Monday, April 29, 2013

Reflections on the Ministry

A week ago today, I conducted the funeral service for my Aunt Lila in Orofino, Idaho.  My cousins asked me if I would write the service, including the eulogy, and give it as well and then perform a short graveside service at her burial.   I think we all agreed that having me, a family member, in charge of the scripture, prayers, and eulogy would be the best way of properly memorializing Aunt Lila.  That's just how it worked out.

I had given eulogies before:  my first was nearly thirty years ago for Dave Olsen, then for my Grandma Woolum, then my dad, and the last time was in 2004 for Davey Untz. 

I used to be a licensed lay preacher at St. Mary's Episcopal church.  I gave about a half dozen sermons or so, the last being in October of 2004 at the occasion when Episcopal churches across the county gathered to celebrate the l50th anniversary of the first Eucharist celebrated in Eugene City.

My struggles with depression and fatigue, however, kept me home on many Sundays, starting late in 2004 on into 2005 and ensuing years.  My lay preacher licensed was not renewed.

So, when I gave Aunt Lila's service, it was the first time in nearly nine years that I filled a ministerial duty.

Later, that evening, I thought back to the days at the end of my college career and the years right after college when I thought I might apply for the seminary and might pursue a vocation in church ministry.

I thought mostly about why I didn't.

Back in 1975-76, as I finished my undergraduate studies at Whitworth College, the idea of being a pastor in a church was inviting.

I enjoyed the atmosphere of and the theological discussions that accompanied studying at a Christian college.   Friends were applying to seminary and I enjoyed it when representatives from Princeton or San Anselmo or Fuller came to Whitworth and held informative dinners and when speakers from these seminaries, and others, were featured speakers at the college.

I went to hear nearly all of them.

Then, in 1976-77, I worked as a Chaplain's assistant at the college.  During that year, I volunteered to give a Compline service every Wednesday (I think) evening at the Presbyterian church near the campus.

Unlike the Sunday evening Campus Worship service, which was a more extroverted form of worship, featuring a homily, the sharing of prayer concerns, and  singing from the Young Life songbook, among other things, Compline was designed to be meditative, introspective.  I gave the service from behind the worshipers, up in the choir loft.  Mike Young played the organ.  People volunteered to sing chant-like music.  No one was up front.  The focus was not on personality, but on spoken prayers.

I stayed faithful to the church calendar, opening each service with "this is the Wednesday following" whatever Sunday in the church calendar had just passed.  This never happened in Campus Worship.

I drew completely upon the Book of Common Prayer in writing each service.  I owned a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer as well as a blue Book of Common Prayer from which new versions of the liturgy were being tried out in anticipation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The Compline service was given in the dark.  It emphasized silence.  It was a very satisfying project that I got to continue doing as a part-time teacher the next year and a half after my tenure in the Chaplain's office ended.

During that time, when I worked at Whitworth for two and half years after graduation, I also got several invitations to fill pulpits on single Sundays in Omak, Post Falls, and Sandpoint and I filled the pulpit at the Spangle Christian Church for several consecutive Sundays while the young minister there took time off to have surgery.

Now, if church ministry had been primarily about organizing and giving services, teaching, and giving sermons, I might have gone to seminary.

But working in the Chaplain's Office and filling pulpits showed me otherwise.

A pastor or a priest is not primarily a teacher or a preacher or a counselor.

It's primarily an administrative job which means working to keep the church financially solvent, keeping the building maintained, keeping the grounds looking good, and keeping different groups of people within the church happy, which the pastor or priest can never do.

Back then, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Coeur d'Alene was a really insightful guy, Ed Hart.  I talked with Ed Hart about going into the ministry.  He told me about his frustrations as the church's administrator.  The Sunday service stuff was pretty much a breeze and he enjoyed being of help to people in need.  But, with different groups in the church, it was always something and that if I wanted to go into the ministry, I'd better have thick skin and get used to people always being unhappy.

That sealed it.  I wanted to be of service, to be a helping pastor and teacher, but I did not want to be an administrator.  I didn't want to deal with church people's complaints.  Now, thirty-five years later, I know even better that I wasn't cut out for this. 

I try to steer clear of volunteering for committees at St. Mary's that involve the running of the church.  I've served on Vestry once and don't plan on doing it again.  I'm aware of letters parishioners have written, how easily people can be offended, of the turf battles that go on, the competitions for budget support.

Dealing with this stuff is not what I do well.  I learned after a year of being a division chair at Lane Community College, that this kind of work cuts me up inside.

And, so, I went into teaching.

As I grew into this profession, I realized that even though I wasn't teaching theology or giving sermons, that raising questions about the meaning of life, about social justice, and about what it means to live well through literature and writing courses fulfilled my ministerial desires.  I was happy that I was fulfilling these desires in a secular way.

In addition, whatever calling I felt to pastoral outreach, to extend understanding, comfort, reassurance -- and to listen -- happened every day in my work as a teacher.

It was true at Whitworth.  It was true at the Univ. of Oregon.  It's been true all these years at LCC.

Teaching turned out to be my calling, not church ministry.

I'm ready, always, if needed, to teach a class, fill a pulpit, give a sermon, or give a service at a church or chapel.

I just don't want to be institutionally in charge.  


Unknown said...

Really enjoyed this posting. God obviously knew exactly what He was going to do with you. The world is a better place because you followed your gifts.

Sandie said...

I agree with Scott, and with your choices. I used to think ministry was all about being on the platform, preaching. I can do that, but I really like to inspire others to walk in Truth, and that usually happens one-on-one. I really enjoyed this post.