My Dead End on the Highway of Holiness

night_road higway

Seventeen years of commitment to the Nazarene tradition has now come to an end.  I have arrived at the end of that theological road, that ministerial road, that road that at times seemed like a Mobius Strip suspended in its own infinity.

Comprehending the ending is not near as hard as experiencing the ending.

This past week I was notified that my District License in the Church of Nazarene would not be renewed.

In Nazarene polity, the District License is the affirmation of your District group of Churches that you are fit for ministry and it is the next to last step before a person is ordained.  Typically, this License is held for only a few years and our Manual states that this licensure is not to exceed a 10 year period on the way toward ordination, extenuating circumstances withstanding.

In short, the process works as such.

A person is affirmed by their local church.  The said local church then grants them a Local Ministers License.  A year later this same person applies for a District License.  This process includes a questioning, answering and discernment process that includes a ministerial advisory board and an education board comprised of various pastors on the District.  If a person passes the discernment process at the District Level, they are then guided into the proper education to fulfill their ministerial obligations.  This whole process can take as little as 5 years or as long as the District allows a person to travel this road.

This process is not set in stone, however.  A person can have 0 education, feel a calling to ministry, be assigned a Church and then work on education WHILE pastoring a church.  A person can choose to pursue their education absent a university and their education for ministry counts as much as a person with a university degree.  A person can attain a District License and choose to be a student, such as pursuing a Bachelor Arts in Religion or a Master of Divinity, the only caveat being that ANY ministry done during these student years doesn’t count toward ordination because this person is not directly employed by a church…so employed experience means more than real experience.

As you can see, there is some diversity to the iron clad process of ordination and discernment of ministers.  It is guided by the Manual but it is regulated by the subjective reality of human beings.

Enter my story.

I was called to preach (since that’s what we called it back in the day) in 1998.  I was granted a local license that same year at my local Nazarene Church.  I was then granted a District License the following year in 1999.  Since then I have had a District License every year, for 16 years, except 1.  I have been in the ministerial process of the Nazarene Church since I was 17.

Why you ask?  Certainly it is easy to become a pastor then become a brain surgeon?!  Well, one would think…but I have become the victim of red tape and circumstance.

From 1999-2003 I was as student at Trevecca Nazarene University.  I graduated with a 3.6 gpa as a Religion Major.  I did a lot of ministry in college…BUT I was a student so none of that counts toward ordination.  Only my education counted toward ordination but education doesn’t shave any time off your process to be ordained if aren’t on a church payroll.

After the University but before Seminary, 2003-2004, I did youth ministry at my local Nazarene Church and taught the adult Sunday School class with my father, who deferred to me and my newly minted education.  But my youth ministry and teaching (and I think I did some preaching that year also) did not count toward ordination because…you guessed it, I was not on a church payroll.

I had excelled enough at Trevecca that I knew I really wanted to go to Seminary and earn my Master of Divinity Degree.  I actually ended up taking that year off of school because after first telling Vanderbilt I would accept their 70% scholarship, and enter fall of 2003,’ I had to rescind that acceptance for familial reasons.  I then pursued Masters work at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, in Atlanta.  I was offered a full ride scholarship.  I accepted and studied theology there from 2004-2008.  I graduated with honors, 3.95 gpa, and was granted the Outstanding Scholars Award for my class…an award that had not before, nor since, been granted.  While in Atlanta I did some very good ministry at Harvest Community Church of the Nazarene…BUT NONE of that counted because I was a student.

So 6 years into the process and I am still not ordained but I have a lot of experience and have been doing ministry.

In 2005 my wife was pregnant with Twins.  I needed work.  I was willing to pastor a Nazarene Church and forgo my full ride at Mercer if some churchwould hire me.  My education would not have ended; I was just planning on doing distance learning through Nazarene Theological Seminary and pay for my education.  I wanted to pastor a church.  I wanted to fulfill my calling.  I was willing to sacrifice scholarship money to serve my people, the Nazarenes.  Well, you might be surprised that the prospects of a pastor finding a church at 24 years old is not good.  The Letter to Timothy encourages the church to not despise the youth of the church or its up and coming talent…In my case, the church never gave me a shot…I was despised and the Letter to Timothy sat in silence.

I called the Georgia District Superintendent.

