Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shepherding the Shepherd

Last week, I attended the Shepherding the Shepherd conference hosted by the UCC 2030 Clergy Network. Even though I'm so many days removed from the event now, I think that I'm still basking in the afterglow a little.

First, a word about Boston: you guys are cool. We stayed on the campus of Boston University, which is pretty close to the downtown area. I loved the feel of the neighborhood, and I soaked up the college atmosphere. I like to think that I could still pass for a 20-something college student, but I may be seriously mistaken on that point. Anyway, it was great to be back on a campus again and to be able to soak in a little of that ethos. It also seems like everybody jogs there. Good for you, Bostonians, being all health-concious.

So. The conference. A good friend from seminary and I arrived together to register, where we were greeted by several people I've only ever known through Facebook or elsewhere online, one or two people I've met at General Synod, and someone I haven't seen since I graduated college with her over ten years ago. Even with this limited prior engagement, the looks of recognition and the feeling of welcome was wonderful. I was also given a free copy of Lauren Winner's newest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, complete with personalized autograph. So, how about that?

Wednesday morning, we heard from Walter Hidalgo, who spoke to us about his ministry of using hip hop to engage young people in matters of faith and spirituality. He shares more about his ministry on his website, Beyond the Four Walls. Early afternoon that same day, we heard from Victoria Weinstein, aka PeaceBang, who talked to us about the importance of taking our public persona seriously and being comfortable in our own skin.

At that point in the day, it finally came time to lead my workshop on longer pastorates. This is what I spent months thinking about and preparing for, what I crafted a Powerpoint presentation for, what I thought long and hard about so as to respect the time constraints. To make a long story short, three people came. Three. Now, I need to offer some caveats here. First, there were maybe 50 people at the conference total, and there were 4-5 other workshops being offered at the same time, one of which was led by PeaceBang who'd just charmed and engaged us during her keynote (and her workshop sounded really, really good besides). Second, mine was a good workshop for what it was: the participants asked questions and weren't shy about sharing their own experiences. In the immediate moment, it was fine.

It was sometime on the way over to worship that I began to become aware of the disappointment welling up within me. I set my stuff down in a pew in the chapel, only to get up again shortly after worship began and stand outside on the steps. I just watched the people for a few minutes; the busy college atmosphere of summer term activity. After a while, I willed myself to go back in and sit down, just in time to take part in some small group sharing and a time of healing featuring small bowls of oil. It was in the moment of receiving an anointing from a colleague that the disappointment evaporated: I'd needed this prayer and this blessing. After not only preparing to do my part as part of this conference, but also all the tasks of ministry that I'm entrusted with on a daily basis, including their imperfections and their frustrations and my limited capacity to help some people, I was being shepherded. In fact, it may just be that I didn't really come to this conference to lead this workshop, but to receive that oil instead.

That evening, some of us attended a Red Sox game. The only thing I'll say about this is what I noticed about the atmosphere. You know how you go to most ballparks and there's always something happening? Like, in between innings there are people dressed up as hot dogs racing, or there's a blooper reel playing on the big screen or there's a kiddie play land inside the park or whatever? There was none of that at Fenway. No bells and whistles, no extras. It's like the organization is saying, "Hey, if the ballgame isn't good enough for you, what are you doing here?" Except, you know, they'd say it with a Bahstan accent. I had mad respect for that, even if the "Sawx" are far from being my favorite team.

On the final day, during the last worship service, I was commissioned as one of the newest members of the National Planning Team. As it turned out, I was the only new NPT member who was able to be at that final service. So I was called up, and stood by myself in the middle aisle of the chapel as my colleagues gathered around me for prayer and laying on of hands. I hadn't experienced a moment like this since my ordination, but this was different. That earlier moment was certainly important, but I was kneeling and encompassed in a sea of robes trying pass off the weight of people's bodies as not that big a deal. Here I was more conscious of those around me, the weight lighter, the smiling faces of others clearly visible, the words of affirmation powerful.

It was this final moment that caught the spirit of the entire conference for me. The encouragement, affirmation, and renewal that I found during those few days was exactly what I needed, and what the planners intended. Thanks be to God.