On Sewer Lines and Car Troubles, Lessons for Ministry (and Life) in Transition

Transition into Ministry Program


Rev. Andy Frazier is in his first year as Pastor at Frontenac (KS) United Methodist Church after serving for two years as Transition into Ministry (TiM) Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Lincoln, NE from 2012-2014.  Andy writes about lessons that he has learned in the transition from being an associate pastor to being a solo pastor as a part of the TiM program of the Great Plains United Methodist Church.
Last Monday morning, I arrived at church, and I was greeted with a wall of stench; the building reeked of some untold awfulness. I was already a little late to work, because my car’s brakes had decided to take a break that day…and after cursing them some, I came to realize that I guess it wasn’t really their fault. Apparently brakes need brake fluid, and a small (unnoticed and/or untended) leak can run a car dry of such a thing.
Thankfully, I was graciously aided by a stranger named Carl, who not only bought me brake fluid (after I insisted on buying it myself) but also drove me home and got my car in running shape by adding the fluid and stepping on the pedal several times to bleed the brakes. Initially, I was certain that the car repair would cost me a few hundred dollars…I mean, brakes don’t just go out, right? But Carl’s kindness and the $3.59 he spent on brake fluid left my repair costs at an absolute zero for me.
Crisis averted, I suppose. So, off to work, where that awful wall of stench would hit me. Dolores, our faithful childcare director, was already on the case. She had called the gas company, and by the time I arrived (late) to work, a worker from the gas company was already there. Of course, all of our minds went to the worst. And they had to, right? We were responsible for the little lives in our childcare facility, and even though the smell was both emanating from and contained in an area away from the kids, it was still top priority that morning. A gas leak is nothing to trifle with, and a simple isolation from the smell of the gas far from insured the safety of those kids. Between the smell and the threat level, the rest of my morning was consumed by this looming, stinky gas cloud.
Alert was on high. This was crisis number two of the day (spoiler: pun-intended), and I was still at least a couple hours away from consuming my surprisingly tasty brown rice and green lentil concoction I had fixed for lunch.
You know every church has that person, a person without whom, you don’t know how the church would continue to run. The church I’m serving in is blessed to have a few people like that, and among them is our trustee’s chair, Larry Willis. Larry popped right over to the church after his morning bowling league finished up, and within 3 seconds of entering the building, he said, “yep, that’s sewer gas (pun referent).” Those four words were the sign of his suspicion being confirmed. Following his lead, I filled a pitcher full of water and headed for the bathroom. For some reason I still don’t fully understand, we poured 2 gallons of water into the floor drains in the restrooms, and he said, “that should do it.” Now, I wasn’t entirely convinced that such a pervasive, awful smell would simply go away from pouring a couple gallons of water in a floor drain, but, of course, I should never have doubted Larry. By the time that our after school program got underway that afternoon, the smell was still present only in the olfactory memories of those of us who had the pleasure of encountering it earlier in the day.
Although I don’t have the courage or ability the Coen brothers demonstrated in “A Serious Man,” (a movie that is still largely a mystery to me) to tell a story at the beginning of my work and never directly reference it again, but I am going to put my Monday morning on hold for a while, while I talk about transitions.
Well, this last four and a half months has been a season full of transitions. These months have been full of saying goodbyes and hellos, as I said “fare thee well” to my friends at my first pastoral appointment in Lincoln, NE and started my first solo pastoral appointment in Frontenac, KS. That’s not all, either. My wife just started her first ever pastoral appointment just a month before I started my new appointment…oh, yeah, and I have a wife now. In this past four and a half months, I also got engaged and married to the love of my life. Needless to say, these past few months have been pretty hectic.
