Pastor Emily Cannon served as a TIM Associate Pastor at Saint Paul United Methodist Church, Lincoln, Nebraska from 2013-2015.
Looking back, I think that I was being called to pastoral ministry long before I started consciously considering it. There are so many examples from my early years where I demonstrated a passion for Scripture, an eagerness to serve others, and a propensity for asking challenging questions—and in retrospect, I think that these aspects of my personality were “foreshadowing” the sense of call that I began receiving during my college years. But while other people—family, friends, pastors—noticed these early signs of call, I remained completely obtuse for years. (In fact, I was willfully obtuse for about two years: I started feeling the first stirrings of call when I was a college freshman, but I tried to ignore/run away from it for most of my college career, and it wasn’t until the summer before my senior year that I finally surrendered and accepted the fact that God was calling me to ordained ministry.)
My call has remained fairly constant since I first accepted it, although my experience in seminary certainly helped define and hone that calling. For instance, thanks to a worship class I took in seminary, the sacraments now play a much larger role in my call than they originally did. Additionally, my current appointment is helping me refine my call: I am serving at a larger urban church right now, and it is making me reconsider my assumption that I was called to lead smaller suburban congregations. (I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, and the two churches I attended as a child/youth were small to medium in size, so I assumed that I would naturally be best equipped to serve at churches that fell into the categories I was most familiar with…but now I am realizing that larger churches and city churches might be part of my call as well!) My internships in college and seminary also helped me realize that I feel particularly called to work with immigrant and refugee families, and I believe that part of my pastoral call involves working with people who are new to this country.
When I consider the work of a pastor, a number of different tasks come to mind. Obviously, one of a pastor’s main duties is worship leadership, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is calling me to that particular task. I believe that God is calling me to preach—indeed, discovering that I have the ability to write and deliver a sermon in college was a major part of my call story—and I know that when I am in the pulpit, I can speak with a confidence that is not entirely my own. I love the Gospel, and I feel an incredible degree of passion when I preach it! I also believe that a pastor is called to help people experience God’s grace through prayer, song and the sacraments—and I certainly believe that I am called to those tasks as well. I feel so much joy when I’m leading worship, and I simply cannot imagine a more perfect vocation for me!
However, I believe that the work of a pastor goes far beyond the act of Sunday morning worship. Ultimately, I believe that my call as a pastor is to make disciples for Jesus Christ, and to prepare God’s people to do God’s work in the world. And this is the source of my “launching pad” metaphor, alluded to in the title of this reflection: I see the local church as the place where Christians come to get “refueled” as they prepare for another week of mission in the world. They come to worship to be nurtured, to be challenged, and to enjoy fellowship with other Christians—and then they “blast off” into ministry for the rest of the week. They go back out into the world to love their neighbors, do works of mercy, pursue justice, and advocate for the oppressed…and I believe that one of the main goals of a pastor is to prepare the laity for these tasks. So while this may strike some people as a peculiar metaphor, I would compare the work of a pastor to the work of a rocket scientist: we build the rocket (evangelization and church growth), we launch the rocket (sending people out to be disciples), we refuel the rocket on a regular basis (weekly worship), and we perform regular maintenance on the rocket to keep it in tip-top shape (Christian education, pastoral care, celebration of the Eucharist, etc.) Simply put, I believe that church is the foundation of Christian life, and the role of a pastor is to prepare the congregation for a life of service and ministry.
When I reflect on my history, my experience, and my gifts, I think of three particular ways in which I feel called to contribute to the United Methodist Church. Firstly, I think that I offer an enthusiasm for social justice and church involvement in the world. I believe that works of justice and mercy are—in the words of one of my college religion professors—more than a “side dish” in Christian life. I see service as an integral part of our Christian identity, and I want to urge my congregations to put their faith into action and to be the hands of Jesus in a world full of hurt. (This feeds into my aforementioned “launching pad” imagery: I believe that the role of the pastor is to nurture people in the faith and provide them with spiritual sustenance, but this is not the end goal. The pastor nurtures and nourishes the congregation so that they might go out and nurture and nourish others…so worship is the launching pad, where we come each week to refuel for another week of Christian service!)
I can also offer the UMC my passion for uniting spiritual health and mental health, and my sympathy for Christians who are dealing with mental health issues. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in high school, and while it is well-managed now—it hasn’t stopped me from excelling in college and seminary, and doesn’t interfere with my ministry—my experience has made me very empathetic to the plight of those in the pews who are quietly struggling with anxiety, depression, phobias, and other struggles that they are ashamed to talk about. I think that this is a major asset in the realm of pastoral care: I am someone who parishioners can talk to without fear of judgment, and I will never hesitate to refer someone to a counselor or mental health professional. The local church has historically excelled at caring for those with physical ailments, and I aspire to make the church a safe and nurturing place for people with these less-visible illnesses as well.
Finally, I bring to my ministry an incredible enthusiasm for worship. I love worship, and I think that worship can be really inspiring and exciting—and I strive to make that happen each week. I believe that part of my pastoral call involves bringing creativity to worship: I love to blend old liturgies with new media, I love to write new hymns and prayers, I love to draw on worship traditions from through the ages and around the world, and I love to integrate service and worship. To my mind, weekly worship is more than a mere compilation of hymns, prayers, and words—if church is indeed the “launching pad”, then worship is fuel which sustains us as we journey throughout the week, and we need high-quality fuel if we are going to do high-quality mission!