There were four, 4!, churches within a 45 minute drive of seminary that were open.  The DS did not go to bat for me.  He hung me out to dry and could care less I was on his district.  I called my DS in East TN, asked him about work, he said he had nothing (75 churches at the time but nothing for me) and he wasn’t helpful when I asked him to please give a call on my behalf to Georgia or surrounding districts.  He didn’t do that for me.  I needed work, I contacted my leaders and they were not helpful.

I sent out 20 resumes to specific churches and to every Nazarene District in the Southeast, I even sent a resume to a church in Phoenix and Philadelphia!  I was willing to move.  I wanted to pastor.  I was Nazarene…but nothing.  I did not get ANY response from ANY Nazarene Church or District.  The only response I received was from a non-denominational church in South Carolina wanting to pursue my resume.  They sent me an initial candidates questionnaire.  I did not pursue it because a few weeks earlier I had accepted work at a local Papa John’s Pizza and a promotion with it.  I needed to work.  I had twins on the way.  The church didn’t step up, but I needed to work so I made a decision for my family.

You may be saying “well, you didn’t have a lot of experience, so maybe that’s why no one called you.”

That would be a false assumption.

By this time in my life, I had preached a lot.  I had been a supply pastor many times, I had done youth revivals, I had organized entire worship sequences, I had filled in countless of times for pastors.  I had done internships and taught/organized classes for the church.  The Easter before I applied for a church I had planned the entire Easter liturgy at my church in Atlanta, preached the sermon, broke bread and done it all in front of 272 people that Easter morning.  My resume was strong for a young pastor…and I had references to reinforce it.  Yet, I could get no help.  No one in my corner.  No leader to lend me a hand.

So I moved back to TN in 2006 and began work at my family’s business.  The good people at Mercer helped me with my education; I kept my scholarship and commuted for 2 years to Atlanta to finish.  I was determined; I was going to finish this degree.  I did not know how I would use it but I was going to be faithful.

Everything I did from 2005-2009, however, did not count.  I was a “student” and as such my ministry was education not experience, at least according to the Nazarene Manual.  Still not ordained…we are now in year 10.

I had plans of pursing Phd right after seminary, but by then I had 3 kids and it wasn’t in the books to move.  So I entered the family business (an opportunity that even 2 years prior was not a possibility due to finances…so this was not a failsafe I had in my back pocket while I pursued ministry opportunities), grew the business and did part time ministry during that time.  I would preach, teach district classes, teach Sunday school, etc.

2009-2014 I saw some of my most productive ministerial years.  Since I did not go straight into Phd I wrote papers for conferences, such as the Wesleyan Theological Society.  I published multiple academic book reviews for Review and Expositor.  I published 2 papers in theological journals, legitimate journals, with a solid reputation.  I contributed to online articles at ethicsdaily.  I taught more district classes for pastors in training.  I performed 5 marriages and a few funerals.  And, to attempt to finally meet ordination requirements, I got on staff at my local Nazarene church in 2010.  So from 09-14’ I did all that and was actively in ministry teaching weekly, and preaching monthly…not to mention I helped grow my family business from 1 store to 7 stores, while chasing 3 little boys (and a little girl that is now 4 months old) around my house.

In 2013 I thought I had finally gotten my Phd break.  I was a final candidate for Phd in historical theology at Emory.  I had my advisor chosen.  We had discussed how my work would begin and where it would go.  I had been faithful and now, finally, I was going to get a good break.  It didn’t happen.  I had done all I could to prepare for this opportunity.  I had been published and presented more papers and research than most folks IN a Phd program, let alone people just trying to get in one.  My efforts were not enough.  I was not extended an invitation.  With that declination, a little part of me died.  I’m still working on how to move past it.  Accept it.  And deal.  I maintained my relationship to the local church and was on staff but Emory had effectively taken the wind out of my sails…

I had no idea where my life was going.

I have been successful in business and have created many lasting friendships in business and in theological circles.  I knew I didn’t want to give up on theology or ministry so in 2014 I went to interview for my District License again…after much honest conversation and personal admittance of my own inner ambiguity, the District granted my license.  I had not done enough to be ordained but because of my disenfranchisement with the process I did not push for it either.  Back in 2010 the district told me to keep a log of my ministry work to earn credit for ordination.  I mean seriously?  That was not going to happen.  I had done a crap ton for the church and I wasn’t about to write done every minute of everything I had done toward ministry.  I didn’t know anyone that had done that, let alone do that for 8 years of part time ministry to get ordained as per the Manual.