And feeling hectic doesn’t bring out the best in me always, either. That’s not to say that I don’t thrive on a certain level of chaos. In fact, when there’s not enough of it in my life, I have been known to grow restless. I guess the same is also true when there’s too much chaos in my life, too. Having so many little details and tasks surrounding so many emotionally weighty life-events is enough to make even my chaos-loving self feel overwhelmed. Details, small tasks, and unresolved feelings all fight for my attention, often clouding any clear vision of how to best focus it. I keep on running, though, regardless of whether or not I have a helpful direction to run in. When I get overwhelmed, often I’ll just spin. So why not just spin for a while?
I know the stakes really are pretty high in this transition. I mean, if I was pressed to identify two strains in my life that have remained the most constant, both my call to be a pastor and a deep desire to have someone to share my life with would be strong contenders. And here they are --both in front of me, both in the height of their transition. A new thing is being carved out right before my eyes from a solid block of future potential.
I have had several reminders, though, that even when it is something beautiful that’s being whittled out, it’s still easy to get lost in watching the tiny scraps of wood fly off and hit the floor. This, of course, instead of keeping my eyes on what is emerging in their absence. But there’s no wonder that they so captured my eye; the splinters are flying faster than ever before. I suppose it’s a natural thing in times of transition that some things are lost to make way for other things, but in times of transition it’s more important to have a clear vision, too. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Through my Transition into Marriage (a transition I didn’t get a dedicated TiM program to help with), I thought a lot about the freedoms I would be losing. I would no longer have the freedom to wake up every day and make whatever choices tickled my fancy. I would instead have someone else’s desires to take into account, too. I would no longer have the freedom to spend my money on whatever car or meal or gadget I felt like buying that day. “Our money” is different than “my money.” I wouldn’t have the freedom to nervously make flirtatious eye contact with some random girl that day…if I ever happened to muster the courage (indeed, this transition obviously marks the death of a very robustly pursued bachelor’s life). I would instead promise only to flirt with one person for the rest of my life.
And having a certain loss of freedoms wasn’t limited only to my loss of singleness; it was as true of my transition into my first solo pastorate. I would no longer have the freedom to feel deeply known by the community I was serving. I had spent a couple years building strong relationships in Lincoln, which wasn’t yet the case in Frontenac. I would no longer have the freedom to defer the hard questions to the senior pastor. At my new appointment, I was the one who got the deferred questions. I would no longer have the freedom to say, “Well, if I was in charge…” followed by some well-intended (if not self-righteous) improvement plan that could never be proven wrong. My ideas will be shown for what they are in my new appointment. I would no longer have the freedom of feeling unburdened by the weight of being the one God had called to order the life of the congregation I was in. That responsibility is a large part of what my new call entails.
All of these freedoms-lost were among the splinters I saw flying to the ground in this transition. These scraps that once proved so meaningful are now necessarily discarded bits of my story as a new thing is being carved out in my life.
In the midst of transition, though, it doesn’t always seem to matter if the new and different are worth all of the loss. A true vision of progress is not always as apparent as the busy splinters that fly in every direction, and it was those that seemed to grab my attention more often than not.
Somewhere in the midst of this all, though, when I was meeting with my spiritual director, she said something that really struck me. I don’t remember the exact words she said, but I do remember the truth I heard through them --simply to stop and be thankful. I knew that is exactly what I needed --but it was easier said than done.
I had gotten so focused on the little splinters that were flying around me that I had failed to notice the thing of beauty that was coming to be right in front of me. Instead of taking a moment to stop and admire what God had been doing in my life, I became furiously distracted by all of the discarded bits that made way for it. These flying bits clouded my vision.
When I don’t have a clear vision of things, I often still keep running, though. In that, my often seemingly boundless energy can have a way of working against me. The circles it has me running so frequently are directly on the often sharp splinters so inevitably flying off the workbench. These splinters, though a natural part of transition, can be painful, too; especially when not respected.
These splinters in my feet, though not exactly leaving too bloody a mess usually, do get in the way of being able to progress in a comfortable or effective way…especially when I just keep running. Having perseverance is one thing, but a blind and aimless run can really hurt (even if it is just in circles).
