Today, I was inspired by a question raised by one of my old seminary classmates, Jerry Herships. Jerry is a comedian-turned-minister and his ministry in Denver with the homeless and the unchurched has been a true inspiration to me.
Today, he posed a simple request on his Facebook page. He wanted to know about our experience and thoughts regarding the ordination process–and while we were at it, what we’d change if we could.
Overall I’d give my ordination process a B+ grade. It was a time of affirmation, exploration, and discerning. I learned a lot about myself, about God, about my relationship with God, and about my faith (and religion). But it wasn’t perfect. The United Methodist Church knows this. That’s why they’ve been working so hard over the past few years to try to tweak and reform the process so that it will be relevant to ministers of this age.
Even though I have mostly positive memories of my years on the ordination path, though, the first thing that popped into my mind was how incredibly lonely I was while on that path.
For those of you who don’t know, the United Methodist Church governs itself with connectionalism. Our entire system is designed so that we are never alone, we are always connected… and yet, I spent three years in seminary and my first four years in full-time ministry feeling very alone.
Part of that loneliness stemmed from the places I felt called to go. I went to seminary in Denver, far, far away from my native West Virginia. While I was there, I was the only West Virginia Methodist enrolled. I was very much alone. While my classmates were gathering in little groups, talking about the next step and preparing for their Board of Ordained Ministry interviews, I was huddled up in the basement of the library, working all alone with no one to lean on.
When my District Superintendent called to talk about what I was looking for in an appointment after graduation (we are not called to our churches, but appointed by a Bishop), I said I was called to work with the “poorest of the poor” and that I would very much like to be appointed somewhere in the Southern Coalfields.
Off to McDowell County I went! It was exactly what I had asked for. It was exactly where I felt called to be. But it wasn’t what I had expected.
There were no Elders (ordained ministers) in the county. I had to drive more than hour over rugged terrain to reach my mentor. Only one of my colleagues was a full-time minister. Most of the others fell into the realm of “assigned supply”, which meant they were lay speakers who were filling a pulpit that didn’t have a minister. These types of ministers are very, VERY important in Southern West Virginia and a couple of them became close friends of mine–but sometimes you just need someone to understand the path you are on, and we were on very distinct life paths.
This is where I had hoped that a covenant group would come in handy. It was composed of others like me–just beginning our full-time ministry and working toward ordination… but sadly, I often left feeling like I needed them more than they needed me.
I had to drive four hours over rugged terrain to meet with them, and in those four hours I usually rehearsed what I wanted to say. I needed the conversation with people who understood the pressing issues of my life. I needed conversation with people who spoke my lingo–who didn’t look at me with blank stares when I used words like “BOOM”, “Residency”, “DCOM”, “Provisional”, and “Full Elder”. I needed people who would understand the challenges facing my life, who would celebrate the victories and triumphs, who would give me a shoulder to lean on when troubles struck, and who needed me to offer those same things to them.
But they weren’t as isolated as I was. They had gone to seminaries where they were in classes with future colleagues and not people they would only keep up with on Facebook (thank goodness for 21st Century communication!) They had families or colleagues they could reach a lot more easily than I could… and they just didn’t need me the way I needed them.
I usually hit the road filled with excitement, but returned disappointed because someone had come to the group with a dismal and distracted attitude, viewing this covenant group as little more than one more thing to do before reaching the finish line of ordination.
But even through that disappointment, I learned an invaluable aspect of community, family, and covenant.
We all need to be needed.
Church (and all the communities of which church is comprised) has a job that goes far beyond just showing up. We haven’t fulfilled our responsibilities when we show up sighing and huffing and puffing and constantly checking our watch. We aren’t “being there” when the whole time we are there we are trying to find shortcuts and ways to wrap up early so everyone can get on the road earlier than expected.
Simply listening to a person who needs to vent or talk or ask advice isn’t enough. That’s only a part of what we’re called to do–because that person who needs you to listen also needs you to need her. She needs to be able to return the favor by offering her shoulder to lean on. She needs to hear your triumphs, your trials, your hopes, your fears. She needs to know that you are as much present in the moment as she is–not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. She needs to know that she isn’t just some charity case you come to listen to and then run away from–she needs to know that the reliance she feels on you is mutual. She needs to know that you need her as much as she needs you.
So let’s be a church that needs each other all the time.