I think this year, 2014-2015, was the year the district was looking for to finally ordain me…a process that was taking far too long and, for me personally, beginning to strain under its own incredulity…making it basically undesirable.  I mean, if there are people who know less, don’t have the experience, and yet still get through the process quicker because they weren’t a “student” or they didn’t participate in a demanding business…then it seemed to me the church was willing to take mediocrity, so long as it was mediocrity that they were managing.

That was the thing about me…I was unmanageable.  And through the years, while I had earned my supporters I had also earned few detractors.   I had become a little angry and silently frustrated that the District would affirm via ordination every Tom, Dick and Harry that said they loved Jesus…but for me I couldn’t catch a break.

Then 2014 happened.  That summer I had contributed to a book, Renovating Holiness, edited by two friends, Tom Oord and Joshua Broward.  They asked me to contribute a few months earlier and I sent them my final essay last summer.  It was a reminder that I was not done as a Nazarene.  There were people here that still valued me, even as I valued them, and we all sought to contribute to making our church better as we rethink old forms of faith.  The book was published and released Feb 2015.

Also that summer I had started a unique ministry at a local Nazarene Church.  I eventually ended up preaching at this church in June, a few times in October and November, and then most Sundays December to March.  When I first went to fill in for a pastoral colleague of mine, who was also moving on to another ministry in a few months, I had no intention of even seeking out this pastorate.  I was just trying to come good on my promise to the District that I would serve…and subsequently I love preaching.  By my second Sunday there in October I felt my heart changing…I felt like this may be the opportunity, the reason I have stayed Nazarene and continued on this process despite the discouragement along the way.  Myself, and the people, clicked, or so I thought.  My family liked the church.  We felt loved and we loved those folks in return.  It was one of the best ministry experiences I have had in my life.  It wasn’t a university job…but maybe this is what God had for me.  The church needs thoughtful people too and I thought this situation held a lot of promise.

This situation, however, never materialized.  I was willing to bend a lot to make this happen.  I was willing to reorganize work, family and my entire schedule to meet the needs of this church.  But I was never given that opportunity.  In my opinion, the District failed me.  The leadership failed me.  Here, once again, when I needed honesty, transparency and a good shake…it didn’t happen.  Thus, through the years when I most needed the church…the church let me down.  There is a lot to this situation and why it didn’t materialize, but I know that none of that was my doing.  It was totally out of my hands.

SOOOOO Enter the present.  After struggling with my calling and my place in this world (if I can quote Michael W. Smith) for nearly a year and a half, then seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a real opportunity, only to have it snuffed out…and on the heels of Emory being snuffed out, I was spiritually and intellectually exhausted.  My creativity was zapped.

The hard thing about being one of the clergy in the “know” and seeing how everything works is that when you need a break, or you feel burned, or you’re just pissed off and asking God “what Next?” the last place a pastor, struggling or otherwise, wants to be  is church.  In all other professions you can leave that place and never see it again.  You can quit your job, tell them to shove it, and disappear…BUT when your job is church, you can’t do that without people being suspicious of your intentions and questioning your piety.  I have been working toward a common ambiguous goal since I was 17, a path that has taken many twists and turns.  But turn after turn I see what I once loved and what inspired me continually get stripped away…that place, the place that represents all that I am not at the moment or unrealized gifts that will never be, that place…that place is a place I don’t want to be around.  I needed  break, a rest.

So I took it and that was a mistake.

After Emory declined to offer me an invitation to study, I slowly began to shirk from the work I thought I was doing in preparation to be a liaison between church and academy.  A Liaison is what I had thought my call, my vocation, would become.  A scholar pastor or a pastor scholar, someone that bridges the gap between these seemingly two juxtaposed realities in current culture.   My dream job was to be the dean of a chapel, while also teaching classes at a university, and in the summers travel and preach at conferences or camp meetings.  I loved teaching, I loved preaching…I loved academics yet I loved the local church.

Then the invitation to contribute to Renovating Holiness happened.  The connection with a local Nazarene church happened.  Things were looking up…then they turned south again.  After I finished my interim work at this church I attended church much less frequently.   In 12 weeks I was probably at a half dozen services.  I came a few Sunday mornings, a couple Sunday nights and had stopped coming to Wednesday night’s altogether.  The Wednesday night fell by the way side due to work…I just couldn’t operate 7 stores, take care of my health, be a family man and be all things to all people at church at the same time, especially since it seemed lots of those doors were being shut in my face (past and present).

After careful consideration and counsel with some good friends, I decided to give ministry another year.

