Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

One year ago today I stood in front of the president of the classis, the regional assembly in my denomination.  Behind me sat the members of the classis, and behind them sat family and friends who had come to share this special day.

Of particular significance was the part of the service which is traditionally called “The Interrogation”, although that term is rarely used any longer. It is a time in which the power differential is very visible.  The presiding officer stands behind a lectern on the chancel, and I stood on the floor looking upward.  When I was examined by the classis, I stood with others.  When I made my declaration as a licensed candidate (the intermediate stage between “candidate” and “minister”) I stood with others.  This particular day, however, I stood alone.

There was no one around to answer for me, I could not hide behind anyone.  Even more significant, was that there was no one to lean on, either.

Do you confess together with us and the church throughout the ages your faith in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

This was the moment to which I had felt called, for which I prepared.  This was the culmination of three academic degrees, three years of ecclesiastical examinations following the academic ones, and two years of interviewing with churches.  It was an exciting moment, but also a sobering moment, as I felt a weight on my shoulders that slowly increased with each additional question.

Do you believe in your heart that you are called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to this ministry of Word and sacrament?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

Much like my wedding, it was a moment that would set a particular course for my life, and there was no turning back after this. While I do not come from a tradition where ordination is understood to ontologically change someone, we ordain people for life, because in the declaration for Ministers, following the ordination, the newly ordained minister says, “I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ…” Although I remain the same person after the ordination, my place in life and in the church is radically altered.

Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation, rejecting all contrary beliefs?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

For the previous several years I had been learning, exploring, dialoguing, engaging.  That day, however, was different.  I had no opportunity to defer, to qualify, to write an essay. I did not have the opportunity to confer with colleagues or do further reading or research. It was a scary moment to make a declarative statement, particularly for someone who prefers to consider, think, read, write, and confer.

Will you proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; upholding the witness of Holy Scripture against all schisms and heresies?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

I immensely miss the academic environment. I miss the community of scholarship, I miss the intellectual growth that happens, I miss the regular evaluation, and I miss the ability to explore. Parish ministry exists in a different world. It is a world in which one statement, thought to be interesting, may be kept and used as a weapon at a later time. It is a place where a person has only one chance to say the right thing. It is a world in which rejections continue to happen, with the absence of comments or suggestions on how to improve or even explanations. What is more, parish ministry is a world in which I cannot barricade myself in a library for days on end.

Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace?  Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Ministry is a fish-bowl. Not only am I expected to be the perfect pastor, being everything to everyone, I am also expected to keep my entire life in order and maintain healthy self-care practices to provide an example for the faithful. It is an impossible task, one that seems like it will never be accomplished. The days are often when all I want to do is to go where nobody knows my name. The opportunity simply to exist, to be seen with fresh and eyes that do not know any better who I am or what I do.

Will you accept the church’s order and governance, submitting to ecclesiastical discipline should you become delinquent in either life or doctrine?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Will you be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America, using all your abilities to further its Christian mission here and throughout the world?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

The answer to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads, “…I am not my own…”  While this refers to the wonderful comfort of the sovereignty and providence of God, it also became apparent that in every way I am not my own.  I belong to God, but I also belong to the church. I want to belong to myself, to be in charge of my own destiny. However, I largely offered that belonging, that control, to the church when I made these promises.  While there may be something comforting about feeling in control, there is something humbling about belonging, almost completely, to God and to God’s agents on earth.

Will you strive to fulfill faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully, all the duties of a minister of Christ: to preach the Word of God in sincerity, to administer the sacraments in purity, to maintain proper discipline in the household of God, and to shepherd the flock faithfully?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

It was at this final question of the Interrogation, that I felt the immense isolation of standing alone on the floor before the President of the Classis, as I realized that no one could answer for me. I stood alone.

However, this sense of alone-ness was alleviated when the actual ordination occured and all ministers and elders of the classis are invited to participate in the laying on of hands.  In ministry, although we must at times stand alone, we are never alone.  I do not know if this was the design of the rite, to help the candidate feel utterly alone and burdened, and then to welcome them into community.  If it was not in the design, it is a very salient side-effect.

* * *

As I reflect on my ordination one year later, I have the opportunity to examine my promises and my ability to keep them. Have I been able to keep them?  Some better than others, but I strive for all of them.  It occurs to me that the response, “I will, and I ask God to help me” is not a one time promise, but something for which we must continually strive.

One thing that I do know for sure, however, is this: Over the past year, I have learned just how difficult and how weighty those promises actually are.

I still feel that immense weight upon my shoulders, and perhaps, in a way, it is a good thing. It is because I feel this weight that I realize that I continue to take this all seriously.  It is also because of this weight that I can seek God’s help (as well as the help of others) to alleviate some of it, knowing that I do not have to carry it all alone.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

  1. Dustyn

    Congratulations on your anniversary of ministry, Matthew! I pray that you experience grace through your role as a minister- that the words you speak will not be turned into weapons thrown back in your face, that you will be surrounds by others who know your humanity and support your in caring for yourself rather than simply expecting you to have it all together, and that you will know the Spirit of God who called you is with you even when your calling means standing alone. Prayers for your continued ministry!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: When the loss feels more significant than the gain | thealreadynotyet.com

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