A Reflection on Forty-Five Years of Ordained Ministry

On this day forty-five years ago, September 21, 1975, I was ordained into the Christian Ministry of Word and Sacrament at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. I was 26.

I had had my ecclesiastical council weeks before and waited for a call for a church before I could be ordained. Late in the summer it came. I was called to be the pastor of the Congregational Churches of Limerick and West Newfield, a “Two-point charge” serving two small congregations nine miles apart in the Northwest corner of York County, Maine. I had preached my neutral pulpit sermon in nearby Fryeburg, and a candidating sermon in each of the two churches.

I remember my ordination vividly. The church secretary, Irene Fultz, had designed. printed and mailed out the invitations. My family was there. My Associate Conference Minister, Oliver Powell, was there. The Reverend Joanne Hartunian, represented the Metropolitan Boston Association. The Reverend Meredith (Jerry) B. Handspicker, presided over the Laying on of Hands, and gave the Prayer of Ordination (after the ordained ministers were assembled he invited the whole congregation to participate, the first time I had seen this. It is commonplace now in the UCC.) The Reverend Dudne M. Breeze gave the sermon. He admonished me to be a Minister of the Word of God. I now know how wise that counsel was and how hard it would be.

I served those two little churches for four years and have never been happier. I married Martha while there and those churches threw us a big party. I trained as an EMT and became a firefighter.

Next, we went to Bangor, where I was Chaplain at Bangor Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor of the Hammond Street Church, United Church of Christ. There I ministered to students and congregants. I was a founder of Maine Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) a national anti-war organization. I chaired the Social Justice Committee of the Maine Council of Churches.

Finally, I came to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1982 to be the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. I had three sabbaticals from there: Oxford (1989), St Andrews (1995) and Cambridge (2000). I studied and wrote articles and books while on those wonderful respites from active ministry.

I stayed in Pittsfield for twenty-two years and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a bicycle accident and had to retire early on disability.

After that I eventually discovered a new chapter as a writer. I started this blog, I wrote devotions for the United Church of Christ, and found a new ministry of the Word in my words.

So, there you have it. Here I am 45 years later. I once kept count of how many weddings I officiated at, but I have lost count well into several hundred. The same for baptisms, confirmations. I can’t count the hospital visits, the funerals and graveside committals I was part of. I’ve held people’s hands in Rehab Facilities and Psychiatric Wards. I’ve put my arms around people in overwhelming grief. I’ve been humbled by theses encounters.

I have heard numerous confessions. I have listened to more kinds of human consternation and misery than you can imagine. I have also been privileged to be part of people’s lives at some of their more poignant moments. I have shared many joys and sorrows. I have “wept with those who weep, and rejoiced with those who have rejoiced.” (Romans 12:15)

I have led countless Bible Studies and other courses for adults. I have authored “A Course in Basic Christianity” for adults. I think of it as a course to teach you “everything you should have learned in Confirmation Class, but probably didn’t because you had your mind on other things.”

I’ve valued the relationships of my clergy friends and colleagues in the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations. I served  the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as their representative to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for twelve years. There, I made many friends and came to appreciate the richness of the “Great Church” of Jesus Christ.

I have also treasured the relationships I have had with my Jewish brothers and sisters in the clergy. We have become trusted friends and interlocators, and in that safe space of friendship have had rich and deep conversations about both what unites and divides us. It was a great honor that the family of my dear friend Rabbi Harold Salzmann asked me to speak at his funeral at Temple Anshe Amunin in Pittsfield last year.

I’ve witnessed people’s lives changed by their confrontation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I, myself, have been profoundly changed by a life-long engagement with Jesus and his Gospel of freedom and grace. Jesus is still the most interesting and engaging piece of our faith, and after forty-five years he is still the one with whom I have to deal in thought and deed and prayer.

I have struggled to be faithful to the truth as I have known it. My reach has exceeded my grasp. I have pondered the deep things of the faith and have written countless articles, papers, and three and a half books. I have spent years trying to reform my denomination and restore its historic theological and ecumenical vision through leadership in such activities as the Confessing Christ movement, the Mercersburg Society, and the Craigville Colloquies.

I have also, to be quite honest, been a leader throughout my forty-five year ministry, in an enterprise that is in decline in institutional vigor and societal esteem. The schools where I received my masters and my doctorate are no longer there. The mainline church in whose rocky vineyard I have labored is smaller, poorer, and less respected than it was before I began. My last church, where I served for 22 years, is selling its grand gothic meeting house.

But I do not despair about this. God will not be left without witnesses. The church of the future, I believe, will be smaller, leaner, and more faithful. People won’t go because it’s “the thing to do” as it once was. They’ll go because they have found something of great value to which they are committed. Or they will go because they are searching for something important that seems missing in their lives, something more durable, something deeper than the shallow seductions and distractions of our consumer culture that values having more than being.

So, while I have regrets about my failings and limitations as a minister, I have none about choosing this calling and living it out for four and a half decades. My daughter has chosen to be a pastor, and I watch with awe at how gifted and faithful she is. It is young clergy such as she who give me much hope for the church of the future. I thank God for sustaining me through this long calling, and for calling me in the first place despite my manifold frailties and failures. To God be the glory.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen. —Ephesians 3:20-21.

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