By the Rev. Meredith Dodd | Pastor, Bear Creek United Methodist Church
What do Benedictine monks and United Methodist clergy have in common?
At first glance, the answer is “not much.” Monks chant slowly. Really slowly. When they pray through the psalms, they pause, they bow, they breathe, trusting that, no matter how long it takes, their prayers will move from here to eternity. When the abbey bells sound, prayers begin. When the last “Amen” is chanted, prayers come to an end.
But in between, as the monks chant hymns and psalms and Scripture, in the middle, that is where the Spirit seems to do its best work. In between, the monks embody the rule they live by: that all people are to be received as Christ.
In my experience, United Methodist clergy do not move slowly. We hurry. We confuse effectiveness with busyness. We struggle to determine where our ministry begins, where it ends.
But like the monks, we spend most of our time between one thing or another, in the messy middle of ministry between the genesis of “In the beginning” and the revelation of our desperate cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” And, just like the monks, it is in this middle place is where the Spirit seems to do its best work.
This spring, sixteen United Methodist clergy from Oregon, Idaho, and Washington gathered for the first annual Messy Middle Retreat. Held at Mount Angel, a Benedictine abbey south of Portland, this retreat invited mid-career clergy to connect with the Spirit and with one another around their call in the messy middle of their careers. We sought to create a new space: a space for spiritual renewal, for holy conferencing, a space where, regardless of ordination status or current appointment, all would receive one another as Christ.
Our retreat began with three questions:
- What in your life/ministry is overflowing with abundant life?
- What in your life/ministry is in the process of dying?
- What in your life/ministry is experiencing resurrection?
This middle question was sticky, one many of us preferred to skip. We like Easter better than Good Friday. But we received one another as Christ and listened to the answers. And in that spirit of courage, clergy at our retreat asked even stickier questions. How do we as leaders discern when the middle of our stories is taking an unexpected turn? How are we called to be in holy conversation with those who are just beginning or ending their careers in ministry? And how can we sustain one another in this messy middle so that we, too, might finish the race well?
Our speaker for the weekend was Brian Doyle, writer and professor at the University of Portland and layperson whose writing often wrestles with questions of faith. In the words of his essay, “Their Thin Bony Shoulders,” Doyle writes:
“We must . . . build us a new church and a new world and a new roaring poem, with all the grace and strength and sweet wild magic we can muster . . . So let us go then, you and I, and forge a new thing. We do not know its shape; but we know the astounding idea at its heart . . . the idea that remains, I believe, the key to the moral evolution of the human race, the idea that fell again and again from the lips of the gaunt dusty man with starlight in his veins: love love love love love”
Ministry is messy. It’s sticky. It doesn’t have clear beginnings or clear endings, and most days feel more like Good Friday than they do like Easter morning. The Messy Middle Retreat was a reminder to me that I am not alone in this work, that my brothers and sisters march beside me with hammers in their hands and prayers in their mouths as we seek to become a new church.
I am so grateful to be part of a community of clergy that receives one another as Christ. I am so grateful to be part of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, a corner of the United Methodist Church where crazy grassroots ideas like this retreat are not quashed in their infancy, but received with holy encouragement. And I am grateful that, thanks to the enthusiasm of this community of colleagues, the Messy Middle retreat will happen again next spring.
Young or no longer young, deacon or elder, progressive or conservative, may we all receive one another as Christ!