It must be time to talk about ordination. A (former) in-care student of mine celebrates her ordination this Sunday, a new person I met with this week is seeking discernment re: her call, and today a good friend of mine said, with goodness in his heart, “… if you wouldn’t mind, could you please write to the people who ordained you and tell them that they were wrong to do so?”. Oof. That one hurt. I have heard that I’m “not (someone’s) idea of a minister” before, so have been considering the process all day and will continue to do so.
I serve on the Committee on Ministry for the local Association (group of churches) in my denomination, so I deal with questions of ordination all the time, and I’m aware that other people bring their ideas to the table about ordination. Here’s mine.
Regarding “writing to the people who ordained me and tell them that they were wrong to do so”, there’s already a problem. The blues song “How blue can you get?”, has the line “I gave you seven children and you want to give them back!”. This came to mind as I contemplated. It is as impossible to give back an ordination as it is to give back children because of who gave the gift. The “people who ordained me” can’t have my ordination back because they didn’t actually give it to me. They acknowledged it, they confirmed it, they said it was suitable for parish ministry. That last part could be called back and given back to a Committee on Ministry. They could say, “this minister or that is not fit for the UCC”, or parish ministry, or some other ministry. That part of ordination we all agree about. Sadly, we have to do that on occasion.
But there is a reality behind the ordination by a church that can’t be given back. Ordination, like every other celebration in the church, is a human manifestation celebrating what God has already done. That is, God ordains a person to ministry. People say that they can see it or not, and it is established in a certain situation by people, but God does the ordaining or God doesn’t. A person can give up their standing, but they can not give up their ordination to Christian ministry or a Christian life. The kind of ordination I mean here is “the calling by God to a particular Christian life or occupation”. Abraham was ordained to walk, Moses to lead, Mary to give birth, Jesus to be manifest in the world. But it didn’t end there. I don’t believe God ever stops calling. Once we’ve taken the hook, we’re in. It’s a good hook, mind you, and one I’d take again, but it is a fishing hook nonetheless.
By now you may be wondering what I’m talking about. Let me explain.Nearly every first-generation minister (I can’t speak for preacher’s kids who grow up to be ministers, or for everybody) I know has a call and it goes something like this:
The person is standing around, minding their own business, planning on a certain career — doctor, baseball player, architect, Habitat for Humanity person, secretary, pastor’s wife are among the ones I know– when something weird happens. They notice something, they hear something, someone says something and they think to themselves “That’s odd”. Moses and the burning bush is an example of this. When he went up the mountain, he was a shepherd and expected to spend his life quietly being a shepherd. Then he saw the burning bush. Now, the burning bush could have, in theory, been there forever, because the text says “it was burning and not consumed”. And Moses whispered to God, “Hey, over here, Moses!”. That’s the hook.
God being a God of free will and all, Moses could have said “No” and gone down the mountain again. God would have tried again, or Moses could have gone back or what-have-you and this dance would have gone on. Or Aaron, Moses’ brother could have gone up the mountain and gotten the job, in theory.
Only God knows why this ordination thing happens. Invariably, the next step is “Who, me?”, followed almost immediately by the person’s list of why this is the wrong decision. In Moses’ case, he says, “I’m not so good at speaking. I talk like I have a mouth full of marbles”. In Abraham’s case, it was “How can this be? I’m an old man!”. In Mary’s case, it was How can this be? I’m not married and I am still a virgin”.
In the modern world, it’s “but my mother wanted me to be a doctor”, or “I’m only a woman. My husband wouldn’t understand”, or “I already have a job, thanks. I’m a stockbroker”. In my case, it was “but I’m a little kid from a fairly messed up life and I want to play baseball”.
The ordinand can chalk up this one experience to delusion as “this kind of thing just doesn’t happen” sometimes to anybody, sometimes specifically to them. And sure enough, in this secular, scientific world, it’s not supposed to happen at all. But it did and it does. And the person thinks they’re crazy for awhile.
