What I Wish I’d Known, Part 4

The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) will assist those in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship will span the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister. The MLCI is a ministry of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in partnership with Lexington Theological Seminary.

The MLCI blog series, launched January 15, 2014, is designed to promote conversation surrounding issues related to clergy health and well-being. The blog seeks to include and incorporate writers from a wide variety of ministerial contexts, seminaries and demographics.

This third installment of the blog series, begun March 5th, asked three distinct Disciples pastors to reflect on what they wish they’d known upon graduating from Seminary and being ordained. In addition, LTS Advancement Associate Julie Richardson Brown kicked off the series.



Clergy Health and Well-being: What I Wish I’d Known, Part 4
–by Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr., Regional Minister and President of the The Pennsylvania Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), M. Div., Lexington Theological Seminary

From the sacred time that President Emeritus Dr. Wayne H. Bell recruited me, to the awesome moment he handed me my diploma, I have cherished my LTS education.  As I enrolled to become a Christian social justice activist and graduated as a “pastorally-focused” Christian social justice activist, LTS equipped me to do congregational and wider-church ministry, and to be a leader among leaders, and servant among servants.  I ended my brisk, three-year LTS education in “cup runneth over” status!  Knowing I did not possess all knowledge, somehow, I often functioned as if I did.

What I wish I had known when I graduated: People Care About What You Know, When They Know That You Care.

While at seminary, I was consumed by the work of revered Black Liberation Theologian, Dr. James H. Cone, as presented in classes with Dr. William R. Barr.   I became convinced that ideas Dr. Cone expressed about the Black experience in America, justice, righteousness, and the church’s work were PRECISELY what all churches, particularly my first post-seminary pastorate needed to hear.  So, off to Jefferson City, Missouri I went to assume two part-time posts:  associate regional minister, and pastor of an African American congregation.

Quickly surveying the city’s social/racial justice issues, I was confident in Dr. Cone’s perspectives, analyses, and call to justice ministry, and was fueled to preach, teach, live, and breathe liberation!  Feeling “theologically correct,”  I waited for what I thought would be quick, well-received changes to the congregation’s direction.  Amazingly, after much preaching and teaching, and anticipation of change, I heard crickets chirping:  no action!

To be sure, many congregants (I do not like the term “members” but that is for another blog!) appreciated my sermons, even the longer ones!  Each week, folks would say to me, “I enjoyed your sermon.”  Also, several of the folks responded well to my weekly Bible study classes.  However, none of this translated into fast, important church changes.  All of this took place during my first year with this congregation!  (Sound familiar?)

During this period of “no change,” I visited with congregants’ homes, hospital rooms, and workplaces.  They invited me into their realms during moments of momentous celebration, and when the unspeakable weight of pain seemed more than they could bear.  The elders and I delivered communion to the homebound, and I made weekly visits to Elder Green’s house to enjoy her homemade potato biscuits.

During year two, this reality hit me:  Change had occurred.  Congregants and I grew closer to each other.  Congregants moved from intellectual understandings of me as their pastor to trusting/loving acceptance of me as their pastor.  This level of change became the portal through which God would embolden the congregation and me to give leadership and service together, in partnership with other churches, that would shatter some glass ceilings, dismantle of a few racial barriers, and formulate and deepen interracial partnerships.

When did this happen?  It happened during the moments when congregants realized I cared about them, that I valued things they thought were important (the pre-Easter fashion show), and that I loved them.  To be sure, they loved me, too!  Their love helped me grow.  They were patient with me as I matured, became a more attentive shepherd, and developed into a community leader and activist.  Congregants even loved me after I cut my three-inch Afro and adopted a more conservative haircut!

I am not sure if the awesome folks I pastored ever remembered who Dr. James H. Cone was, but they did begin to care about some of his ideas and even act on them through the ministry and leadership of this pastor who they knew cared for them, and loved them, to the glory of God.