This coming Sunday, I will be preaching in the congregation where I last served as a pastor. They are in good hands now, under the ministry of Pastor Dan, and I enjoy going back now and then to see folks. I love the people there, and it is always hard to find time to see everyone when I do.
But there is an inward struggle in my return as well. A lingering melancholy. A hint of hesitation. A wisp of wariness.
When I climb up on the platform to preach Sunday, I will do so limping.
You see, this church represents for me my transition out of congregational ministry.
Twelve years ago at this time I was in the midst of hanging on for dear life, as a congregation which had been through turmoil for several years was failing before my very eyes. People were leaving left and right. Finances were dwindling. At the same time, as I was approaching age 50, our family was dealing with its own problems and challenges, some of them nearly all-consuming. My wife was preparing to start her own business, and our own finances were in trouble too. It felt like my world was spinning out of control on almost every level. I had no idea what to do, nor to whom I should turn. And I was scared spitless. If I were to leave the church (or be asked to leave), I had few options for employment.
I needed some pastoral counsel, some spiritual direction. But where does a pastor in a group that expects their pastors to be entrepreneurial leader-types go for that? There was no denominational structure, no oversight, no one “over” me to call. I had some experienced pastor friends, some of whom were in the same group of churches, but they were much too preoccupied with their own congregations to offer anything more than an occasional breakfast or lunch meeting.
I was losing my balance high up on a tightrope, and there was no net.
And that was the last ecclesiastical straw for me in evangelical free-style churches.
I give thanks to God for his presence and help during those days. Despite resigning from the pastorate, several events and experiences (which I won’t detail here) provided me with strength and stamina to keep going. An answer to a Christmas letter we sent out that winter led to me being hired as a hospice chaplain, and so began a new chapter in life for my family and me.
It’s not as though the thought of pastoral ministry and the local church let go of me easily, however. Over the next couple of years I tried to get involved in leadership and teaching in a couple of congregations while working as a chaplain, but the results were pretty laughable, disastrous almost. I cringe when I look back on them.
Then we started going to the Lutheran church. The Church Year, the simple liturgy, singing in the choir, being freed from the “wretched urgency” and rugged individualism of evangelicalism, and most especially going to the Table each Sunday and being fed with Christ’s body and blood brought a sense of peace.
One of the teachings in the Lutheran tradition that I came to relish was that of vocation. Every person has a role to play in bringing God’s love and goodness to the world. Through our daily work, no matter what it is, we are part of a “wondrous web” through which the hidden God works his will out in the world. I began to embrace my chaplain role more and more and to appreciate the ordinary dailiness of life and work in a way I never had before, as I walked among people from all walks of life, hearing their stories and learning to appreciate their contribution to tikkun olam, repairing the world. And my opportunity to share in that.
When I decided to test the waters regarding ordination and a possible return to congregational ministry in the Lutheran tradition, I did so with a much different perspective, though I still felt a measure of hesitation and a much greater measure of self-doubt. Ultimately, that path led me to a place where I discerned that God’s call for me was to continue in my chaplain role.
The world that now shapes me most, spiritually and religiously, is my vocation as a chaplain — a thoroughly ecumenical, missional, community-based ministry. That’s where I feel most comfortable: with my neighbors. That’s my world now, and as I said in an earlier post, I guess I’m not much of a “churchman” anymore. I view myself as a composite of all my experiences and journeys, and the chaplaincy allows me to bring them all to bear as I seek to serve others. I don’t have to fit an ecclesiastical mold to do my job. It’s better, in fact, if I don’t.
However, even though I am thoroughly comfortable in my vocational role, when I’m asked to preach in a church, particularly an evangelical church, the culture of evangelicalism, pastoral ministry, nearly thirty years within a world of free church congregational life and ministry — it all comes rushing back.
And there I find myself limping toward the pulpit like Jacob. Once wounded in a crisis moment of his life, for the rest of his days a painful injury affected the patriarch’s gait. The book of Hebrews pictures him at the end of his life leaning on his staff, blessing others while bearing the mark of a divine skirmish.
Sunday, I imagine I’ll lean on the pulpit as I preach.
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Photo by Shinichi Sugiyama at Flickr. Creative Commons License.