On the morning of my ordination, nine of us neophytes lined up to enter the auditorium where we would take our vows and where the Methodist bishop would ceremoniously lay his hands on our heads. Everyone looked terrific in their new clerical vestments except for me. The pastor of my home church, which had purchased a black preaching gown as an ordination gift, was running late. As the mighty organ played the first notes of the processional hymn, the tardy pastor finally burst into the lobby and presented me with the robe. He had carried it all the way to the Methodist Annual Conference in a brown paper bag. I lifted the robe out of the sack and stared at it in all of its wrinkled wonder. I had no choice but to put it on and follow the others down the aisle. My mortified mother said later that for my ordination I looked like a prune.
I’m wearing that robe today. One year ago, as I prepared to move to Colorado, I asked a seamstress named Jan in the congregation I served if she could help replace a broken hook on the robe. She took it home, and when she returned it with the repair finished, she said “You really need to replace that old robe. It’s falling apart at the seams!” Since I had very rarely worn it at all in nearly thirty years, except for an occasional Lenten service, I realized it was falling apart simply because it was old! Which of course made me feel old.
I have never thought about or marked any other ordination anniversaries, including those for ten or twenty or twenty-five years. For some reason, the thirty year mark feels significant to me. If I spend forty years in ordained ministry, then seventy-five percent of that has already slipped by. I’ve been thinking a lot about those years and about what I hope the last quarter of my vocation will be like. Maybe I’m also thinking about these things since Leroy is retiring this month. Life is about to change again, and milestones and change create the opportunity to reflect.
Second Corinthians is one of the letters commonly attributed to the Apostle Paul that I mostly really like. There is a particularly human dimension to Paul on display in the pages of this epistle, especially in chapter four. Paul is what we would call today self-reflective as he considers the experiences of his life and how they relate to his role as an apostle in the church. Prior to the lectionary verses that were read today, Paul relates his experiences of weakness and difficulty and says that the gift of being in ministry is like a treasure that is held in a clay jar. The very fact that humans are like breakable pottery shows that ministry is really about the work of God.
Paul is pretty self-effacing when he talks about his own limitations. He says that the purpose of his work is not to promote himself but to benefit others as God’s grace extends to more and more people. Following his words about being hard-pressed and persecuted and afflicted and perplexed and forsaken, he says this: “We do not lose heart.” He continues with the editorial “we” by saying “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” We don’t know all of the particular afflictions that Paul experienced, or whether he was just feeling his age when he wrote. Regardless, he drew from deep internal resources that allowed him to experience every day as a gift despite anything else that was happening.
Ordination has generally been understood as the act of setting apart certain persons for specialized ministry. Those words, “set apart” express something uncomfortable. No one wants to be set apart from community, and if they do, they probably shouldn’t be in a ministry position. Nevertheless, there is a sense in the act of ordination in which the one ordained has a role that always defines that person within the community. Maybe instead of “set apart,” a more accurate way to explain ordination is that say that the person is “set within” the community with a specific role usually described in terms of word and sacrament.
It occurs to me now that I was really young when I was ordained. Twenty-three years old is young, and especially today when most persons seek ordination as a second career and are typically over forty years old. I’ve changed a lot in thirty years, and the whole landscape for pastoral ministry has changed as well.
My ordination robe was a mess of unexpected wrinkles. Ministry itself in the past thirty years has presented one unexpected wrinkle after another. Not that it’s been a mess, it’s just that there’s been a lot to try to iron out while the church deals with changes in our larger society. Here are just a few of those:
In the past thirty years, there has been much discussion about the changing role of clergy. Pastors today cannot only be chaplains providing personal care for every member. Once upon a time, churches more or less self-perpetuated as denominational and local church loyalty brought in succeeding generations to fill seats. Today, there is much more that is competing for the attention and loyalty of people. Clergy are expected to have skill in organizational leadership and what amounts to marketing ability. These skills were not taught in seminary!
