Moving On Without Moving

“Are you moving this year?”

It’s a question that would be odd in most social settings, but among United Methodist ministers, it’s as common as “Where are you from?” as a conversation starter from late April through mid-June.

The way our system works, ordained elders* are appointed** for one year at a time. These days, when a pastor is sent to a church, it’s generally understood that he or she will be there for several years, and the average tenure has been lengthening over time. But the reality is that an elder could be moved in any given year, even in the middle of the year should a need arise. And so, the question “Are you moving this year?” is perfectly valid with no context beyond a person’s ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church.

This year, I have a two-part answer to that question. Am I moving this year?

Yes and no.

I am moving because I am leaving Centenary United Methodist Church, the church I have served for nearly 6 years as an Associate Minister. But I am not moving because my husband and I are staying in Winston-Salem. I am going back to school and will be a full-time student in the fall, pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at Wake Forest University. The bishop has appointed me to extension ministry*** with the Missional Wisdom Foundation to serve part-time as Prioress of The Foundry, a new intentional living community for young adults forming on the campus of Crossnore School and Children’s Home.

Our hope for The Foundry is that we will eventually have 8-10 residents age 21-30 and that about half of them will be Youth in Transition who are aging out of foster care; we hope the other half might be students, young professionals, etc., and that this diverse group of young people could come together and share life. We hope to guide the community to be trauma-informed and focused on food justice, compassion, and reconciliation.

When I tell people this, they are either excited or confused. Or both. When people ask what I’m doing starting in July, I usually preface my answer with, “Well, it’s a little weird.” I do that more to prepare the other person than because of any insecurity I might have—I am thrilled for what the next year has in store for me and my family, and I could not have dreamed up a more fitting and exciting time of transition.

There are definitely plusses to moving on without moving—for one, while many of my colleagues are packing up both an office and a home, I only have to move the former, and my husband and I get to maintain a sense of stability in what is still our first year of marriage. For another, I am already familiar with and connected to the agencies partnering to make The Foundry House possible and have been able to get a head start on orienting myself to the work ahead.

But there are minuses as well. While I am looking to July 1 as a fresh start, I have almost 6 years’ worth of ministry relationships that, rather than being left behind, will have to be reimagined—and some of that work will be challenging. I’ll have to puzzle through boundaries in a way that my colleagues who are moving to new communities won’t have to worry about.

But I’m embracing the challenge, and I thought I’d capture here some of the Frequently Asked Questions I’ve been getting. If you’re curious, read on below.

And if you know any young adults who might be interested in joining The Foundry, let me know!

* We have elders and deacons in my denomination; both are fully ordained pastors with different roles. Elders are subject to the itinerant system (the system that moves us around); deacons are not.

** Unlike in, for example, Baptist churches, where pastors are interviewed and hired like for many other jobs, Methodist pastors are appointed, or sent, by the Bishop and Cabinet (a group of District Superintendents from the regional conference where we serve). There is a consultation process—each year, a pastor states a preference for moving or staying put, then the Bishop and Cabinet take that and the many other needs of the conference into account when making placements.

*** “Extension ministry” is a designation for ordained elders that says that although you are serving outside of a traditional appointment (like a pastoral role in a local church), you are still part of the United Methodist connectional system.

FAQs

Q: Does this mean you aren’t a pastor anymore?

A: No. I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and those orders will remain in place indefinitely unless I choose to give them up or do something to have them taken away. I can still marry, bury, baptize, celebrate communion, preach, etc. etc. Although I will not be working in a church, I will still be a pastor—to the community of The Foundry House, primarily. But yes, I am available to officiate your wedding (heyyyy).

Q: Will you still attend Centenary/Roots Revival?

