Written by Pastor Ed
September 4, 2016
Deut. 30: 15-20
Luke 14: 25-33
Last Spring we spent an evening with some friends from my seminary days whom we hadn’t seen for some time. In the course of the evening they expressed some frustration with the church as a whole and asked, actually several times, “What has kept you in ministry for the past 40 years?” I’m not sure I gave them any satisfactory answers that evening, but it’s a question I’ve pondered ever since. And this morning I want to share some of those ponderings. So this is a more personal reflection this morning, and I am only speaking for myself, I’m sure others experiences would be different.
As noted in the bulletin, September 1, this past Friday marked 40 years since I began my formal work as a pastor in a small, rural congregation in Ontario where I pastored for the first 8 years of my ministry. I was young, just out of seminary, and in a foreign country. And while I had had some good role models and teachers, I still had a lot to learn. But I realize that one of the factors that kept me in ministry was the fact that my first experience was a positive one. Both the congregation as well as the conference were supportive.
Since then I have pastored in 3 other congregations, including this one, as well as serving as a Conference Minister for 9 years. I haven’t kept track exactly, but my estimation is that I’ve preached about 1500 sermons over that span of time, and yes, I’ve used some more than once, but they always get a bit of revision. I have kept track of weddings and funerals that I have been involved with, and am currently at 41 weddings and 86 funerals.
As a conference minister I participated in numerous licensing and ordination services, the most memorable being one in which a vocal protester objected to our ordination of a woman pastor! I have served on numerous conference and denominational committees, helped plan large gatherings both regional as well as church-wide, and attended lots of Assemblies, continuing education events, etc.
I have seen the church be an incredibly supportive and caring body, both to others and to myself, and I have seen the church be incredibly hurtful, uncaring, and damaging. As you know, one of the concerns I became involved with, following my second pastorate, was the issue of clergy misconduct, something that continues to plague the church and cause harm both to immediate victims as well as to congregations where it takes place. The church is not immune to the evils that plague society in general.
I have seen many changes over these past 40 years, some for the better, but not always. When I began ministry the burning issue was about the role of women in the church, specifically whether they could be pastors. Since I had numerous female friends who were either in ministry or seeking to be pastors, I embraced the issue fully, and by a fluke, or the Spirit’s leading, I ended up chairing a committee of 6 women planning a “Women in Ministry” Conference held in Ontario.
I’ve been through various restructuring processes in the church, working on Inter-Mennonite issues, the merger of two denominations as well as two conferences, and now watching as Mennonite Church Canada works at another restructuring. Believe me, there is no perfect structure.
But not everything has changed. I recall a gathering early in my ministry where we talked about the issue of homosexuality, something we’re still talking about and disagreeing about, although the discussion has moved from whether LGBTQ persons could even be members. And there have been lots of other issues as well that I can recall – the use of lottery money available from the government, Biblical interpretation, abortion, the environment, and more local issues as well.
So how do I answer that question of what has kept me going for 40 years in an institution that can be both wonderful and frustrating all at the same time? There are certainly many reasons one could give for not continuing. For us it has meant leaving people and places behind, often not being close to family. It has at times meant uncertainty for the future, having too many bosses, and being put into stressful situations. Certainly I have friends who have left the ministry because of those as well as other factors.
But I can truly say that the good has outweighed the bad by far, or I probably wouldn’t be here this morning. Let me mention just a few of those things that keep me going.
First of all, this is what I have felt called to do and that call has been confirmed many times over the years. I think I have recounted some of my earliest nudges, but it was probably a combination of people, random happenings, and circumstances – or you might say Spirit happenings, that moved me in the direction of pastoral ministry. Which in some ways is strange, because if you go by personality test results of pastors, my type has the fewest number of people in it who are pastors. I guess that just makes me more unique among pastors – for better or worse.
I recall a bridesmaid who told me after a rehearsal that she hadn’t realized at first I was the pastor because, she said, “You were so friendly.” That probably said a lot more about her experience of pastors than it did about me! Finding the right fit between pastor and congregation is always a challenge and I feel blessed that those fits have seemed right for the time I was there.
