At the end of Men’s Bible Study this morning Jim Rasp reminded the men and me that today is the 35th anniversary of my ordination, and he and the men joined in expressing thanks for my 35 years of ministry. It’s actually the second time I’ve been reminded of this anniversary in the last week. Last Sunday the Bridge congregation also honored my 35 years of ministry in conjunction with pastor appreciation week. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to the number of years. I usually do note my anniversary on World Communion Sunday, but it’s usually a private recognition made with thanksgiving. But 35 years is a long time and so I have been reflecting on my years of ministry today.
I was ordained on World Communion Sunday, October 6, 1986. I chose World Communion Sunday because communion has always been very important to me. It was during a communion service at camp in the summer of 1973 that I had an experience of God that would completely reshape my life. So it was important to me to celebrate communion at my ordination service where I could be, for the first time, the pastor offering the prayers and breaking the bread. It was a very holy moment for me.
I have served six congregation in my 35 years of ministry in Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, and Indiana. Jim actually compared me to the apostle Paul this morning who also traveled about in his ministry and influenced many different churches – many more than I and with much greater effect. Still, I thought it an interesting comparison, mostly because Paul often had mixed results when he went to a new calling. Sometimes the effect of his ministry wasn’t seen until later.
I also have had mixed results in ministry. Sometimes I have felt like I had terrific success and sometimes I have been disappointed. One of my great joys and sorrows was in my second call in Gloucester Township, New Jersey where my husband and I started a new church. It was an incredibly wonderful and stressful experience. There were great highs like the first Sunday when over 220 people showed up for worship, or the day we chartered the new church or the Grand Opening of our new building. There were also terrific lows when attendance dropped so low we worried we would not be able to pay the bills for the church. In the end we left a thriving congregation of about 300 attendees in a new building and felt like we had succeeded. But the congregation struggled after we left and closed its doors about 20 years later. It was at that point that I began to ask, “What does it really mean to succeed in ministry?”
Over the course of these 35 years, I have decided that most churches vacillate between two definitions of success. The first and most common definition has to do with institutional success. Is the church as an institution growing and thriving? Is it getting stronger in ministry? This has always been important to me. I’ve always wanted to leave a church stronger than when I came to it. I think most ministers have this desire. This is why I felt so good about leaving our new church in New Jersey in such a strong position where there had been no church previously. The end of its ministry 20 years later was such a sadness to me, but led me to consider that there is a different measure of “success” in ministry. That measure has to do with spiritual growth. Even as the church in New Jersey closed, I knew there were many, many people who had embraced God’s life within them and had been nurture in faith, who carried that faith to new places. It has been my joy to hear from many of them over the years and to rejoice in their ministries in new congregations. The church did not die. It scattered.
These days I try to hold both understandings of success as I work for God in Elkhart. I know institutional success is important because this church wants to leave a legacy of Christian faith with a Presbyterian expression in Elkhart for the future. It’s a uniquely lovely expression of Christian faith in Elkhart – progression, open, inquisitive, generous, and deeply loving. I share the desire in Elkhart to strengthen the institution of this church so it will have a promising future. At the same time I am deeply aware that the most crucial work we do in the church has to do with the interior life of faith. I hope my ministry will leave our people encouraged, hopeful, strengthened in faith in God, comforted and passionate to serve God in a variety of ways. My particular passion is that children and young people among us will find a faith that will stick with them through adulthood and into their old age when they are nurturing their own grandchildren in the faith. It’s a passion I have held for 35 years or more.
Thank you to all of you who have wished me well in the last few days and have caused me to reflect with joy on 35 good years of being God’s servant. I still love being a Presbyterian minister and it is a special joy to be at First Presbyterian in Elkhart.
p.s. The picture of Mike and me is from the summer of 1986 shortly before I was ordained. Gotta love the hairdo!
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