You might notice that some of my greatest insights in this post come from other people. In my very first meeting with my new clergy coach, we talked about letting the land be fallow for a while. After describing the state of my transition-frenzied mind, he reminded me that sometimes, just as over-farmed land needs to lay fallow for a while, so do we. When the ground has been overworked and all the soil’s moisture has been used up, sometimes it just needs a break.
So does that mean I just need to use my time at work to get a break from the many tasks there, and do some last minute planning for other things in life? Maybe if I use a little of my work time to mop up some last minute wedding details, that’ll solve things. Before too long, though, that simply didn’t sit well. I have important work to do at this church, and doing other stuff there spreads me too thin. So I abandoned that ship.
Maybe then I should bust back out my Words With Friends app, which I got rid of a year ago because it was consuming too much of my time…nope, that sat even less well with me.
So how am I supposed to be fallow, then?? If I can’t just trade out one “to-do list” for another or simply play games in all my free time, what can I do?
I don’t know much about farming, but apparently it is a common practice of farmers to continue to till and spray the land while it’s fallow. I suppose the need for regular maintenance never ends.
And --come to think of it-- an inability to stop my car and the smell of sewage both reminded me of that just this week. Just a little bit of care can go a long, long way. Sometimes, just adding a little bit of fluid is all something needs.
So what kind of maintenance do I need? What does it look like to allow myself to be fallow in a helpful way?
For me, during this time of transition, being fallow means, among other things, taking some of my office hours to read and journal. This act of journaling is simple a channeling of the same energy that had me running in circles. The journaling helps me better discern the swirling distractions as just that, by helping center me on what is truly important. The more centered I am, the better I can again distinguish the voice and good works of the one who has called me to this time of transition in the first place. This is a time of saying to God again, “be thou my vision.”
Once my vision is on the path to being restored, I am able to see what God is doing around me and to pay the distractions no more attention than they’re due. That affords me an opportunity to rest for a moment. It doesn’t take long, either, after slowing down to realize how weary I am from running and how sore and throbbing my feet are from all of the little splinters lodged in them.
This fallow time allows me to carefully pick out these little splinters and to sweep them up along with the others so littering the floor around me. These splinters are important remnants that deserve the attention it takes to give them a proper burial where they won’t get lodged in my feet again.
As I sort through and offer to God my unresolved emotions and put in perspective all the little tasks that seemed to so consume me, I begin to remember my call. And, for me, it helps to read things that help center me on that call. Most recently in my life it has been, “In The Name of Jesus,” by Henri Nouwen. After all the commotion, a reconnection to my call acts as a salve on my wounded feet.
Different practices will provide a sense of centering and healing to all of us, and different seasons will warrant different maintenance plans. You don’t always fix a 1994 Oldsmobile and a sewage gas backup the same way. In a transition into a new ministry setting, though, taking time to center and remember our call are very important.
Through the return to my regular maintenance schedule, with a newfound mobility and clearer vision, a fuller picture emerged.  Freedoms lost --those splinters that once littered the floor, the air, and my feet-- are now seen with the perspective of what is emerging. The whole time, something beautiful was being constructed, and my life is full of a whole new set of freedoms. The old has passed away and God is doing a new thing.
The loss of the ability to spend my time how I wanted, gave way to the best time of my life, building a new life with my favorite person in the world and seeing life from her perspective. The transition from “my money” to “our money” provided an excellent source of accountability to spend money in a way that is more in line with convictions I have held for a long time. The limitations on flirtation opened up the door to being known more deeply and fully by another person than I ever thought possible.
The loss of a sense of community has provided space enough in my life to do life with my new church, filled with some of the most wonderful people I have ever known. An inability to defer questions, judgments, and responsibilities has made me dig deep and rise up to the occasion before me. Truly, all of my freedoms lost have come with new challenges and blessings and freedoms in which God is doing a new thing…and to think, I was almost too distracted to even notice.