Here I was, a 34 year old man going through a process that is supposed to take 4-6 years and I am on year 17.  I was getting tired.  I was feeling a bit ridiculous.  It was obvious that the church had no desire to seriously engage with someone on a true bivocational level, as univocational pastors that were equivalent to the village idiot were making more headway than myself with degrees, tons o f experience, good homilies and academic standing.  BUT despite all this, I was going to be faithful and see what this year held.  Like 2014, I had no idea the opportunities or ways the Spirit would work; I was willing to do it again.

This year, however, I wanted a sabbatical.  I wanted the District to renew my license but I wanted to step back and evaluate.  I resigned at my local church as pastor of Christian Education.  I was not opposed to doing ministry, even teaching and preaching a little, but it’s very difficult to give an honest evaluation of something when you are still close to it.  I needed to step away and just be still.  Shut my mouth and listen.

The District did not grant me that.

I was notified this past week that my license was not renewed and on a board with at least half a dozen men who know me personally, and have known me since I was a teenager, none of them even motioned for my renewal.  Not ONE.  It was brought to the table and my name and license sat in the center…no one picked it up.  They said that my commitment to the local church was illustrated in my attendance, and of late, my attendance was not on point.  My work the past year, especially the work I did as an interim fill in, was not enough for the district.  Apparently I still had more to prove, since that is the basic point of the licensure process: to prove yourself.  But, really, there is nothing I else I have or can prove to anyone that doesn’t see.

I have many issues with how this was handled.  I wrote the District Superintendent, I made my complaints, but this entire situation stands as is.  After 17 years of ministry and being a Nazarene minister…that road has come to an end.

I will never again enter the Nazarene process of ordination.  That road has about as much promise as Secessionary Way in South Carolina.  I am done.

The most frustrating part of this entire process is the pretentious piety and sanctimonious posturing that took place all for the sake of a righteous roll calling.  It’s difficult to have the majority of a life’s work stand before people ( they can plainly see it and know that I have the abilities to do ministry and pedagogy) and yet they act hubristically and pass judgment on my abilities, or even worse, by not renewing my license tell me to “get lost…your services are no longer needed.”

I just hope that the folks that did not renew my license say a prayer of thanksgiving.

They should thank God they’ve never studied what I have studied, learned what I have learned , know what I know, or wrestled with career and calling as I have…living in ambiguity and ambivalence, traversing the reality of doubt and faith as those two remain interconnected.  They should say thanks they have never done so and rejoice in their spiritual uprigthness and theological absolutes…because if they had been me, not only would they have been out of the game years ago, they might have had some fine men on a board tell them what they told me, “No.”  No grace for you.  No time.

There is nothing new under the Sun here folks…carry on.

So where do I go from here?  What shape does my life take?

Well, immediately I will continue to run my business as best I know how.  I will continue to work hard to balance work, family, my vocation and perhaps in the future do some more ministry when the season arrives.  There are many places I could fit in and I have already begun to explore other traditions.  But for the time being, and probably over the next several months, I will be pondering what it means to move past my Nazareneness.  I cannot change my roots.  I cannot take back all that I have given to the church.  I can’t undo any of it, nor would I want to.   As Derrida reminds us all, our traditions can never be fully evacuated even if we evacuate them; they continue to structure our discourse.

I suppose I could stay and worship, but the sign out front will be a constant reminder that when I needed thoughtful people to give me grace and space, I was denied both…and I can’t support that sort of Institution.

So if you are Nazarene, reading this, and have been part of my ministry:  Thank you for allowing me to serve.  Thank you for the experience and for what you have taught me about ministry.  Thank you for being a blessing and encouragement to me when I needed it most.  I am who I am because of people in the local church.  This event, and my personal feelings, have never been the result of anyone in the local church.  My local Nazarene pastor is both my pastor, and my friend, and he has never done anything to make this happen.  He has always supported me, even when I gave him reason not to.  He knows who is he is and if you do, please support him, because he an outstanding minister who loves God and his people, the church.

This final releasing of me by my Church is the result of a journey that has taken years to mature.  So while my path with Nazarene ministry has come to an end, my path is not at an end.  This recent turn of events has inspired me.  It has reminded me who I am even as people have told me who I am not.  It has lit a fire under me and makes me want to be better, not bitter, as the cliché goes.

I do not know what the future holds…but I do know, thanks to folks like Ted Peters, that “God is the worlds future” and it is into that future where I will find myself and hopefully find some of you there with me.

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