Part III: My Journey Toward Ordination in the UCC
(Part three of the ordination paper is intended to be an integrating statement that invites the
person to relate the faith & practice of the Church to his own pilgrimage of faith and understandings of and intentions for his ministry as a person ordained by the United Church of Christ.)
When asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered “Priest” up through the 4th grade in my Catholic elementary school. When I learned in 5th grade that priests could not marry I had to choose between women (marriage) or God (ordination) since I wanted to “collect” all seven sacraments. I picked marriage as women were more tangible, and I could not conceive of being alone. After 5th grade I answered “teacher” or “psychologist” when asked that question, but the same sense of these being the correct answer was missing.
My whole life I have felt different—not different as in better or worse than other people, but just different. I sometimes see and connect things more quickly and naturally than others. I seem to have some esoteric understanding of the universe, a poet’s mind and an artist’s eye. I also have a pragmatic ideal that was taught to me by my blue collar upbringing. I cannot create anything that is just art for art’s sake—it must help and do something. To paraphrase John Dewey, action without thinking is thoughtless and thought without action is meaningless.
I met my wife Kate when I was 17. I was struggling to hold onto my faith in the Catholic Church. It was not working. Kate was a United Methodist, and she invited me to her church. I had never been to a Protestant service before, and I had no idea what to expect. The pastor preached and referenced movies, books and philosophers (that particular day was Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and nonviolent resistance, which I was studying in school). I had no idea church could be this way! I was not used to this method in my Catholic church. I much preferred the Methodist church to the Catholic one, so I started going there.
At Ohio University I explored the world religions, especially Buddhism, which I still study to this day. I even surprised myself in accepting leadership roles in various clubs and working as a Resident Assistant. During this time, I had a falling out with what I understood as Protestant Christianity. I tried to join Campus Crusade for Christ to further learn about the Protestant tradition. Instead I found a rather limited view of Christianity: they were certain that they were correct and saved and all others were going to hell. It was their job to save all the unbelievers and misguided Christians, which included Catholics and liberal Christians. In discussions with people from Campus Crusade, I heard distorted views of Catholic dogma and church history that I tried to correct. During this time, I still had a strong presence of God and a relationship with Christ but I was not so sure about Christians.
Kate and I married in January 2004 after I graduated college. We moved to Virginia that month, where I began selling building supplies. I was happy and the money was good, but for the first time in my life something felt off. It was as if I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. Something was amiss. I wanted to pursue the American dream and get the car and clothes and material things. Kate was not as into that and wanted to find a church.
We found Emmaus United Church of Christ and became involved very quickly. We felt at home at Emmaus because of its openness and willingness to learn about the world instead of shy away from it: the willingness to love humanity and not label and condemn it. Emmaus is one of the few churches I have encountered that truly preaches grace. Years later Reverend Federici stated that upon seeing me, he and Reverend Memrie Cook both thought that I would be a minister. I did not believe him at the time, but deep down I knew he was right. Into the second year of living in the D.C. area, I found that I was not happy in my job, and I met with Reverend Federici to explore my gifts. He brought up the “minister thing” again and asked me to really consider it. When he asked what my favorite job in the past was, he was not surprised when I answered “Resident Assistant in college,” as it was the closest I had been to being a minister. I was floored and had to work out what it means to be ordained.
I thought ordination meant that pastors serve more of a priestly role and have some special mark on them. This would mean that they are straddling the dimensions with one foot in this world and the other in the next. They are God’s mediators who are in line with the apostles and ordination passes on this apostolic descent and gives the pastor Christ-like powers to confer upon and administer the sacraments. I did not feel I fit that model. I believe in the “priesthood of all believers” and that we do not need mediators. God is Immanuel! With us! As a result of being in seminary though, I have realized that this is not the only model of ministry and I even believe some of it.
Historically in the UCC there have been two major models of ordained ministry. The first would be the Reformed idea stated above that pastors have one foot in this world and the other in the next. They make church a “home” that is filled with mystery and symbol, and the pastor embodies the divine. The second model is found in the Congregationalist idea of the pastor. Namely a pastor is someone who comes out of the community and acts as a motivator who fires people up and sends them out into the world to do God’s work of social justice. Church is not a home but a recharging station and the pastor’s primary role is empowerment. I feel that I am a hybrid of these two models of empowerment and embodiment.
I am part of the embodiment model because I feel as though God has guided me. God has given me the gifts of writing, love of learning and interest in others that a good minister needs. God’s spirit permeates my life. I easily fall into discussions about God with co-workers, family, friends and strangers on the street. People can embody other professions as well, like my brother-in-law and his job in sales or my sister-in-law and her job as a community art coordinator. Others are gifted doctors and lawyers. After much searching, I find that I am a minister at heart. I feel that I cannot be anything but a minister and that if I do something else, it just will not feel right.
I exemplify the Congregationalist empowerment model as well because I do not feel that I am above the congregation but come out of it. I have never seen myself as a leader, but rather more of a guide. I have never been comfortable with the word “leader” because it infers hierarchy. In my mind the only thing that separates people is willingness. I see myself as an enthusiastic guide who infects other people with a willingness to change or learn. I am steeped in the ways of the church and have studied scripture, and I can use both to teach others to use these two for practical, everyday use. Given my gift of being able to see the big picture, this makes me sort of a rallying point, a focus, and a witness to the life of the congregation.
Ordination then becomes a community event where people of a certain congregation see the gifts in a person for this position. The candidate has prayerfully examined his or her call and has had that call examined by others “concerning his or her fitness for ministry.” Constitutional Provision #24 states “An Ordained Minister of the UCC is one of its members who has been called by God and ordained to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership.” This means that the call comes from outside the would-be pastor and not from his or her own ego. By “prayerful examination” the would-be pastor has trained and studied. He or she has formed a working theory of how to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership.
This does not mean that God transmits some magical powers upon me during ordination. I do not and cannot believe that only ordained people can administer the sacraments. I can believe that only ordained people can teach and administer the sacraments most clearly as they have spent the most time thinking about their meaning and implication. They are able to make visible and tangible the intangible and invisible grace of God. They would be able to best connect the practicing church to the historic church that has gone before. Pastors are able to reinterpret tradition for today’s world.
There are many ways to ordain someone. One way to be ordained is to simply log onto the Internet and pay for ordination. That is not ordination as no one is affirming your call from God within a community—it is just a convenient way to serve the same role that a justice of the peace could serve, or, at worst, a joke. Another way is the apprenticeship model where a pastor takes a potential pastor under his or her wing and teaches through experience and example. While this may be a Biblically referenced model, it has some holes in it as well. This style gives a potential pastor only one example of ministry with all the biases and world view of one person.
The specific path through academia that is proscribed by the UCC is the ordination route that I find the best. In the academic model, a seminarian is flooded with information. While this is initially overwhelming, it opens the seminarian up to a broader view of God’s work in the world. This enables the pastor to be a non-anxious presence as they have a broad frame of reference from church history, ethics, polity, clinical pastoral education (mine was at Lancaster General Hospital), a cross cultural experience (mine was in Egypt), and many other lenses. They are more able to meet their congregation where they are both corporately and as individuals.
In short, a pastor hears God’s call, studies and focuses on this call for years in an academic setting, and then enters into conversation with his or her congregation to see how it all fits together. Ordination then becomes a communal and visible symbol of the invisible gifts that a person has to offer the community. It is a confirmation that the individual does embody Christ as best he or she is able and that others are inspired and empowered to follow their own calls.