I write this on the eve of the second anniversary of my ordination as a Lutheran pastor.
Has it really been only two years? (Didn’t last April on its own last about two years?) It seems impossible that in such a brief time the nature of pastoral ministry could have changed so radically from the calling I anticipated on that day.
Two years ago I could not have imagined spending Sunday after Sunday preaching into a camera phone, or conducting Bible studies and pastoral care sessions over zoom, or pouring over explanations of air flow and viral spread patterns, or breaking my heart over people who feel abandoned by my ministry because I cannot let them sing in church.
Serving as a pastor in the middle of a pandemic looks NOTHING like I expected my call to look like just 2 short years ago.
But, for all that, as I remember my ordination day, I have been stunned to realize several ways that the day DID prepare me for this radical change in my work.
For one thing, I was sick.
I woke up that morning with a scratchy throat and tried to fight it off, but the full respiratory trifecta of congestion, sinus pressure, and aching chest hit me hard about 2:00 in the afternoon. My head started spinning. I struggled to concentrate. And I was so, so tired. I was actually late getting to the run-through because we had to stop to find a drug store on the way to the church. I knew I wouldn’t make it through the service without some medicinal help.
It was hardly the way I had pictured this day of celebration… but now it feels oddly fitting. At the moment I took my vows and became a minister of the church I was undeniably faced with my own weakness.
As I stood and promised my commitment to God and God’s church, a surreal combination of emotions swirled in my foggy brain. I experienced the realization of a longing that had lodged in my soul more than 25 years earlier, a longing and conviction of my calling that was so long silenced by traditions and warped theologies prohibiting women to lead in church. There was triumph and affirmation in this moment… AND there was an acute awareness of my own frailty. My body was failing me, even as my community celebrated me. I wanted to drink in each shining drop of the afternoon, and I also wanted to crawl into my bed and collapse into sleep.
And that dual reality now feels like such a perfect preparation for life as a pandemic pastor. The relevance and importance of my work has never felt more real than it feels in this protracted moment of national crisis, when voices of compassion and vision are needed, and people are looking for hope. AND I have never felt so drained and inadequate to meet the demand, as I live through the same experience of trauma that everyone else is living through.
But it’s not about my strength – it never has been. I’m not a pastor because of what I have to give. I am a pastor because of what I have been given, and because it is in my weakness that I can best get out of the way and witness to the strength of Jesus.
And there was one special moment on my ordination day that reminded me of this truth. It was as I stood at the register in Bed Bath and Beyond (the only store we could find on the way to the church to purchase my much needed cold medicine). The clerk – a woman named Diane – asked about the clerical collar I was wearing. I explained that I was a pastor… “Actually, I’m on my way to get ordained right now.” Her eyes lit up with all the delight I was struggling to feel in my aching state, and her smile made her dark brown face actually glow. She told me that hearing that news made her week, and I believed her. The truth was there to read in her warm, delighted eyes. And, badly as my head was pounding, I felt the wave of her joy wash over me. She didn’t know the first thing about me, and we would probably never see each other again, but she rejoiced to know my call to serve God’s church.
It’s a good memory for a pandemic pastor to hold onto when I feel my weakest: my calling can bring joy to someone I don’t even know, even when I am not even feeling up to the task, because that’s the kind of place God delights to show up.
The second unexpected lesson of my ordination came from my then-eight-year-old son.
We asked a LOT of him that day. We had arrived early to church in the morning for our regular worship, then lots of “boring adult talking,” then a celebratory lunch. By 4:00pm, when the ordination service began, he had just about reached his limit. His ADHD makes even one hour-long church service hard to endure, but two in one day, with no time to run and play and lots of time in the car might be designed to torture him.
And ordination services are long… much longer than an hour. Of course, we hadn’t told him that, so about 40 minute into the service – after squirming in his seat, and doodling on the bulletin, and searching through my purse for snacks – he urgently tugged on my sleeve to ask “is it almost over?” in an anguished whine.
It wasn’t. We weren’t even half way through, and I knew a moment of panic, picturing the ordinand’s son throwing a massive screaming tantrum in the middle of the aisle while the bishop’s assistant tries to out-shout him to finish his sermon!
In that moment I had a choice: I could make yet another demand on him because this was my big day and I needed him to behave. Or, I could set aside my official role for a moment because my son needed me. By God’s grace (because I certainly wasn’t operating at top form), I chose the second. I knelt down beside him to look in his eyes and I told him that I could see how hard he was working just to not scream. And I told him I knew this was really hard. I couldn’t make the service go faster, but I could thank him for how truly hard he was trying to support me.
And it turns out, that was what he needed. He needed to be seen. He needed to know that I knew how much I was asking of him. He needed to know that he was as important to me as the important things that were happening to me.
And that is a reminder that I have needed every day of pandemic pastoring, because I am doing this pastoring as a parent as well. And my children are being traumatized by the same challenges I and my congregation are facing. And the whole world is asking too much of them. And they need to know that church is not more important to me than they are.
There is one more lesson for me in my ordination memories. It is the one I – perhaps – could have expected, but it is no less powerful for that. It is the lesson of all the people who were there for me.
My husband holding my hand in the pew, and then proudly watching me walk to the altar.
My mother hand-sewing the beautiful red silk stole that marked my new office.
My mentors and friends who acted as my sponsors and first laid that stole on my shoulders.
The colleagues gathering around to lay hands on me in prayer, and to speak prophetic words of encouragement into my ear.
The church member who read the scripture in her beautiful, slow, deep-feeling voice.
The other church members and friends who travelled far, some several hours, just to be there.
Even Janice – who works at my car mechanic – who had heard the stories of my journey and wanted to be there to receive communion from my hand.
They are all my reminder of what this church, which I am called to serve, is all about. It’s about a love that bonds us together, and draws us out of ourselves and our own concerns. It’s about how sickness, and tired children, and long car rides are real, but they are not enough to steal our joy. It’s about the miracle of all of our diverse and complicated stories being drawn together into one great story, of God loving us enough to create transcendent beauty in imperfect circumstances.
Pandemic circumstances are far from perfect. But I, and you, do not face them alone. We are in this together. Thanks be to God.