Thoughts about Ministry
I have been reflecting about ministry differently these days, something that I suppose is natural as I have retired relatively recently from serving a congregation. I had health issues to deal with, and it was increasingly difficult to do ministry the way I felt it needed to be done. My health is now improving, but I will not serve a congregation again in the role of parish minister. I am still a minister, however, fellowshipped and ordained, and I will carry a stole on my shoulders for the rest of my days. It isn’t always a stole made of cloth, but is always one of both tradition and commitment. It is sometimes visible to the eye, but it is also woven into my bones. I can feel it on my shoulders, a weight that can be heavy, but also gives me strength.
When I supervised intern ministers, I often told them that ministry is not about the minister, but about the people being served. I also said it is not really just about the individuals in the congregation or other setting, although they are precious, but it is more importantly about the church or institution as a whole. Underneath all of that is the mission of the larger faith tradition, and finally, what is the most important of all, is being true to the faith that called you, to serve God if you will, however one defines that Holy Mystery that surrounds us.
Being someone’s minister is an incredible honor. To sit by a bedside when a beloved soul draws their last breath, to listen to the anguish of a mother worried about a child who is ill or in trouble, to hold someone in your arms while they sob with grief, or to see the light in a child’s eyes as they are blessed and dedicated in the midst of gathered community – those moments are particularly precious and holy, and I miss being that conduit through which the Spirit sometimes shine through.
The stole above was given to me by the UU Church of Ogden, who named me Minister Emerita as I left them after seven sweet years together. Some of the cloth in that stole is also in the banners that hang in that sanctuary where I often felt the Spirit moving as we worshiped together. On the back of the stole are words that I wrote when I felt the call to go there to be their minister.
Every time I put on that stole, I feel the love of the congregation that really made me a minister. Grace, I still believe, awaits us all.
All change involves some loss, of course. I miss being an active minister. But just this week, I realized that in my ten or so years of active ministry, I did not have a minister of my own. Yes, I had friends and colleagues, all of whom ministered to me at times. There were also denominational leaders who sometimes fulfilled a pastoral role for me. But it just wasn’t the same. Before I entered seminary and while I was studying for the ministry, I was close to almost all of the ministers who served my home congregation. It was a closeness that had boundaries, we were not friends, but minister and congregant, a particular type of closeness.
I have lived that ministerial relationship from both sides now, and I know that it can be an incredible and special gift, a bond of tenderness, trust, and love. I have missed being in the congregant side of that kind of relationship, and I was not really aware of how much. But now, somewhat miraculously, I am feeling what it is like to have a minister again.
We rejoined our home congregation recently while there was an interim minister who was about to leave in a few months. I enjoyed her services, but I saw her more as a colleague and not really as my minister. And now, we have welcomed a new minister at our church. I don’t know him very well yet, our previous relationship consisted of relatively brief encounters at denominational meetings. But suddenly it seems, my heart is full to overflowing because I can literally feel his pastoral presence and caring attitude toward me and toward the congregation as a whole. His service this morning was beyond simple competence and clarity of message; it was spirit filled and a delightful combination of warmth, humor, and challenge. I really went to church this morning.
I will remain a colleague of this minister, but he will also be my minister, a relationship that to me is is infused with elements of the Holy. The very idea makes me weep with gratitude. I will continue to miss the active ministry, and I hope to preach once in awhile, and to do some minor ministry in the role of a congregant who is retired clergy. But it is good, so good, to have a minister again. “And within it all, the precious beat of human hearts, of hopes and fears, and dreams, open now in anticipation, live with patience, Grace I must believe, awaits us all.” Hallelujah!