In most denominations a pastor does not become a pastor simply by applying and going through an interview and being hired. Like all jobs, the position of minister carries with it specific educational and experience requirements. Some people apply for a ministry job directly out of seminary. For those who do, chances are good that they will have already met most of the educational requirements. But not every pastor has gone to seminary. By the time I took my first job at a church in 1994 I was already working on a graduate degree in counseling. I graduated in 1997. However, an M.A. in counseling is not sufficient for the work of the ministry. Required courses for ministerial preparation include, among others, theology, church administration, New and Old Testament surveys, Bible study methods, in-depth studies of specific Bible books, church history and polity, and homiletics (the study of preaching).
Even with my M.A. finished, I still had a lot of work ahead of me to get my ordination studies finished. As I said, I was hired at a church in 1994 and about a year or two after that I was told about the expectation that I would pursue ordination. I dragged my feet for many years, feeling I had worked long and hard enough in grad school and simply not being willing to do a bunch more classwork. But with each passing year the pressure on me to get through my studies grew stronger and less subtle. I knew it needed to be done. I just didn’t want to bear down and do it.
In September of 2007 I still had nine classes to go. By January 2008 I had completed two of those. On January 11 I went to J-term — a two-week school in Indianapolis where a person prepping for ordination can complete one course each of those two weeks. I did not only my one course each week, but I would go to my class in the daytime (about 6 1/2 hours), get dinner afterward, then head back to my hotel room and work on a correspondence course. I did this both weeks so by the time I left J-term I essentially had completed four classes — only my final paper to write for Wesleyan Theology and I’d put the wraps on those four.
Cut to yesterday. Yesterday was ordination day, June 20, 2008. We (Luke and I) were called up front at conference and asked to say a few words about our ordination journey. I shared about how long it had taken me to complete my studies, how I had been holding out on God and myself in many ways, unwilling to fully accept the role of minister. (It’s a struggle when you go through your whole life sticking it to the man and then become a pastor — a role where you often ARE the man, or are seen that way). After Luke and I spoke the conference chair asked for people willing to stand up and testify as to our character and fitness for ordained ministry. I thought I was going to puke. “What if no one comes?”
People came. John James said that if I had been holding out so far, even with all I have accomplished, he couldn’t wait to see what God was going to do with me now that I was ready to go all the way. Charlie Richards spoke briefly and very sweetly about my character, my fitness for ministry and how he always sensed this is what I would do with my life. Ralph Funk and Dan Shinabarger each spoke on behalf of both of us and had some wonderful things to say. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest and end up just flopping around on the floor. I don’t remember the last time I was that nervous and wound up. It was awesome, but I was just beyond freaked out. Then the chair of the conference, Dr. Jeff Johnson, asked us several questions which we answered in the affirmative, then we were allowed to sit down. Ordination Phase 1, acccomplished.
Phase 2 happened that evening. Christy and the girls and Steve and Tracie Nickles met me at about 6. I changed into a suit and we had pictures taken. The service started at 7. They gave out a few awards of honor to various people, then Dr. Johnson preached a barnburner of a sermon that blew everybody away. Then he called us forward. Christy and I and Luke and Cheryl went forward and the ordination ceremony proper began. It was a formal thing where other ordained ministers (Paul Parker, Paul Castle, Dave Kessler, and Dan Shinabarger) participated in readings of scriptures and other various readings. Then Dr. Johnson asked us our questions (these are the ordination vows). Then we knelt at the altar and all the ordained ministers in the conference were invited to come forward and lay hands on us and Dr. Johnson prayed a very powerful prayer that God’s Spirit would fall on us and “equip” us fully for the work of the ministry. Then we stood up and our orders were handed to us — sheets of parchment that verify our status as elders in the church. Then a couple more brief prayers. The other elders returned to their seats, along with Christy and Steve and Cheryl, and again Luke and I were asked to speak. Luke spoke first and did an oustanding job . He seemed to know just what to say. Me? Not so much. I wanted to thank Christy and the girls, Ralph Funk, Dan Shinabarger, and Steve Nickles, but I got through my family and Ralph, got distracted saying something else, and didn’t end up thanking Steve and Dan. This after Steve had driven nearly two hours to get there. He was gracious, of course.
So I guess that’s about it. Pretty much every detail I want to be sure to remember for the rest of my life. I woke up this morning feeling like a different person. I feel settled, like I’m in the place I’m supposed to be and do ing exactly what I was born to do. I feel legitimate. After all, what is ordination, if not a sign that a person is a duly authorized (legimate) worker in the church? After 14 years of ministry, I feel strangely legitimate suddenly.
This will go down as one of the best and most meaningful memories of my life. I wish I could be there right now, doing it all over. It was powerful and meaningful beyond my ability to express. It wasn’t just that the work was over. I celebrated that on April 28 when I submitted my last assignment. It wasn’t just jumping through a hoop. It was a confirmation of my calling and the passion of my life, and the leaders in my life saying, “Welcome into the order of Elders.” I no longer have to feel ashamed and embarrassed every conference when I am still listed as a CMC (conference ministerial candidate). I have finally crossed the line, sold out, made my full commitment to God and to the church. I feel like my identity, just before turning 40, is finally gathered together all into one piece and I know really who I am for the first time. No, my job at my church hasn’t changed a bit. But I have changed.
That day was one of my best days.