Where I Ruminate on My Ordination on this its Anniversary

I was ordained to the Christian ministry on this day in 1975 at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ. Dudne Breeze, the pastor, preached the sermon, and a good one it was. Jerry Handspicker, my teacher at Andover Newton Theological School and the associate pastor, offered the ordaining prayer, which asked God to endow me with all manner of things for my ministry, and he seemed in deadly earnest. After thirty-four years I now understand why. Jerry, ironically, also presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry when I retired five years ago, so he book-ended my three decades of active ministry. We sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” My then girlfriend, now wife, Martha, made me a handsome set of liturgical stoles. Good food was served. There were probably grape leaves.

There were no tongues of fire or other obvious signs and wonders, although the whole event was wondrous to me, and when the clergy laid their hands on me I felt an enormous weight, a feeling about ordination that has never entirely left me.

I got to my first parish in rural Maine and realized soon enough that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that feeling has never entirely left me either. My first congregations (I had two) taught me how to be a minister every bit as much as seminary, and I will always be grateful to them. God blessed me throughout my ministry with wonderful saints of the church who encouraged and sustained me, and put up with me even when I was acting like a damn fool.

Early in my ministry I refused all honoraria, and thereby offended nearly everyone that offered me one. I was shopping for clothes the week before my wedding, and the good Roman Catholic salesman at the haberdashery rang me up with a ten percent clergy discount. I tried to explain all the high-minded reasons I couldn’t accept it and watched his face fall. I called my mentor Fred Robie, the sage of Sanford, who simply said, “My Daddy taught me that when someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’” Lesson learned. Would that everything I needed to learn was that simple.

What else did I learn?

  • I learned that a wedding rehearsal is the meeting of two clans, and that at any moment violence might break out.
  • I learned that a pastor needs a tender heart, but a thick skin.
  • I learned that when you are relating to broken people some of their brokenness may get aimed at you. I learned that you aren’t supposed to take this personally, although I invariably did.
  • I learned that the faithful aren’t much impressed by the BEM document, especially if you want to move around the furniture in the chancel.
  • I learned that for some folks it’s not the height, depth, or breadth of a sermon that is decisive, but its length.
  • I learned that exercising discipline around baptism involves water, and lots of it is hot.
  • I learned that what I said in the pulpit and what people heard were not necessarily the same.
  • I learned that sometimes peoples lives were moved and even changed by what they heard even when it wasn’t what I said.
  • I learned to love some difficult people.
  • I learned that around pledging time Chicken Little competes with Jesus Christ as head of the church.
  • I learned that we clergy preach salvation by grace to the people, but act as if it were by works for us.
  • I learned that it is a high privilege to spend time with dying people.
  • I learned that struggling with a text all week, and then breaking it open for the congregation on Sunday sometimes felt like the best job in the world. And sometimes it didn’t.
  • I learned that God is good all the time.

Like everyone else I had my good days and my bad days. And like any moderately self-aware person who prays I know my failings better than anyone except God (and perhaps Martha). But I learned it really is all about grace. I am proud (in a good way) to have been a minister.

“Prepare Three Envelopes:” A Parable about Pastoral Ministry

In a certain city there lived a young pastor who was starting her first day at her first solo pastorate. She had met the staff, put all her books on the shelves, and was arranging her desk when a curious thing happened. She opened the desk drawer, and there were three sealed envelopes, numbered one, two, and three, encircled with a rubber band, and with a note attached.

She eagerly unfolded the note, and this is what it said: “Dear Successor. Welcome to the Old Church on the Green. When I arrived here many years ago I found three envelopes in my desk as you just have. They were from my predecessor and his note told me to open each of them in turn whenever I found myself in difficulty in the parish. This was very helpful to me, so I am providing you with three numbered envelopes to open when you need them. Blessings on your ministry. Your Predecessor.”

She didn’t know what to make of this, but soon forgot about the envelopes amidst the whirlwind of starting a new ministry, meeting new people, putting names with faces, in the general excitement and anxiety of the first months. And truth to tell, she had a joyful honeymoon period where she learned to love the congregation and they learned to love her, and everybody was very happy and content.

But in the fullness of time some discontents could be discerned among the faithful. Well-meaning advisors came to her to tell her things they had heard, not that they felt that way, but others did. None of the complaints were major, but they ate at her morale. Some said she had annoying mannerisms in the pulpit, that she was never in the office, that she didn’t do enough pastoral visitation, that she had been seen coming out of a yoga class during the daytime when honest hard-working people are at their jobs.

All these things got her down, and one day she spotted the forgotten envelopes in her desk drawer. She wondered if she should open the first one, and after some struggling and prayer about it, she did so. Inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Blame your predecessor.”

She had once taken interim ministry training so she knew how to do this and immediately put the strategy into play. She told her boards and committee that congregations were really dysfunctional family systems and the dysfunction was caused by the former pastor. They all nodded their heads and agreed to be healthier, and they forgot all about their complaints against her, since it is always easier to judge someone that isn’t around. And once again everybody was happy and content.

There came a time, however, when new discontents emerged. The economy went South, pledges were down, fuel cost were up, the endowment which many worshipped had taken a hit, new members were slow to arrive to help pay the bills. She was no longer the new pastor, and there were hints and rumors that a different kind of a leader might fix the problems. She didn’t know what to do. She tried everything she could think of. She went to a centering prayer workshop, she got a Day-Timer, and she attended the Alban Institute conference called “When your Job Sucks.” But none of it seemed to help, so one day, after much struggle and prayer, she opened the second envelope. Once again it was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Reorganize.”

So she convinced her board to create a long-term planning committee, write a new mission statement, and re-write the by-laws. And everybody got very busy, and worked hard together, and there wasn’t enough energy left to complain, and the church thrived for many seasons, and everybody in the congregation felt proud of themselves for having such a well-organized church and such a clever pastor. And, once again, everybody was happy and content.

By this time our pastor was frankly getting a little bored, and not a little burned-out, and wondered just how long she could put out the energy it was taking to keep such a well-organized church going. And her soul was disquited within her.

Once again she tried everything she could think of. She joined a pastor’s support group, she went on a Conference Committee on pastoral excellence, she bought herself a smart-phone and started a blog. But none of it seemed to help, so finally one day in desperation she went to her desk drawer and she opened the third envelope. Once again inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Prepare three envelopes.”