The person also senses, as George Burns says, in the movie, “Oh, God!”, that “it’s like being the 1,000,000th person to cross a bridge. You get chosen”. At least, as far as I can tell because that’s what it’s felt like to me. I have never felt any better than anyone else in God’s eyes. Chosen, yes. Better, no. Special? Sort of — in the sense of “weird” and in the sense of “picked for softball”.
After a while, people get used to, then tired of, the weird things happening and they submit to God’s will/agree to the ordination. Something happens here and throughout this process. Pastors — forced out pastors, retiring pastor, retired pastors, new pastors, continuing pastors — speak of having a pastoral part of their “identity”. It isn’t just a job, it’s who they are. This comes from relating over and over with God in this dance of ordination. It’s like becoming a husband or wife because of dating them for a while. A person can get divorced, but they can never be “un-married” and they will never be truly “single” again. Or like choosing to be baptized or confirmed. Because God did it, and we agreed, it can never be totally undone.
This doesn’t give them the right to destroy the relationship — whether pastoral or marital. But people who took their vows seriously don’t want to, anyway. In fact, because they are in love with God or spouse or the church, they want to be the best at their role that they can be. Ordained ministers want to have a spiritual life, want to read and understand the Bible, want to help people and they go about doing that the best way they know how. In my case, and in many others, ordained (by God) people ask their denomination how to become ordained by the church. They ask, “How did others do this?” and they set about to do it. Most of us, myself included, go to seminary and study whatever the best minds out there think. What we consider “the best minds out there” determines where we go. A liberal Christian goes to a liberal seminary. A more conservative one goes to a conservative seminary or a Bible college.
Seminary and, I assume, Bible college is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. Seminary, like the first years of marriage, is hard work and a period of adjustment. It, too, is a dance. Frankly, I wanted to get off the dance floor numerous times in seminary, but I couldn’t. God wouldn’t let me. People would show up from miles away with advice (Gordon) or money (Dan) or support (my field-ed group and Charlie) or some new miracle (Zelia). My sense of call got hardened and stylized and worked until it got to where it was as I approached ordination by the church.
Crossing the finish line into ordained (by the church) ministry was difficult for me in ways that I don’t think it was for others, but it was complicated by the fact that I already had a new identity as “ordained” and I couldn’t see why it wasn’t obvious. I’m sure this came across as ego to my Committee, but it wasn’t for me. It was simply acceptance of a fact — a fact that I had fought hard against. My recent in-care student, it seems to me, was never in any danger of not being ordained by her Committee, but I don’t think it was a “fact” to her yet as she went through the process. She will be a great minister to any parish she serves. My other ministry person will do the same, once she figures out what exactly God has hidden within her that the world needs. And if a parish doesn’t see that in her, she will have to do what I do — go back to God in prayer or in whatever way she and God connect. She will know, as I do, that she is loved by God once again, and her perspective will return.
At most people’s ordination (or licensure), God doesn’t swoop down like a bird or a wind and suddenly the person is wise and holy. Sometimes, I suppose, special gifts are given, but mostly it feels like you’re home — at home in your new identity — the identity that has been forged since God ordained you years ago. Has the ordained person become “holy”? Yes, perhaps, but only because God lives inside them. When the Spirit leaves in The End, the ordained person is just the same as anybody else. What makes them more holy, if that happens, is that they welcome the Spirit of God into their lives and into their Selves. Remember, ordination is a choice and the depth of that relationship is a choice, as well.
So, to my friend who asked me to give back my ordination — I can’t. I’ve tried at various times along the way and it doesn’t work. Now I accept it so much I don’t want it to work and I refuse to give it up. Moses wasn’t always popular or understood. Abraham, Isaac, any number of prophets along the way, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, yes, even Jesus were ordained and disliked. You can now add me to the list even though I’m not any of them and can’t hold a candle to Jesus. You can probably add every ordained or licensed pastor at one time or another. But, like them, and like Martin Luther (Protestant Reformer) “Here I stand. I can do no other”.
My ordination — to preach and teach, heal and bring good things or justice to the world — with or without the sacraments — calls me, nudges me, drives me nuts until I write, to preach, teach, care, and say something worth saying. I hate to seem block-headed to anyone, but I won’t give it up. And I hope my ordained and licensed friends won’t either.