Let me start by saying, “I am not an insect person.” I remember screaming my way into the house during Summers growing up in Pittsburgh, PA because I saw a grasshopper jump in our small yard. I can’t tell you how many times I tested my parents’ patience by refusing to go out to get into the car because a “grasshopper might get me.” And then there was ninth grade biology when we were required to dissect a grasshopper. Let’s just say it didn’t end well for the grasshopper or my lab partners.
So why this year’s bumper crop of thirteen-year periodical cicadae has caught my attention is somewhat strange. And perhaps even stranger is the fact that I’ve found in them a metaphor for those of us who’ve taken a periodical hiatus from ministry.
I first became aware a few weeks ago of this year’s emergence of the Great Southern Brood (this is the largest of the eighteen or so broods of periodical cicadae in the U.S. that emerge on either a thirteen- or seventeen-year cycle, depending on the brood). I was moving stepping-stones in our central-Missouri backyard when I noticed that in addition to worms and grubs our stones were sheltering these reddish-brown, beetle-like bugs. My husband told me they were cicadae with instructions to not kill them so we’d get to hear them sing once they emerged. Not that killing them would have been easy, as they quickly re-burrowed into holes as if to say, “Wait! I’m not ready to come out yet.”
Since then, I’ve learned that in addition to timing, periodical cicadae differ in size and color from their annual cousins, the Dog Day cicadae. Once the temperatures hit a fairly consistent 60-degrees/F, those reddish beetle-like nymphs begin to crawl out from under their rocks and head for trees and tall weeds where over the course of an hour or so they will shed their skins and emerge as adults. Over the next four or five days their bodies will harden from a soft, white, somewhat fragile state into a thicker, darker exoskeleton and the males will begin singing (my husband can hardly wait!).
So what does all this have to do with ministry or, more specifically, what we could call re-emerging ministry?
Over the past twenty or so years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of ministers who’ve had to take a hiatus from active ministry for reasons ranging from illness and disability to ethical breaches. In many regards, ministers who have had to step out of active ministry find themselves in a situation similar to our periodical cicadae when the time comes for them to consider returning to ministry.
The return to active ministry can be an exciting prospect, but more often than not it comes with a bevy of doubts, fears, and questions:
· Is it time to return?
· Am I ready?
· Is the Church ready?
· What skills have I lost?
· How will I get them back?
· How has my ministry been compromised?
· What are people thinking?
· Can I live up to everyone’s expectations?
· Can I live up to my own expectations?
· Who will hire me?
· What if I [get sick, slip, fall, falter, fail] again?
Whether it’s because our disability insurance is about to run out or because we can’t wait to fly, we have to remember we’ve been under a rock for a while, whether that be some thirteen years, thirteen months, or thirteen weeks. Although dark and damp, It’s relatively warm and nurturing under those rocks; and there’s something to be said for getting to stay underground, out of the light, and off the radar screen. But if we’re going to live and emerge into what we were created to be and do, we have to come out and shed our skins.
One of the lessons we can glean from the periodical cicadae is that they don’t come out until the conditions are right. These little buggers spend most of their lives buried two to twenty-four inches under the soil, moving closer to the top as the weather warms in those debut years. Yet even though the temperatures may be at the much-anticipated sixty-degrees, cicada nymphs will build mud towers over their holes and continue waiting when the conditions are too wet. Likewise, re-emerging ministers need to anticipate their debuts, waiting until the conditions are conducive to their successful survival. [Jesus’ words to His mother in the gospel of John come to mind: “My time has not yet arrived!”]
The flip side of this, of course, is that the conditions may never seem right for some of us. The male cicadae have something to teach us in this regard. Unlike some of the animal and bug realms where males fight for dominance, male cicadae join in choruses to sing and attract the females (talk about a perspective of abundance!). Likewise, re-emerging ministers will benefit from the camaraderie of those who can sing with and encourage them, particularly until their shells are harder and they’re more fit to fly.
Indeed, cicadae do not fly right away … and neither should we. After coming back into the light and shedding our old skin, we have to allow ourselves to live into our new skeleton, as it is, and get a feel for our wings. Our eyes have to readjust to the light, our wings have to dry, our skin has to toughen. That’s not easy to do when we’ve been out of ministry for any amount of time. [BT1]
Which brings us to yet another observation: periodical cicadae are not the best flyers, but it doesn’t keep them ground-bound. If you’re fortunate/unfortunate enough to live in proximity to a brood, watch them. They fly into bushes and into one another. But they fly. We’ve got to crawl out from underneath our rocks if, indeed, we’re going to fly. And we have to try flying – maybe over and over and over and over – until we get our wind-wings, so to speak.