Another wrinkle has been the understandably diminished regard or trust in clergy related to much-publicized scandals of various kinds. Maybe bad things have always happened and they were just ignored in the past. Regardless, there has been an emphasis on defining and maintaining good personal and professional boundaries that did not exist for prior generations of clergy. This week I will attend the mandatory Boundary Awareness Training that all UCC clergy must take every few years. Healthy boundaries are important and make for healthy pastors and healthy congregations. This, too, was not discussed, at least in my seminary, thirty years ago!
A major wrinkle for all clergy in the past thirty years has been the precipitous decline in membership and participation in religious organizations in general and mainline Protestant denominations in particular. The congregation of Community United Church of Christ in Boulder is an exception to the meta-trends of Christianity in the United States. While I have been able to look back with satisfaction at the churches I have served in the past due to their record of growth and vitality, I am aware that virtually all of them are significantly smaller than they were during my tenure. That doesn’t mean that successive pastors did a bad job. Mostly it reflects the changes within society as a whole as well as within the Christian Church. A Pew Research Survey released last month showed that Mainline Protestant affiliation has decreased from a bit over 18% of the American population in 2007 to under 15% last year. I don’t know what percentage identified as some kind of standard-brand Protestant a generation ago, but I’m confident it was a whole lot higher than it is today. That change has created a whole different context for ministry and has created all kinds of challenges for denominations and local churches and pastors alike.
For me personally, the biggest wrinkle in the past thirty years was related to my ordination itself. One of the Apostle Paul’s trials that he undoubtedly thought of while writing his second letter to the Corinthians was his propensity to be involved in shipwrecks. My mid-life and mid-vocation crisis was a shipwreck of sorts for me. I’ve shared the story here of how I was pressured within my former denomination to surrender my ordination credential without due process at the very start of my journey out of the closet as a gay man. It’s probably for that very reason that I value my ordination so highly today. The United Church of Christ does not believe that ordination can be surrendered or withdrawn. They affirmed my June, 1985 ordination when I was installed as pastor of a UCC congregation. It is ironic to me that those who ordained me do not recognize the ordination that they themselves conferred. And yet I am an ordained member of the clergy. God works in mysterious ways!
In another of the New Testament epistles, a writer most often assumed to be Paul spoke of the church as being “without spot or wrinkle.” It’s really hard for me to envision any aspect of the Christian Church, including its clergy, as being unwrinkled. At the Festival of Homiletics in May, Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Seminary, said that pastors have to stop thinking of themselves as being so very special. He said “When you were presented as a candidate at your church, the Search Committee told everyone that they had found the ideal candidate. You believed them.” Then he said, “The truth is, you’re really not so great.” And then he said “Your church isn’t so great, either!” His point was that when we get over ourselves and get working together on what we’re called to do, amazing things can happen.
Wrinkles are OK. They remind us that we’re human and we are part of the very human community that we call God’s church.
For me, being thirty years into a ministry vocation means that I don’t take myself as seriously as I once did. And it means that I don’t try so hard to be all things to all people all the time. Being responsive to the needs and the beliefs of others is important, but so is being true to myself and what I understand to be my call.
I think I find even more joy in being a pastor today than I did when I started. Wrinkles don’t make me anxious like they once did. I can look back at three decades of temporary struggles and see how they have been resolved by persons committed to living in community and to following in the way of Jesus.
And I’m inspired by the words of Paul: “Our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” Part of being renewed means being ready to change: to be open to whatever new and good thing may enhance the experience of life and ministry. My life is nothing like what I anticipated it would be. I never imagined being part of the United Church of Christ. In Colorado. With a husband. None of that was even vaguely conceivable to me thirty years ago. And now I’m supremely blessed to be here with you. Who knows what the next decade will bring within our community as together we are open to God’s whole universe of possibility?
Jan who fixed the broken hook on my robe suffered a stroke and died a week later shortly after I left Buffalo. I had been her pastor for nine years, and I had come to know and care about her deeply. It was not my place to extend pastoral care to her and her family. That was hard, but the boundary was correct so that her new pastor could do the work he was called to do. But Jan remains important to me, as do countless persons I’ve been privileged to ministry with for thirty years. I am so grateful for the relationships that we are forming here, and for the place that you already have in my life, and for the renewing, refreshing grace of God that is given day by day. We have all been called to serve and love those around us. May you experience God’s renewing grace in your call, day by day. Amen.