Thursday, October 20, 2011

We count people because people count

I used to be a paid youth minister in a church.  While much of it was delightful and I still have strong relationships with many of my former youth (who have grown into mature and lovely adults), the downside was having to do certain activities you would not normally choose to do.  One of these, for me, was big youth evangelistic rallies and conferences (the other being lock-ins, but that's another post entirely).  These events had a prescribed order: "big name" speaker with a tragic yet redeemed testimony, a worship band playing rock-like worship anthems leading up to a somber and drawn out "come to Jesus" altar call song, and lots of tears.  After each conference, the sponsoring group would always boast of how many youth were saved at the event.  I knew of some youth that were "saved" at each of these events, year after year.  When the evangelistic tide started to turn a little bit and people began questioning the appropriateness of basing your success on the numbers of decisions (as opposed to the discipleship that actually came out of these supposed conversions), the group retorted,
"We count people because people count." 

To me, it's one of those phrases that aims to sound good, but in actuality expresses nothing of value.

Yet working in ministry, it's hard to avoid the numbers game.  How can you measure if your ministry programs are a success and if your church is growing without counting the number of new and active members?  It is certainly apparent when the mortality rate is higher than the number of baptisms.  It's also an easy question to ask when you meet another person in ministry: "How large is your church?"  (and we're not talking square footage).  We all know that it's not the only (or the most important) indicator of spiritual growth, but it is the most quantitative one.

In my new position, numbers have been on my mind.  We have 850 undergraduates at Hollins.  How many have I met?  With how many am I potentially forming significant relationships?  I know I'm just a month and a half into the job, but the semester is half over, and I've completed almost a fifth of my guaranteed contract.  Time is limited.  Even if I become the permanent chaplain, I have four years (or less) with each class of students to make a connection and hopefully guide them towards spiritual growth.

When I started, chapel attendance was negligible.  It is a diverse and secular school in a time when less value is put on religious practice.  College students in general often put their faith on a shelf for a while (if not abandon it totally).  And yet the administration's goal for me as chaplain is to start a regular chapel serve that draws a significant group of students.  I started out with six, which was a grave disappointment to me.  It was my average chapel attendance at my previous ministry setting, although there, it was 50% of the population (and I was discouraged at that).  At Hollins, the number of attendees increased steadily for a couple of weeks, but made a sharp decline in the past two weeks.  For the work I (and others) put into planning and promoting, it could seem like a waste....except...

-for the significant conversation I had with a student while preparing for the last chapel
-for the one student who came this week, participated well, and then sent me a "thank you" message
-for the many students I recognize now as I walk across campus, who stop to chat with me
-for the student chaplains whom I mentor...who also teach and encourage me
-for the creativity that continues to grow within me
-for those who seek me out, not for chapel services, but for counseling and support
-for the student who found me to ask if I needed PR help for the chapel and volunteered her time and gifts to inspire me
-for the good ideas that others share with me, regardless of where they are in their faith journeys
-for the love I have for the students, the campus, and the Hollins community
-for the calling that is reaffirmed day after day
-for new chances and opportunities, and a hope that endures

-for reminders that it is not about numbers, but about hearts and lives and presence; that it's about the Spirit showing up in unexpected places and continually giving me sacred access into private places in the students' stories

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The meaning of it all

Some days at work, I feel like a child.  The tasks seem too big and I feel about two feet shorter, surrounded by giants.  I feel unqualified and worry that everyone can feel my own sense of inadequacy.  And then, some days, I feel just my age.  I feel my experience on my shoulders and my God-given gifts ready to assist.  Fortunately, thanks be to God, today was one of the latter kind of days.  It was certainly unexpected, which is why God gets all the credit (and should anyway, although sometimes I'm too selfish or stubborn or prideful to admit it).

This morning, I was standing in the checkout line of Walmart when I got a phone call from my supervisor, the Dean of Students, saying that there was an emergency at Hollins and I needed to meet her in the counseling office ASAP.  Heart pounding, I pushed the poor cashier to hurry (not a good scenario in Wallyworld), with multiple scenarios racing through my head.  Upon my arrival, I discovered that a beloved professor had passed away unexpectedly.  We had to put a plan in action.  After three weeks in my job as interim chaplain, I was being called to help support a hurting, grieving community.

Death is a viscious thief, not only robbing us our loved ones, but also eroding our confidence and security.  Within the span of a hour of the news getting out, I had the opportunity to counsel staff and students struggling with their own mortality issues.  While I wondered about being new and not having built complete trust yet with the community, I was awed by how they opened up to me and sought me out.  I was also touched by the spirit of community and collaboration.  I worked to plan a service where faculty, staff, and students could come together to grieve.  As I was on the phone trying to arrange flowers, I saw a student walk by my office window with a handpicked bouquet.  Another student volunteered to play piano, and held her emotions in check until the service ended, then let the tears flow.  I saw staff comfort students, and faculty support one another.  Several students hugged me as well, and I was given many words of thanks for my (brief, inadequate) words.

But I realized yet again what a gift ministry is.  How sacred, to be part of so many aspects of one's life.  To bear witness to the joys, the struggles, the celebrations, the unions, the births, and yes, even the end of life, when we ponder questions of meaning and purpose...and God.  What a gift to be able to offer comfort, and to feel the peace of God gently falling around.  What a blessing to see people coming together in support and love...and shared tears. 

I know there will be days when I question my calling, and when I feel small and incapable.  But I hope I'll remember how God guided me today, inequipped as I was, to be a presence of peace and hope.  Let me remember how God gifted me with the eyes to see the hope around me, shining through the hurt.  Let me not forget the meaning of it all.