<!--[if gte mso 9]>
Ten years ago today, I was ordained to the gospel ministry, an affirmation of my calling to serve Christ and his Church through the practices of pastoral, congregational ministry. If I knew then what I knew now…
It hasn’t been easy, but then again, I knew it wouldn’t be. Like most things in life, people can tell you a hundred times a day the way things will be, but there’s still something within you that wants to prove them all wrong, something within you that wants to triumph over the challenges of the past and straighten out the difficulties of former generations. I suppose we might call that hope. I listened to mentors tell me about being threatened by church members, how they had been verbally and physically assaulted in their offices, sanctuaries, and church parking lots. I listened to stories of how people had come into pastors’ homes to threaten their financial security, how a “gang of three” was all it took to persuade a congregation of hundreds that the best thing to “keep the peace” was to force their pastor to resign. I witnessed firsthand how the narrow-mindedness of an individual derailed the ministry of a church simply by causing a scene in a budget meeting that led to removing the entire budget of a youth program. I listened to stories about how congregations refused to take any of the blame for failed programs, stagnant growth, and financial decline, while claiming every small victory as a win despite the pastor’s efforts.
I heard all of those stories, and I still couldn’t just ignore the calling of God.
So, in twelve years of ministry and a decade of ordination, I’ve witnessed my own stories, many of them have been clichés, situations and experiences I thought had surely either never happened or were only relics of a generation before mine. There were those church members who believed they had literally bought the church, purchasing a thing or two here and there for the church’s use and their occasional, private use (always wanting a tax receipt of course, and letting me know that their “donation” was a part of their tithe). There was the chair of a search committee who told me, “If we had told you the truth, you wouldn’t have wanted to talk to us.” There was the deacon who left because I wasn’t a strict adherent to the inerrancy of the Authorized King James Version (1611), the staff member who threatened to call me a heretic in front of the congregation because of my support of women in ministry, the family who lied about the frequency of my pastoral visits to members of the congregation, the church member who literally said to me once, “I give a lot of money and shouldn’t have to ask anyone how to spend it!”
Then there are the countless “conversations” that I have had to sit through, usually in criticism to a sermon or some post from someone on social media. There are the times when my wife has been left out of social gatherings, my son has been treated differently, when the few friends I have either turned their backs on me or came under severe scrutiny by others in the congregation wanting to “run them off,” when I’ve been told to leave, when a minority voice has driven me to the brink while the majority has remained silent.
I suppose I could go on, but I won’t. Because the truth is, I still feel called to this. After ten years of ordination, I still feel called to this hard, heavy, frustrating, sometimes soul-draining life. Because for every empty complaint session I have had to sit through, for every ignorant dissertation I’ve had patience enough to endure, for every meaningless motion, every threat, every lie, and every pain I’ve had to endure at the hands and words of those who claim to follow Jesus, there have been moments where I’ve seen the kingdom crack through and God’s glory become real.
Like the time Steve (not his real name) called me. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered it anyway. Steve had to tell me who he was, because he had only visited our small church a few times, but he had heard me preach on Jesus’ words about forgiveness. He was so convicted by Jesus’ words that, in spite of his severe social anxiety, he drove across four states to find his father—a man who had abused him and his sister, a man Steve had deleted from his life—and tell him he forgave him.
Or that time I traveled to Haiti with a group, some of whom had never been out of the country, and witnessed the way just a small exposure to God’s kingdom in another context works to chip away the culturally-engrained biases and beliefs about other peoples.
Or the countless times I’ve sat by the bedside of someone who took their last breath while her family sang hymns, while his family told stories. The countless times that God has been able to use whatever gifts I have to offer to bring some sense of peace to a family who is grieving the loss of a loved one.
Then there are those innumerable conversations over lunch, during a work project, sitting on a porch, around the coffee table, conversations where reality of God’s kingdom is discussed in ways much deeper than trite Platonisms and memorized proof-texts. In recent years, some of those conversations have even taken place four feet in the ground, as I’ve helped to dig the graves of many of the saints whose funerals I’ve presided over.
There are those holy, precious moments when the kingdom becomes so real that I just want the world to stop spinning, moments when it feels like I’m closest to getting this thing called ministry right. They’re those moments when you see someone finally “get it,” those times when you feel like this thing called Church might actually work and the world might actually be transformed if we could all just hold on those moments and create more like them.
And maybe that’s why I can’t let go of this calling. I mean it that way too: I can’t let go of it. It doesn’t have me, because the truth is I could walk away from it and let someone else deal with all the frustration, hurt, high blood pressure, and bovine excrement. I could lay it down whenever, but I would never feel right about it after. I might sleep a little better, have more weekends to spend with my family, less stress, and more time in general, but there would be a very real part of me missing.
So, ten years in to this life of ordained ministry, and despite all of the hell it can bring (and sometimes, in spite of all it can) I still believe God has called me to this. I still believe this thing called congregational ministry is worth doing. I still find that those small glimpses of God’s glory shining through the cracks we’ve made in the façade of superficial religion are powerful enough to call me onward, ever onward on this journey to share the truth of God’s limitless love in Christ Jesus with the world and to call others to join me on this journey.