June 16, 2015
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Back in May, 2013, I had the privilege of preaching a sermon at the Large Church Initiative, a gathering of five hundred clergy and laity from the largest United Methodist churches in the country. The three-day event offered workshops and plenary sessions on how to revitalize church programs, create more effective systems, and do the work of the church better.
For that sermon, I chose to distinguish between the first and second letters that Paul wrote to Timothy, and I started with the line, “Some of us are 1 Timothy pastors; others of us are 2 Timothy pastors; most of us are a little of both.” I reminded them that 1 Timothy is a practical manual on how to improve the structure and systems of the local church. It is chock full of formulas from a seasoned church planter to his young protégé, and a veritable recipe book for how to do successful church programming.
I told them that there was a time earlier in my ministry when I was a lot like young Timothy, when I thought that pastoral success hinged on my ability to learn all the tips and techniques for building a bigger and better church: how to conduct a successful stewardship campaign; how to build a church of small groups; how to clarify a church’s mission and vision; how to reach unchurched people. I was a 1 Timothy wannabe.
And to a certain extent, that’s the kind of pastor you received eight years ago. I had just finished a stint as the associate pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, one of the great, dynamic churches in United Methodism. This big city, big church kid was eager to take the helm of his own church, take it out for a spin, and see where all this practical knowledge could take us. I began to apply everything I learned at Hyde Park to build the systems and create the programs that I believed would orient St. Paul’s toward a bright future. Over time, I think we could agree that those initiatives worked. We clarified our mission and vision in 2008 and adopted a long-term strategic plan, we gained new members, increased worship attendance, solidified financial giving, developed creative outreach ministries, and much more.
But this is not what I wanted to tell the pastors at that large church event. What I wanted to tell them was not how much I changed St. Paul’s UMC, but how much St. Paul’s UMC has changed me.
I drew a contrast with 2 Timothy, in which a much older Paul shared with a weary and worn Timothy a letter of very different tone and content. Instead of programs, structures, and systems, Paul told Timothy that the ultimate measure of successful pastoral leadership is to be found in the relationships one builds with people, creating a community of love, service, and generosity. So my key tag line in the sermon was this:
“Systems are secondary; People are primary.”
And then, in front of a sanctuary full of the brightest and best leaders of our denomination, I bragged about all of you. About what you have taught me about what it means to be an effective pastor:
This is a lesson I learned first hand. While serving as an associate pastor at Hyde Park for seven years, I chose, through my own bright-eyed naiveté, only to focus on the 1 Timothy aspects of church ministry. And then, through a series of personal episodes, I found myself in 2007 transported 1,600 miles away, in a small town of less than 5,000 people to serve a church nestled among corn fields and pig farms. It was there that I began to apply everything Hyde Park had taught me. And I discovered that effective systems and processes do make a difference. But here’s the thing: the greatest lesson learned in Cherokee is not any that I have taught them, but the one they have taught me: People matter. The people of Cherokee have reminded me that the primacy of our calling as pastors, the essential place where the grace of God is transmitted, is in the context of relationships with real people. Often away from my office, away from my computer, in interactions that are sometimes private and painful, but always real.
It may be true that applying the lessons I learned at Hyde Park eight years ago helped us do effective ministry here together. But there is no doubt in my mind that what you have taught me about loving people has now made me a more effective pastor for the people of Hyde Park. As my friend Jim Harnish said to you several weeks ago, “Thank you for welcoming him with open arms eight years ago. And now, thank you for shaping him, nurturing him, and returning him home.”
This Sunday will be the final stop in our rich, fruitful journey of ministry together. It will be a day of celebration, of deep emotion, and of new beginnings. And it will be one final chance for us to say together, “Thanks be to God.”
The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA 51012