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During the summer of 2022 the consistory (governing board) of the congregation I serve granted me a 12-week sabbath. This was not intended as a sabbatical, during which I might have been expected to complete a project. Rather it was a true sabbath: rest after the increased expectations from the most intense period of ministry I had experienced in 37 years.
Unintentionally I gravitated toward memoirs. Having read Jeff Japinga’s piece in this forum, I moved on to Doug Brouwer’s Chasing after Wind and Bill McKibben’s The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon. (I hope to supplement these quick reads with works by non-male, non-white memoirists.)
The reader will not be surprised to learn that I spent a fair amount of my sabbath in reflection on a ministry that began in the late 70s and was ordained in September, 1985. That month, as a swarm of locusts crossed overhead the church in which I was ordained (Ramsey Reformed Church, Titonka, Iowa — no longer RCA), I knelt beneath a huddle of ministers and elders in Pleasant Prairie Classis, felt the weight of their collective hand on my head and shoulders, and when I arose, I faced the congregation of farmers and friends as a “Minister of Word and Sacrament.”
What had just happened to me?
Had I become a different person? Was this an “ontological” moment – a change in my very being? Had I been set aside to do certain kinds of things within the confines of a covenant people? Was it more“functional”? I now was entrusted with a life in which I would do only certain kind of things?
There’s too much “I” for my taste in either of those choices.
Ordination, after all, happened to me. I didn’t accomplish it. Oh, I’d gone to seminary and done what we used to call field education and gotten an M.Div., but this wasn’t my service. It was a Classis meeting, not my party.
It may be better to ask “what had the church just done?”
The story is told of a fourth grader whose class had been assigned to write essays on what their parents did for a living. One student asked his mother, a minister, what she actually did, day in and day out. “I talk to people a lot, on the phone, or in person; I read and study; I visit people in the hospital; I hold hands a lot; I pray; I have lunch with people; I try to help people through hard times; sometimes I go to parties to celebrate big things happening. And of course you see what I do on Sunday mornings – I try to tell people some good news about God and about themselves.” Her son thought about the list of “functions” she fulfilled, and said, “Oh, I see. The church pays you to be a person for a living.”
Meaning no disrespect to the person one may become in any other vocation, that story rings true to me. In the words of John Zizioulas,
the ordained [one] becomes, through [their] ordination, a relational entity. . . For ordination . . . aims precisely at making [someone] not an individual but a person, i.e., an ek-static being. . . [I]t becomes impossible . . to say that one simply ‘functions’ without implying that [one’s] being is deeply and decisively affected by what [one] does. In the same way, it becomes impossible to imply in this state that one ‘possesses’ anything as an individual. (Being as Communion, p. 226f)
So – in memoir mode – I have never possessed anything status or authority during these nearly-four-decades of ministry apart from the Olivias, the Jims, the Johns, the Kathys with whom I have sat at consistory and classis meetings. Our ministries are not the same, but neither are they separable. Neither have I stood and witnessed the death of a beloved saint, or offered the body and blood of our Lord, or taught a Bible study, or marched in a demonstration, or preached a sermon, or attended a community meeting on land use, without being deeply and decisively affected – being changed.
For decades now it has been de rigueur at ordination (or installation) services to remind the minister of their duty to be attentive to self-care. Given the human wreckage of ministers who have not practiced self-care, the admonition makes sense. And it is certainly true that Jesus, our “chief shepherd,” took time to be alone to pray (which is, itself, a highly relational activity).
But if the ancient African principle of ubuntu is right – “a person is a person through other persons” – self-care includes careful attention to the relationships, the systems, the matrices, the communities that are creating and changing us.
“Who am I?” is a nonsense question without “who are we?” and “who are we becoming together?”
“The church pays you to be a person for a living.” True enough – but a relational person, a person through other persons, a person-in-communion. Differentiated, yes (we don’t meld our personalities into others’ or violate boundaries), but always connected. A minister’s being is not so much framed by Descartes’ famous “cogito, ergo sum,” as if is by “in relatione, ergo fiimus.” In relationship we become persons, not just among others, with others or even for others, but through others.
For men and women ordained to Christian ministry, that is the “standing order” conferred in ordination: to become persons for and through others mediating the grace of God, irrespective of changing conditions.
Next time: Minister of the Word.