A harsh reality for ministers, though, is that some of us have to fly not only afresh but afar if we’re going to actively engage ministry. Dauntingly, some of us have to find new ministry placements or calls, once again engaging ministry placement systems. Before the season of opportunity passes, consider volunteering some time with a local congregation who will work within your current limitations and increasing potential. You may only be able to contribute an hour or two a day, once a week at first and strengthen from there until you can work whatever you’re allowed to work given your circumstances: a couple days a week, a full week. Because they won’t be paying you, it shouldn’t jeopardize whatever subsistence you may receive. Not only will this allow you to build your stamina to more fully re-enter the ministry-force, you will be up-to-speed when the time for your debut arrives.
Whether or not we want to admit it, re-emerging ministers are fragile. We can easily be eaten by predators (yes, many congregations have one or more). In these fragile states, it’s amazing at what we can take umbrage or otherwise as attack when we’re vulnerable and living into our wings and allowing our skeletons to harden. One colleague and I have taken to calling these re-emerging placements a Becoming a Minister-again Experience, or B-ME. We note that these B-MEs can allow us not only to build stamina and our resumes but also to find our ministry confidence and claim our ministerial identity.
But you know, it’s possible that some of us – like those emerging nymphs – never got to really experience wings or fully-developed outer skins before we had to go underground! In fact, that may be what sent us into hiatus in the first place. Ministry is tough and the more sensitive, compassionate, gentle, and idealistic among us are often the first to be ravaged. Hyper-care for others lends itself to hypo-care of ourselves to the point of compromised ministry, disability, and even premature death. Sometimes I wish our pastors in hyper-sacrificial mode would slow down, move under a rock for a little while, and develop their outer shells in anticipation of becoming all God has created them to be (and, then, to do),
If you’ve been under a rock lately and it’s about time to re-emerge into ministry, consider these lessons from those pesky periodic cicadae (they’ve got to be good for something, right?):
· Don’t rush re-emergence, take your time as the conditions permit;
· Surround yourself with mutual colleagues who can and will sing with you, preferably those who will encourage you to join in the chorus rather than try to drown you out;
· After coming out from under the rock of hiatus, find a yard where you can temporarily attach, latch your old self, grow into your new wings, and harden your exoskeleton;
· Take opportunities to try out your wings, no matter how clumsy they – or you – may be;
· Take time to discover where you are now as you more fully live into and up to all God has created you to be and do; and
· Remember, your ministry may look nothing like it did thirteen weeks, thirteen months, thirteen years or so ago – and that can be a good thing.
Male and female cicadae have one thing in common: their ultimate purpose is to recreate (no, Husband, it’s not to provide us with live night music). They need each other to accomplish the task, and the result is a refreshed brood of teeny, tiny cicada nymphs who will make their way underground to wait until the time and conditions are right for their debut.
Likewise as ministers, our responsibility is to produce offspring – we call them disciples. Whether or not you can walk or sit for long times or speak coherently if at all … whether your wings were destroyed or got clipped … regardless of whatever has kept you on hiatus; as you re-emerge into ministry please remember that the role of ministers is first and foremost to make disciples and equip those we serve so that all will unified in the Faith grounded in a relationship with Jesus Christ and become mature so that all can live as Jesus teaches and lives.
Now who’d have thought we could learn all that from a brood of pesky bugs?
The Rev. Dr. Kris Tenny-Brittian serves as the Area Minister for the NE Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Mid-America and as co-President of the National Evangelistic Association. In her “spare” time, she develops resources for congregations through FlipYourChurch.com and is a popular speaker and consultant with 21st Century Strategies. You can watch her weekly on ChurchTalk.tv, be motivated daily by her “Energizer Bunny” spirit at Motivotionals.com, or take advantage of her consulting and coaching skills by contacting her at KrisTB@ChurchConsultations.net.
[BT1]The transition between these is weak or disjointed, I’m not sure which. We have to crawl out to fly, but like the cicadas we may not be accomplished flyers until we “get our wind-wings” so to speak.