“What does it mean that you’re going to be ordained?”
“Does it mean that you’re going to be ordinary now?”
Fair question, daughter. Fair question.
I have been the pastor of our church, in just about every sense of the word, since October 2011. I was the one responsible for the bulk of the preaching. When things would go wrong, it would fall on all of the leaders, but it was recognized that I was the leader of the leaders (or I was supposed to be). But, being presbyterian, nothing is so simple as that. Because the church is a part of a presbytery which is part of a denomination, I don’t get to just walk around and decide who will be pastor and who won’t be.
So our little church fit in under some technicalities. We got by until 2013, when our presbytery officially said, “Look, you’re not like all the other pastors, but you can do everything they do.” I was called a Commissioned Pastor. Our church officially had a pastor (me).
But in our system, most people that go to seminary and serve as pastors are called Teaching Elders. When I was preparing for the exams to be a commissioned pastor, the group that passed me said, “You really should be a teaching elder. You’ll have to do this all over again. Except it’s much harder.” Considering I’d just spent eight hours being grilled, I wasn’t especially excited about that. But I knew they were right.
The problem was that I didn’t fit into the normal boxes. I went to seminary, but when I did, I didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that Presbyterians like things to move along ordinary lines. Most pastors ordinarily get a degree called a Masters of Divinity. The ordination process kind of assumes that you’ll do this.
But I started preaching in a bar-church when I was 20. “Ordinary” wasn’t very compelling to me at the time. I said, “So what?” I chose to go do a degree that had more theology, more history, and less classes about preaching (because I was already preaching and, therefore, had nothing more to learn [insert GIF that implies I’m an idiot]). So I did get my seminary degree. I just got a different one. In my exit interview with my program supervisor, he saw that I was functioning as a pastor (this was May 2012) and he said, “You know, your denomination is going to want you to have a Masters of Divinity. If you stop the process right now, you can just work for another 18 months and graduate with that degree. If you graduate now, though, you’ll have to start all over again.”
I just dragged my wife and (then) two kids through with me doing school full-time. I wasn’t going to reset the clock. I said, “No thanks.”
So there I was, the Strange Guy. Seminary-trained. Wrong degree. A pastor doing everything a pastor does. But people looking at me and saying, “Why aren’t you this other thing?”
Because the boxes, man. The boxes.
Eventually, I decided I’d like to go ahead and be in that Teaching Elder box, where it seemed people like me are supposed to be. So I asked how to jump in there. And everyone who knows things kind of looked at each other and said, “Uh….?”
I fell into the void between boxes. Which I understand. It was my own fault.
Eventually, over the course of a couple of years, a bunch of people helped me figured out the pathway into that other box, that Teaching Elder box.
Yesterday, I was ordained.
People, one of whom was my daughter, asked me, “What’s going to change now that you’re being ordained?” And honestly the answer was, “Well… nothing, really.”
No one had ever stopped me from doing what a pastor is supposed to do. They’d helped me be sure that I could do exactly what I should be doing. Well, as far as other people have the ability to do that. So none of my duties would change, none of my ability to perform those duties would change. I preached week on week before yesterday. I imagine it will pretty much be the same now.
So what does it mean?
It means very little, in some ways. And in some ways, it means very much.
When I was on my knees and the elders from my little corner of the Church put my hands on me, they stood at the end of a long line of people, many of whom are very far away from me now. They physically did what so many had already done and told me, “You are gifted for this. You trained for this. You are called to this.” I have so many people in my story that said those words, one way or another, in that bar or in a living room or in an email. And those elders yesterday put their hands on me and said it again. Said it physically.
That means something.
But more than just the people from my own story, those elders stood at the end of a much longer line. The Christian Church has an extensive history of this very act for setting apart some for ministry. The kneeling, the laying on of hands, it’s thousands of years old at this point. Men (and some women) have hit the ground in a number of locales, across decades and decades and centuries, in all kinds of languages and been designated for ministry, called to the office, installed in that responsibility. The weight of all that history was resting on my shoulders yesterday.
That means something.
My church was there this time. When I was commissioned as pastor by our presbytery in 2013, I was at a meeting with a bunch of people I mostly don’t know. They celebrated and prayed for me. It was done. But this time, this was a worship service at my church. People who have seen me as, basically, a child, were there. They have heard all my worse sermons. They have seen me make terrible decisions. I have failed them so many times. I am so much less than what they deserve. And they were there to vow to support me, to say, “Yes. This is right. This is good. This is our guy.” I felt that yesterday.
That means something.
The answer to my daughter’s question is that I have always been ordinary. Unremarkable. Not special. But something special happened, not to make me special, but to call me to a special task, one I cannot live up to. Nothing visibly changed yesterday. Nothing extraordinary. But it is the ordinariness of Christian life that, I think, is so compelling. It is simple water, broken bread, cups of wine that somehow communicate magnificent, divine things in the Christian Church. I am not special. I am ordinary.
God is extraordinary. I am truly caught off-guard by how good God is, with such a wavering, ordinary fool like me. Nothing about me change yesterday. Nothing special happened. Nothing changed. I have a certificate and some photos and… nothing much else.
And yet it all means something. Something I cannot rightly describe. Maybe something that only I can appreciate, and will likely only appreciate more fully as time unfolds. Nothing changed yesterday, and yet something happened. Something has been happening for 32 years now. Ordinary things, hard to trace. Significant things, obvious for all to see. Things that no one has seen. Things in which so many have played a part.
What does it mean to be ordained?
It all meant something. Something ordinary. Something special.
It means something.