I had other options. I could have been a teacher or an electrician, but this is what I felt called to and what I had prepared myself for in my training. Over the years it has felt like I heard correctly.
Secondly, I would note the people who have walked along on this journey. First and foremost, of course, is my wife, Gay, who has been a support and has been willing to follow me around to the different places we have lived, establish a home and become involved in the church in many ways. One of the things pastoring has meant for us is moving from time to time. For only one season were we near parents, and so one of the realities for us is that our church family has become our extended family as well. And in each setting we have found an extended family that has become special to us.
Beyond that there have been conference ministers, colleagues, and friends who have walked alongside. One of the advantages of moving to different parts of the continent is that we now have friends and family across the US and Canada. Our kids at times have accused us of knowing everyone in the Mennonite Church. While that’s certainly not true, we know quite a few and that has brought a richness to our lives. As a conference minister I worked with a staff of three others together for 9 years, and the camaraderie of the conference ministers was a special treat.
Beyond that I have generally found colleagues and friends outside of the Mennonite circles which have helped give a perspective to my work. In Goshen it was an Episcopal priest down the street who helped me embrace the importance of being as well as doing. In Nebraska it was an ecumenical lectionary study group. My work in the field of misconduct has brought me into contact with others working in the same field, a group that shares a common interest and with whom you can share stories that many others wouldn’t understand.
Certainly most places have also included detractors. There are generally those whose expectations are not met or who have an agenda different than mine. That is inevitable when you get a group of people together. But those have, for the most part, been the exception, and without supportive and encouraging people, it is hard to see how I could have continued for these years.
I could cite some other things that make my work enjoyable. I get to read and study as part of my work. I have fairly flexible hours and the freedom to set my own pace. I have learned a lot of history from the various communities I have been a part of and been introduced to various cultures. At one point I said I could probably name all the acronyms in both Mennonite Church USA and Canada.
Beyond those things, there is something that I will simply call the mystery of how God works. While being a pastor carries a certain amount of responsibility, it also is a position with many privileges. To gather with a family at the bedside of a dying mother is a sacred privilege that few others get to experience. To participate in weddings and funerals allows me to engage with families in, at least for me, fascinating ways. I recall a funeral of a woman who had been a missionary in India for many years, and her funeral was a reunion of missionaries. It was fascinating to hear the stories. Each person is unique and to learn those stories is a privilege. To see people come to new understandings, to help congregations through transitions and see them thrive after I’ve gone is amazing at times.
And sometimes it really is a mystery. There are those times when you don’t feel well prepared and a particular sermon is rather a dud, and then someone says, “That was just what I needed this morning.” How is it, I sometimes wonder, that things happen sometimes because of me, and sometimes in spite of me, that further the kingdom of God in some way. Truly God moves in mysterious ways.
Perhaps April Yamasaki, a pastor and author in BC summed it up best in her blog when she said, “And yes, I’ve had my share of stress, but I’d also say that pastoral ministry has been wonderful, enriching, challenging, frustrating, stretching, heart-breaking, impossible, Spirit-filled, mundane and holy, often in the same day or even in the same moment. (April Yamasaki)
So, September 1 marked 40 years of ministry, but it also marked another point in this journey. On September 1 I began my third and final term here at First Mennonite. I know that’s not what some want to hear, but according to your bylaws, that’s the reality, and certainly 40 years and my age make that seem reasonable. When I accepted this third term I noted that I wouldn’t guarantee I would complete another three years, but I’m not sure what that means. How does one decide when is the appropriate time for retirement, or for making a transition, both for the good of the congregation as well as my own future?
So I’ve been asking that question and will continue to ask it. One suggestion I got from a friend who recently retired was to put together a discernment committee from the congregation to help in that process, and I may well do that. I want to be up front and open about this discussion because I believe the congregation deserves that, and because it’s the way I’ve always operated. In the meantime, I will continue to follow what I have been called to do, and pray that God will continue to use the gifts I have been given for the furthering of the Kingdom.
Our hymn of response is one that has been a favourite of mine for many years. It’s an Irish hymn, using many images from Ireland and is a prayer for vision and direction. I invite you to join me in singing “Be Thou my vision.”