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12 Years of Ordained Ministry: Challenging to Greater Faithfulness

I have been told that on my ordination day 12 years ago, my friend Brett was talking to Pastor Bill before the service was going to start. Pastor Bill said something like, “We don’t do anything to celebrate Reformation Day. We really should do something.” My friend quickly quipped, “We are. We’re ordaining a former Catholic.”

Yes, this former Catholic was ordained on the trifecta of sacred/secular holidays — All Saints Day, Reformation Day, Halloween. It doesn’t get much better than that, liturgically speaking. As the years have advanced, I’m grateful that my ordination anniversary takes place in this season when time seems to get thinner with the increasing darkness and ethereal light. The shortening days slow me down (a little) and I get reflective about just what God has called me to do.

This year my reflective mood is heightened by the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. That incident when Martin Luther, sent his 95 Thesis to the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg. (Or, as the more dramatic version of the story asserts, nailing the document to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, an action which demanded a public discussion.) I find myself connecting what God has called me to do to the long history of reformers who have gone before me.

By most accounts, Luther, a priest and professor of theology, never wanted to split from the Catholic church. He wanted only to call the Roman church to to greater faithfulness. He questioned the church’s practice of granting forgiveness through the payment of indulgences. Perhaps even more radically, he asserted that all Christians were “priestly” by virtue of their baptism — all are equally part of being the hands and feet of christ, Regardless of their ordination status. The pope eventually excommunicated Luther for raising these questions and he and other reformers created their own churches.

Twelve years ago, I was not even aware that the church was living through another one of these “Reformations.” Dubbed The Great Emergence by author Phyllis Tickle, the current time in which the church lives is a what she calls a “rummage sale” that happens about once every 500 years. During these times of dramatic reevaluation and change, the church throws away a lot of old baggage and learns to embrace the new ways of being community cropping up around us.

When clergy invoked the Spirit by lovingly laying hands and praying over me on my ordination day, I remember feeling the spiritual weight of the moment. It wasn’t just the weight of the hands of the people in the room, but what they represented — the communion of saints — that were blessing me, renaming me and solidifying the call I felt (but didn’t understand) in my life.

Maybe the Spirit led us to having my ordination fall on Oct. 31 for a reason. Like Luther, I instinctively challenge the ways things have always been done and invite people to reflect on why, as people of faith, we do these things in the first place. I don’t ask these questions just to be annoying. (Though I’m sure it is.) I do it because I love the church and its people. I love it by challenging it to be a life-altering, world-changing, radical voice of love that Jesus demands from us. The world needs desperately our voice and ministry right now. But, our church structures too often do not facilitate those kinds of ministries. In some cases, they even prevent it from happening.

Even in the United Church of Christ where I am ordained (with its Reformed and Congregational roots) too often relies too heavily on ordained people or staff (like myself) to do all the ministry. That’s why I use my time and energy as a leader to build up groups of people (even the unBaptized and unOrdained) who want want to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. After all, Christianity is a team sport, never something to be undertaken alone. I often wonder, “What could the church be and do if we really included those who are on the margins of our faith communities?”

And so I challenge you to listen to that still small voice that I believe is inviting you to perceive the new things God is doing in our midst. Perceive it. Then, do it. Be the change you hope to see in the world.

I wonder what we’ll do in my next 12 years of ordained ministry. And, in the next 500 years of the church.

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