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Mentors and the lessons of humility

Posted: April 25 2024 at 06:50 AM
Author: Rev. Martin Lee, NIC Director of Development and Redevelopment


Martin Lee Arms Out Cmyk

As I begin my retirement from appointed ministry in the Northern Illinois Conference, I recall the mentors who gave me hope and encouraged high expectations. 

I have pastored churches and, for the past 24 years, led the conference’s ministry of congregational development and redevelopment. I am grateful that I got to serve in these ways. It was friends, colleagues, and mentors who enabled me to see my gifts and exercise them for the glory of God. 

One of my earliest experiences that taught me the important lesson of humility was my student internship at Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette.  

At the time, Associate Pastor LeeAnn Inman was on maternity leave. Senior Pastor Phil Blackwell gave me many opportunities to help lead various ministries, so I had many incredible chances to get lots of experience as a field education student.  

After I finished the one-year internship, Rev. Blackwell asked me to stay for a second year. This gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride. I thought he asked me to stay because of my excellent ministry work as a seminarian. However, during my second year, Rev. Blackwell, with his dry sense of humor, told me that he asked me to stay not so much because of my own performance but because they wanted to keep my wife, Grace—an accomplished soprano—in the choir as a soloist.  

This was a lesson in humility! I also earned that the key to my ministry is my wife’s help. I have to give 51 percent of the credit to Grace. Thank you! 

When I moved to serve in Freeport, I knew only one person: Rev. Gary Waters, who was a seminary classmate and in my ordination class. He was serving First UMC in that small town.  

We built a great friendship and were able to share our joys and struggles with each other. Over the years, Gary has truly been one of my best confidants, someone with whom I can share everything with. I am so grateful for his steadfast friendship. Through our honest conversations, I realized that everyone, even those who I at first thought knew what they were doing and are successful, face their own challenges and struggles. We all have doubts and fears, and isolation is the enemy of growth.  

One of the covenants we made together as young, ambitious clergy was that we would pay 100% apportionment and grow our church wherever we served. I am proud to say that we have both been successful in following this covenant, especially Gary! 

I also need to thank Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in St. Louis, MO. He invited me to participate in the National Leadership Incubator, even though I was not a national leader at the time.  

Rev. Hamilton told us that he prayed every morning when he first woke up and again before he went to bed. It took me by surprise, and I admired his humility in continually asking for God’s guidance. What the true national leaders taught me was again, humility, and a zeal for ministry. 

Twenty-four years ago, Bishop Joseph Sprague  appointed me as director of congregational development and redevelopment. When I attended my first national gathering for directors of congregational development, I immediately stood out. I was the only non-white male in the room, and I’m sure some people assumed that I had accidentally walked into the wrong place. 

Expectations for me were rock bottom. I didn’t have much of a budget, I was not well known, and I think my strongest credential at the time was probably the Quentin Nolte Prize for Promise in Parish Ministry that I won back in seminary.  

However, the low expectations were to my benefit. I was free to be creative and experiment. During the first few years of my appointment, I implemented the Institute for Congregation Development (ICD) and the Conference Academy for Faith Community Development, also known as the Hispanic Academy for Faith Community Development. 

Twenty-four years later, I am here now, and I thank Bishop Sprague for taking a chance and appointing me to this role. I am of course also grateful to all the bishops I have served: Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, Bishop Sally Dick, Bishop John Hopkins, and Bishop Schwerin. And I want to thank all the people I have worked with and all the congregations I have served. 

On the way to this new chapter of my ministry, God sent the Holy Spirit as my helper in the form of women and men, lay and clergy who love Jesus more than I do! 

As Henri Nouwen has said, “In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings. We forget so quickly that we are God’s beloved children and allow the many curses of our world to darken our hearts. Therefore, we have to be reminded of our belovedness and remind others of theirs.” Amen.

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