This year at Annual Conference, there was a very brief recognition of those of us celebrating “five year” anniversaries in ministry. (Five, ten, fifteen, etc…)
For me, the actual number is twenty. Twenty years.
Back in those days, you were actually first ordained as a Deacon. To get real technical (and, why not?) my ordination anniversary was three years ago, back in 1989. But the Annual Conference is keeping track of the Elder-year for folks; which ultimately will result in an apples-to-apples comparison with those who have come later, I suppose.
Twenty-three years ago, at FUMC Dallas, I was ordained a Deacon. Twenty years ago this June, at Custer Road UMC in Plano, I finished that journey into ordination as an Elder.
I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what to write to commemorate such a moment. I’ve stopped and started blogs several times.
But I’ve realized that almost everything I wanted to write about ministry itself already has been. It was written by Dean William Lawrence, of Perkins School of Theology. I first heard it in an ordination sermon Bill preached, now two years ago. (He’s since told me it’s also in this book too)
I remember the setting of that night well. In that ordination service, held in Wichita Falls, I was to “stand” with a new ordinand, as his “mentor.” But I happened to also sit next to my dear friend, Paul Escamilla.
For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, Paul was leaving our Annual Conference to become pastor of a church in Austin. So, it was already a deeply bittersweet moment. I was happy for my “mentee,” deeply sad about Paul.
And then, Dean Lawrence got to this one part of the sermon. It was a list of things that ordained ministers are called upon to do. Some often. Some rarely. But almost all of them, from time to time, a part of our “vocation.”
And there was something about this section of the sermon hit me like a lightning rod, a ton of bricks, spoke to my soul, left me murmuring “Yes, yes, yes…it’s just like that….”
Even for us preachers, the truth is that it’s very rare to remember parts of sermons even a week later, much less, two years. But I am haunted by this list.
So, I share it with you now, as perhaps the most beautiful and lyrical, recounting of what it means to be an ordained person I have ever heard:
“Everyone who enters ordained ministry will, at some time, be called upon to do powerful and terrible things—like these that I mention for illustration:
• To celebrate marriages and deal with divorces.
• To be with a family as they bring an infant into the household or to bury a dead infant into the ground.
• To visit the people as they move into a new home or when they find themselves newly homeless.
• To pray for those who are dying that they may be restored to life and to pray for those who are dying that they might peacefully die, so they could be raised to New Life.
• To counsel with persons who want to live in reconciliation with those from whom they have become estranged.
• To counsel with persons who are ready to take their own lives and end the wreckage of their wretched existence.
• To work with people of other religious traditions on addressing neighborhood problems.
• To discover chasms of mistrust that deeply divide religious communities as they search, almost in vain, to discover common ground.
• To order the Church by leading prayers of confession and offering forgiveness, and to order the Church by exercising discipline over those other ordained ministers who have abused the office by misconduct.
• To preach sermons that thousands will hear and to preach sermons that no one will hear because the prophetic edge of the message was unwelcomed by those exposed to it.
• To deliver the bread and the cup from the Lord’s table to people who hope that it will help bring change to their lives.
• To deliver the bread and the cup to those who are adept at resisting every venture of change that the grace of God might bring.
• To be energized by the Spirit that dwells in the Church and to be enervated by the political strife that dwells in the Church.
• To pray for people who labor for peace and to pray for people who are sent into war.
• To wait in a courtroom with someone who has been victimized by a grievous act, and hope for justice.
• To sit in a prison cell with someone who had been the perpetrator of a grievous act, and hope for mercy.
• To help anyone, including in the end, oneself, who is struggling at the boundaries of unbelief.
There are other professions that achieve justice, like the practice of law. Other professions provide healing, like the practice of medicine. Other professions instruct or encourage or build, like those held by teachers and counselors or construction engineers. Other professions engage in great art, like music, painting and poetry.
But there is nothing, nothing, nothing like the ordained ministry,”
— Dean William Lawrence
As I said, I found myself murmuring “Yes, yes, yes…”
It was a beautiful moment.
I often wish that somebody could follow us preachers around with a video camera on certain days, when some of the things on this list are juxtaposed with each other, sometimes back-to-back.
It’s a rich life, in many ways.
But as each year passes, I am also painfully aware of losses too. Paul is by no means alone in terms of colleagues who have left North Texas for other places.
