“Faith is going out knowing.” Hebrews 11:8
Our calls to ministry, laity and clergy alike, usually require the kind of faith in God that means “going out not knowing.” My call to ministry came on a tractor seat in western Iowa, three miles south of Salix to be exact. It was confirmed in the second pew from the back of the Salix Community United Methodist Church. To be even more specific, in the second pew from the back, stage right, where I was sandwiched between my grandparents and my mother.
Everything about my call to ministry shouted “Bob, you are called to serve small rural churches.” How could I discern anything differently? I was raised on a farm and in a small church in a tiny community. Farming was so deep in my soul that as a child I was convinced my blood was red because my father farmed with red Farmall tractors. How surprised I was when a neighbor cut himself and he did not bleed green. He was devoted to farming with John Deere equipment.
However, as you can see from my pastoral record, appointment after appointment came and went, never to a rural farming community. Was this result of God’s sense of humor or was there a higher purpose? I’ll come back to this.
As I look back over almost fifteen years as an assistant to the bishop it has become clear to me that just as God has prepared me for every appointment, God also has prepared me, or at least provided the resources in one form or another, for this ministry of “administration.” In order to be as effective as possible one has to have an understanding and appreciation for all the people of Iowa, whether people directly tied to the land or working for or in relationship to people of the land, town and farm dwellers alike.
These forty-two years of ministry have been a privilege. It has been a privilege because of the multitudes of laypersons I have had the good fortune of coming to know, for how they have mentored me in God’s ways, prayed for and with me, and offered grace when I haven’t made the best decisions. It has been a privilege because of my many clergy colleagues that also have taught me about ministry, shared in the joys and pains of ministry, and also prayed for and with me.
While a major portion of my ministry has been as what is currently known as “Assistant to the Bishop for Administration,” I have always seen this as a ministry in, through, and on behalf of the local church, what United Methodists call “extension ministry,” extending the ministry of the local church. Bishop Charles Jordan helped frame this understanding for me. He often reminded me that any assistant to the bishop must see one of his or her major roles as stretching the bishop’s time in order that the bishop can provide more leadership for and connection to local churches under his or her care. The three bishops I have been privileged to serve have all added to this understanding about this relationship with and extension of the local church.
One of the important ways of serving the local church as an assistant to the bishop is to develop the kinds of relationships with laity and clergy throughout the Annual Conference that not only allow the person(s) in these positions to represent the bishop when he or she is unavailable but also to advise the resident bishop on how best to provide leadership for the people he or she is called to serve. I have also come to understand that it is extremely important for an assistant to the bishop to know the Annual Conference well enough to advocate on behalf of United Methodists with the bishop as he or she learns the culture and nature of Iowa and Iowa United Methodists. What a privilege this continues to be!
Now, after forty-two years I still have days when I ponder my call to ministry and the direction it has taken. Why would God pluck up a farm boy from rural Iowa and send him to ministries that often appear to be several steps removed from the land? As I have been prayerfully contemplating retirement I have been responding to every inquiry about my “retirement plans” by saying “I’m just going to garden.” Well, here comes God again! Careful what you pray for. You just may get it. I had a moment of clarity recently about my gardening. I believe God is calling me to explore the possibility of working with one of our United Methodist-related ministries to assist in developing an urban farm. Maybe God has been preparing me all along for a ministry of farming! Another privilege!
J. Robert Burkhart (Bob)
Assistant to the Bishop for Administration