From the Ordinand
In a few days, I will be ordained into ministry in the United Church of Christ.
Unfortunately, I have never been totally sure what that means, perhaps to the frustration of some of my mentors who have tried very hard to impart that truth to me. Ordination is a funny thing. It is a recognition of one’s call to formal, authorized ministry, bestowing on the ordinand the rights and privileges of the apostolic ministry—administering the sacraments being chief among them (just Eucharist and Baptism in our thoroughly Protestant branch). It is a milestone in a professional career, too, both the end of an intentional period of intellectual and spiritual maturation and the beginning of recognized leadership. According to most, however, it is also some kind of existential or personal mark upon the one who receives it, the acceptance of some difference in this person and certainly a change in their public perception. To anyone who disagrees, I would invite that person to write out their name with the title “Reverend” in front of it and tell me that they recognize the person that name suggests. It is here that I, too, am caught, stalled even, in my acceptance of others’ acceptance of my leadership in ministry. It is here that I wonder where function and person start and end. It is here that the question of “who” and not just “what” arises.
It is common knowledge among those who operate in caring relationships—friends, pastors, chaplains, teachers, nurses, therapists, parents—that a transition in life, even a celebratory one, is a time for some kind of grieving. 5th graders graduate, leave behind their old school and its little kids, and are immediately plunged in the terrifying waters of middle school; educated folks leave town for new opportunities, mourning the friendships they leave behind; elders in pain and suffering depart this life, and families are met with a cocktail of loss and relief. Our losses are relational, shifting family dynamics and communal structures—or identity-based, embracing new roles in society or new perceptions of self. Moving forward always implies some leaving behind. So the ordinand reads that he must “equip the saints” for the work of ministry, to stand with and among the people and operate as their servant and a servant of the Ultimate, and something feels lost in this gain. “The United Church of Christ, along with the Church Universal through the ages and throughout the world, affirms God’s call to some individuals to be such leaders who help the Church to be what God intends it to be. These persons are set apart through prayer and the laying on of hands in the rite of ordination.” And apart, indeed, he is set.
As one of the people but intentionally distinguished in a particular role, the trappings of “Reverend” bring all sorts of socially imposed bondage. I was asked recently by a new acquaintance whether people feel like they need to censor themselves when they go out with me because I am a “holy man.” This is, for a 26 year old male, a dreadful question. On the one hand, it speaks over and around the person to their looming title, it walks past the squishy parts in young men that they both want to hide and wish could be seen. On the other, it speaks up to a person who has done something—it acknowledges a Master’s degree and a resume and a vocation in a person who has often, up to this point, existed mostly as a spring of potential. It says “you’ve made a decision.” What an awful thing to have done. In fact, the answer to the dreadful question is actually that I only try to be around people who have known me so long that the idea of my being holy is absurd to them. It’s easier and comfier that way. Perhaps this is a strength, mooring myself to the people, the context, and the dynamics which cultured and molded me. Perhaps it is a shortcoming, borne of fear and excusing myself from living up to what my collar might require.
Funny enough, Christian discipleship isn’t what scares me about ordination. That’s funny because it should. Christian discipleship is terrifying and exhilarating and intimidating regardless of profession. To acknowledge one sole head of one’s faith, one object of obedience, one mission with many goals and strategies that aims to bind what is broken and reverse what is blasphemous and oppressive—this road that only leads to life-in-death is a greater fear. It isn’t a new fear, though, and it’s one I share with all Christians. The oddness and amorphous obligation of the one who is “authorized to serve and to lead on behalf of the United Church of Christ and the Church Universal, a ministry that encompasses the fullest range of leadership ministries: priestly and prophetic, representative and servant,” is a different anxiety. It speaks to the expectations and the needs of the people whom the ordinand wants to serve. It amplifies how they understand the ordained to be.
But, to the Conference and to God I will present myself, anyway. Among my teachers and friends and parishioners I will make promises—huge ones. And into the rushing waters of servanthood I will toss myself. Only in trust and vulnerability, with driving concern for others and actual respect for myself, might my body make safe landfall downstream. May I—and all the ones that word implies—find in faith the strength to follow the current.