For example, I sat in Perkins’ first-year “Ministry Class” (with Dr. Leroy Howe) at a table with three other guys. Four of us, all told. All of us somewhat unusual, in that we’d come to seminary straight from undergraduate school.
Within five years of my ordination as an Elder, all three of the rest of these guys had “gotten out” of ordained ministry. One went back to writing. Another became a lawyer. A third became an acclaimed producer of children’s videos.
It was an early lesson about the “losses” in ministry. But those lessons didn’t stop there. When I look at my “ordination classes,” I see a similar story.
The year I was ordained deacon (1989) was a prolific year for North Texas. We ordained a whopping 19 men and women as Deacons that year.
Today, a mere seven of those nineteen remain active, here in North Texas. That’s only 38 percent left active from my original “Deacon class.”
It’s a similar story, three years later, in my Elder class. There were twelve of us ordained Elder in 1992.
Six of us, from my Elder class, exactly fifty-percent, remain in active ministry in North Texas.
There are individual stories to be told behind all these numbers, to be sure. Some are retired. Some have moved. Some are just “gone.” Some are gone for good reasons, I am sure.
But outside my ordination-year class, we’ve lost other talent from North Texas too. We’ve sent very talented folk to other Annual Conferences in just the past few years….Austin, Houston, Oklahoma, West Texas, Grapevine. We’ve had two very talented colleagues elected Bishop in the past eight years. (And, maybe a third in a few weeks…)
There are ways to explain all these losses. But in the end, the explanations don’t really matter for the purposes of the point I make here.
Namely that, over time, for as rich a vocation as it is, it gets to be an awfully lonely business too. Sometimes, friends just fade away. And sometimes, nobody seems to know just where they go.
You not only experience the blessings of ministry Dean Lawrence describes, but through the stories of colleagues, you see the dark underbelly of the institutional church. Even if it never happens to you, you see the ways clergy sometime get chewed up by unhealthy churches, or somehow get permanently crossways with “the system.”
In a way that’s hard to describe to anyone else outside “the connection,” you grieve for their stories of pain and loss, even when they’re not your own. While those of us left in “the connection” never talk about it, we also never quite forget these lost colleagues. And some portion of that grief always lingers with us, layering a gray patina on top of our own memories, even when those memories are good.
So, it gives me pause on this twenty-year anniversary.
Yes, it’s an incredibly wonderful vocation, and I wouldn’t take back more than a handful of days, here and there. (What? You have no regrets? Really?)
But, there’s also the sadness over friends I started walking down this path with, who are gone now, and whom I still remember. Sometimes, remembering them, remembering their stories, there is a sense of “there but by the grace of God go I…”
And, as I write this from my study in a church I am deeply grateful to serve, I also remember the colleagues I know who are struggling right now. Struggling at churches where things aren’t going well, wondering if they can keep going, or how much longer they can. Afraid to say anything at all to anyone about it.
For all evidences to the contrary, week in and week out, we clergy do a remarkably good job of covering up such pains, sharing them only with a few select friends, if ever.
So, I remember this too.
But, for me? Right now?
All in all, on this day and in this moment, I’m a blessed and grateful man.
A colleague who is moving to a new church had yesterday off, and visited Northaven. Through his eyes, I was deeply grateful to see his appreciation for our great faith community.
It reminds me how, to be completely crass, I am one lucky S.O.B. to serve this church. I want to assure everyone of just how deeply and truly I know that. I try to say “thanks” for it all just as often as I can.
In fact, just about once a week, perhaps after some blessed moment of ministry like those the Dean describes, I find myself simply whispering the word “Thanks” to God in prayer; while musing “Eric, you are one lucky S.O.B,” to myself.
I don’t care if you find this crass, really. It’s my truth. I don’t deserve any of the good stuff that comes my way any more than colleagues deserve many of the pains that come to them. I don’t know why life unfolds the way it does sometimes.
But a huge spiritual learning for me in the past few years is this: You won’t always be thankful. So, when you can, don’t forget to be.
Thanks for this place, now.
Thanks for the rare privilege to do all the tender and touching tasks Dean Lawrence mentions.
Thanks for the times I remember to say thanks “in the moment.”
By the grace of God, and with the Dean, I say: “There’s nothing like ordained ministry.”
Thanks be to God for twenty years.
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