Last week I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament. A number of conspiring members of St. Michael’s (including my family) put together a wonderful surprise party on my behalf. (Yes, I was surprised!) Throughout the course of the evening and days that followed I started thinking about what I’ve gained over this decade. Here are a few insights, though there are plenty more…
1. Love the People. It is amazing what a difference everything makes if the pastor actually cares for those entrusted to their care. Ideas are great, programs are good, hospitality is extremely important – but none of it matters without a genuine care of the people God has entrusted me love, learn from, and grow together with across time.
2. Nobody has it all figured out. When I was a new pastor I was regularly amazed by the wisdom of experienced pastors. What I have come to know is that most of them are still trying to figure out how to lead, care, preach, multitask and administrate better. I have a little quote from Michelangelo I have on my shelf that says, “I’m still learning.” I hope I always feel that way.
3. The church is a messy place – because it is full of people. Sometimes people have a view of the church that it is supposed to be otherworldly – free of conflict and other challenges. But the church is full of people, and as a result it is full of pain, brokenness, competing personalities, perspectives that seem irreconcilable, feuds, deep needs, and so on. God’s word and the sacraments meet those human inconsistencies as God breaks into the world we try to control, dominate and make in our own image – by calling us to repentance and offering a new life lived in Christ. In the meantime the church is messy, because our sinfulness is so pervasive. Yet we continue to gather because the promise is true.
4. Never under-estimate the faith or generosity of your people. People have an amazing depth and aptitude in the faith if only given the chance to explore, name and share it. Sometimes they don’t use the “seminary words” but that really doesn’t matter. People generally step-up when asked, and meet all kinds of challenges if allowed the space to do so. I’ve become a much better pastor by simply listening, getting out-of-the-way and doing some cheerleading. I’ve learned to look for faith being lived well beyond the walls of the church, and there are amazing things happening everywhere!
5. Be a Human Being. Piety is great, but humanity is better. I’ve learned to show who I am, my lingering questions, uncertainties, missteps, and things I’ve learned from mistakes. I’ve learned to show my convictions, my experience, my interests, my relationships, and humility around accomplishments too. Being a real person means taking my days off, and spending time with my wife, kids, extended family and friends. It means living a real life and struggling with its complexity. I’ve learned that people are consistently more interested in “what I think” than what the right answer is (though I hope most of the time they are compatible!) The greatest thing I’ve learned about being a real person is that it gives others permission to be real people too – with gifts and foibles, just like me.
6. The greatest exegete of the text is your people. The Bible continues to be the source and norm for faith and life – centering us in the living word of Christ. Bible scholarship is great and more accessible than ever, yet knowing your people along with their struggles and the challenges they are up against is what makes a preacher. People want to know how to live out their faith, seek out their questions, and find support in a crisis. This is where both naming our struggles as well as God’s promises into the midst of them has traction. To be a fellow traveler alongside all who are on THE WAY makes the journey enjoyable. To offer grace into the midst of shame opens new possibilities. To invite and welcome those who have walked away before or perhaps never joined our travels is pure joy.
7. There is one ministry of Jesus Christ. Baptism is what sets us apart for ministry in the world as we become part of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection by water and the word. Each of the baptized is called to serve others, bear witness, and speak a word of hope and peace to a troubled world. The church has pastors to lead communities and ensure that God’s word is proclaimed and the sacraments happen, and I’ve trained well and hard to continue to hone the skills of running a parish, communicate clearly, and work within the church structures; we have bishops – who are really pastors serving in a wider capacity; and in the ELCA have several other distinct roles – like associates in ministry; diaconal ministers, deaconesses, and others (which could really be combined under one title like other church bodies do); we all have different gifts and are differnt parts of the body, but there is only one ministry and all of us by baptism are called into it. Our ministry is a call to point to Jesus – in all that we do.
8. The world is a different place in the 21st century. In my first congregation email was still a novelty. My last congregation was still using a dial-up connection until 2005. Now at St. Michael’s I spend a good deal of time online in various capacities – posting ideas, sharing reflections, uploading sermon videos and engaging in conversations well beyond my congregation or even geographic part of the country. My iPhone is as useful a tool as is a laptop because I can stay connected anywhere. (I used to do my writing on a legal pad until I could get to a computer; now I’m just as apt to type on my iPhone as I would my laptop.) Networking across social media with trusted colleagues I may never have met in person (both within and outside the typical Lutheran circles) is becoming more and more the norm. Yet I still feel like I have a foot in both worlds – I feel like I’m attuned to the emerging world of the digital age while still understanding the modern one. The last few centuries of order and uniformity, print, institutional power and influence is dying a slow death within the structures of the wider church as we move to a flat, opt-in, technology driven, diverse and often paradoxical one. I understand the fear and uncertainty around what this shift means for many people just as much as the future excites me.
9. Change is slow, but worth it. I had a tendency in my early years to throw caution to the wind and push for the change I thought was necessary immediately. The result was being a few too many steps ahead of everyone else and I left a wake of turmoil behind me. But I’ve learned the art of patience and allowing space for people to develop ideas on their own or with a gentle nudging; I’ve learned to allow for the Spirit to meet and shape us rather than running foolishly up the hill as if I knew what was on the other side. I’ve learned that people are much more open to new possibilities once they feel like they are helping shape the future rather than having it imposed upon them. Not everyone is going to have buy-in of course – but empowering other leaders to lead, think and dream as we discern God’s future together is worth the time it takes to get there.
10. Jesus still loves his church, and so do I. In a time of constant change, shrinking institutional influence, lower participation in faith communities of any kind and an ongoing marginalization of the church in Western society there are many reasons to give up, lose hope, and grow weary. But as my friend Glen Christensen used to remind me – after Good Friday comes Easter. Death brings forth new life, and that is the faith that continues to inspire and challenge; knowing that Christ is alive and will never abandon us, even if we are the last ones standing.
It has been a great first ten years, and even on those most challenging days I wouldn’t trade any of the experience at all. If I could add an eleventh thing I’ve learned (or maybe it is just a summary of the previous ten) is that approaching faith, life and ministry with a heart of gratitude makes everything richer, deeper, and more fulfilling. I still have down days – we all do. But to see everything as God’s gift to us is very counter-cultural in a time and place where our things and ability to get them define who we are. So I close by giving thanks – to God for these ten years and all that are to come, for my family who continues to hang with me even though I don’t deserve them, and to you – for sharing these moments God has given with me.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” (Ephesians 1:16)