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Sunday, September 21, 2014  

Five Years

Friday was the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the ministry, as we Lutherans tend to call it, of Word and Sacrament (that is, to pastoral/priestly/clergy-like ministry). I pulled up a  picture of the bishop praying over me--kneeling, slightly more hair, everyone in red--for social media and submitted, graciously I hope, to an anniversary recognition today at church. I've spent too much time around committed ministry lifers to be anything but slightly embarrassed at marking such a trivial milestone. But then again, people who came into professional ministry in 2009 are, I've read here and there anyway, about as likely to be doing something else today as to still be working in the church. This is partly because careers are a bit of a joke for people launched into the job market in that particular year, partly because by upbringing or economics or whatever else people my age and younger are less likely to stick with one job for decades at a time (see also), and partly because the church world is going through painful transformations that are likelier to leave junior clergy un- or under-employed (there is also a non-trivial but not large, as far as I know, segment of the cohort of 35-year-old ordained clergy who just aren't good at the job).

But here I am, despite my own very close brushes with leaving (if the University of Chicago had had an opening for an undergraduate adviser four months earlier than they did, I'd be helping freshmen switch their biology sections right now). I'm glad I'm here. And I'm lucky/blessed to be, however you prefer to depict the morally random quality of these things. I don't think I've learned a whole lot that would be worth imparting, but five years of daily work in this world has surprised me in a few ways.

First, ordinary human suffering is no joke. Like plenty of people who do what I do, I imagined spending more time in the midst of life's acute traumas than I have done. We expect high emotion and problematic coping and stress and all the rest from such traumas--extreme poverty, public conflict, level-one trauma centers, deathbeds--and perhaps not coincidentally we write a heroic role for ourselves in them. What I didn't expect is the emotional toll of the daily sorrow--the divorces, the estrangements, the hatred of work, the bouts of depression, the substance abuse. Actually sitting down and talking over these experiences with people is a relatively small part of my work, smaller than I would have guessed. But it comes up at the oddest times, and it can blindside you with its force. Unlike what a lot of us perhaps had in mind, or unlike how we may imagine a more conventionally "helping" profession, there is often no solution, either. Some people will never get sober. Some people will never mend their marriage or make peace with their life. Being faithful and compassionate in those situations is really demanding, because you can't encounter people solely through their pathologies. You have to walk with the whole of their damaged humanity, which requires a kind of acceptance most people don't have to practice.

Second, people are kinder and more accepting than I would have guessed. My wife was sick last Sunday so I had the boys with me at the beginning of our 7:30 liturgy, the baby still unfed. As I began the announcements, I found myself gesturing toward the narthex with a banana in my hand. "You are probably wondering why I have a banana in my hand," I said. People laughed. They were not mad. Someone watched my baby and fed him so I could preach and celebrate the sacrament. I had been grumbling to myself about how ungodly the hour was and how punishing our worship schedule is, primarily because I expect myself to be capable of doing everything, but the people were happy to help. For the most part, I've found that to be the case. Some of my colleagues have ended up in churches that are dominated by small, sore-headed people but that's not the norm. And the truth is that it's hard to be on the receiving end of such kindness, especially if you're the sort of person who, for whatever reason, wants to talk about a guy who got crucified all the time. So there has been some growth along with the learning there as well.

Third, stuff changes, a lot more quickly and drastically than I expected. Ordination is very much like marriage in that you are making promises that a different you will have to fulfill. I do things today that I wouldn't have countenanced five years ago, and yet I'll still find myself surprised by the vehemence with which I'll hold to something that a lot of people don't see as a big deal (tip: don't ask me to rebaptize you). Why? Who knows! I express my faith differently than I did when the stole was first placed over my shoulders, and that has made me (I hope) more patient with what seem like people's odd beliefs, and also more committed to those things that don't change as a loom of sorts on which all the inevitable changes can happen without the whole thing falling apart. I almost wonder if that is what is meant by being "pastoral" as one hears it now, especially the Roman Catholic world in discussions and debates over Pope Francis's leadership style--negotiating the inevitability of change and variation against the necessity of some kind of stability. This is genuinely hard, and it only gets harder when money, institutional culture, and real estate are involved. I've never been the biggest admirer of the outgoing Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, but it must be acknowledged that he's had an impossible job--a job no one will ever do to anyone's complete satisfaction.

So there it is--an impossible job! Five years of attempting the impossible is something to enjoy, I suppose. I hope there are a lot more.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:29 PM
Coming up on my own five-year ordination anniversary (though I started public ministry a couple of months earlier), I really appreciate and identify with your reflections here. Thanks.
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