A: No. Just like it would be strange for someone working at a business to show up to the office after leaving a job, it would be strange for me to come to Centenary or to Roots Revival (the Wednesday night worship service I helped start there). In the United Methodist Church, we clergy covenant with one another that a departing pastor will stay away from their former church for a year in order to give the new pastor time and space to develop their own ministry and to build relationships with the parishioners. After that year, I could theoretically return to preach, baptize, or marry, but only at the invitation of the pastor at that time. I will be connected to New Story Church, the church that worships on the campus of Crossnore, as they will serve as the anchor church for The Foundry House.

Q: Will you keep preaching?

A: Probably. I love preaching, and although I am looking forward to a change of pace from full-time local church ministry, I hope to continue to engage in some aspects of that work, whether through pulpit supply (substitute preaching), teaching, music leadership, etc. However, I will not advertise these events as they come up—several people have requested this, and although I appreciate the love and support, to put the word out about a guest preaching opportunity I have in the area would be similar to showing back up at Centenary unannounced, drawing attention and support away from the new clergy, which I would never want to do.

Q: Will you be living at Crossnore?

A: No. My husband and I own a home in Winston-Salem that we love, and we doubt our 3 pit bulls would make good intentional community residents! The role of Prioress is designed to be filled by someone living offsite, as certain elements of guiding the community’s life (and particularly resolving conflict) are best managed from somewhere other than within the group. I will have an office in The Foundry House and will participate in aspects of the community’s life, but my family will stay where we are.

Q: What the heck is a Prior(ess)?

A: The term comes from leadership structures in Christian monasteries and is reflective of the movement called New Monasticism that is part of the heritage of this intentional community. Basically, I will be some combination of a program director for and pastor to the community. (And to answer some of the jokes/puns I’ve heard so far: yes, I am the first prior, so no, there was not a prior prior; and no, I do not have a long list of priors; etc.)

Q: What the heck is Bioethics?

A: “Bio” means “life,” and “ethics” means, well, “ethics.” Bioethics is a big umbrella and can include everything from clinical ethics to biomedical research to disability studies to biotechnology to health care policy to animal rights and much, much more. This past spring, I took a class called “Public Policy, Medicine, and Justice;” this coming fall, in addition to two core courses, I’ll take one class called “Neuroethics” and one called “Gender and the Politics of Health.” The Bioethics program at Wake Forest is interdisciplinary, with professors from the Medical School, the Law School, the Philosophy Department, Public Health Sciences, the Divinity School, and so on. It is for me a perfect union of my many academic and practical interests, so be prepared for me to geek out a little (or a lot) once I get further into my coursework.

Q: What are you going to do with that degree?

A: I don’t know yet! I’m in the process of discerning what my work and ministry will look like in the long term, and at this point I believe that teaching and writing may be a big part of that. I’ve considered Ph.D. work but am not sure that’s really for me; I’m hoping that this degree program will be a discernment opportunity and, if I decide to pursue a doctorate, that it will help prepare me for that. Even if I don’t continue in school after this, I’ll gain a lot more knowledge and experience that will hopefully set me up well for more teaching and writing. The M.A. will take me a year and change to complete, so it’s not a huge commitment, and it’s a chance to explore some of my interests that are outside of (but deeply connected to) the realm of theology and ministry—a chance to follow my curiosity. The class I took in the spring was energizing and gave me perspective and, more importantly, joy. For that alone, not to mention for the opportunity to see how I might be part of helping the church find its moral voice in a rapidly changing world, it seems like something worth pursuing. I’m excited, too, about working with the Missional Wisdom Foundation and about the opportunities for teaching and writing that will open up, since MWF’s mission is all about experimenting with and teaching about alternative forms of Christian community.

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2 Replies to “Moving On Without Moving”

  1. Sarah, you enter this transition with a large measure of love and support. Although I have not worked with you closely at Centenary, I have observed your gifts and look forward to seeing how you choose too use your talents in service.

  2. Thank you for the update, Sarah! Believe it or not, I’ve actually been reading up on the Benedictine Rule this summer, so I’m not flummoxed by words like “Prioress.” Congratulations on your new endeavor. Please keep me in your prayers (you’ll remain in mine, too).

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