37% of Americans believe being gay is a sin. Interesting, especially as it comes on the heels of other surveys reporting a higher number of “nones.” But the really interesting comment in that story, to me, was this one:

    LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer predicted more future conflicts such as that one.

    “The culture is clearly shifting on homosexuality, and this creates a whole new issue: How will America deal with a minority view, strongly held by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and so many others?” he said in a statement.

    I think that’s a profound concern in the general American culture. As gay marriage and acceptance continue to spread wider, how will we all treat those who honestly dissent?

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, the political ramifications could be severe and the social fall-out paralyzing, unless we can help folks understand the meaning of our constitutional freedoms. “Freedom” and “for all” are going to bump into each other rather quickly.

  10. Phil Moran Says:

    Hi Mary:

    You’ve articulated something many of us are feeling; a sense of exile. The walls have been breached, there’s no use fighting any more, but we’re not about to adopt Babylonian ways. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

  11. David Dobler Says:

    Dear Mary:

    Henri Nouwen wrote of ‘downward mobility’ as the model of Christian vocation. The page is turning on many practices and institutions for which we trained, and the invitation is to trust in God’s providence rather than the passing structures of the age. I observe that the work of the Kingdom is not yet done, and I expect that you have been exquisitely prepared for something, quite irrespective of the world’s expectations and standards. Or our own.

    A blessed Lent to you, sister,

    • revmary Says:

      David, thank you for your word of affirmation and hope. It is indeed good to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, the one “institution” that will never end. —Mary

  12. dweidlich Says:

    Mary, we haven’t met in person, but I occasionally follow a link over to your blog and enjoy reading your perspectives on PCUSA developments. I especially appreciate your humility, vulnerability and candor.
    I have been out of my Presbyterian pastorate a year and a half and out of the presbytery and denomination a year now. It became impossible for me to continue ministering in the PCUSA for a variety of reasons – personal and theological. I can tell you there is life outside the denomination and it’s a good life. It’s anything but comfortable. I’m a bi-vocational minister now. I don’t know where this will lead but I am enjoying life in the moment. I feel like I’m in a very small life-boat, but it feels more promising than hanging on to a sinking ship.
    By the way, I’m about an hour north of you – if you’re still in SF. I’d love to have you come up here and preach in my small church sometime.

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