And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them. – I Samuel 22, 2
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it, fellow clergy? Memorize it; it’s your life verse.
Whether you knew it at the time or not, when your ecclesiastical superiors gathered round and laid their hands upon your bowed head you embraced a calling to live a life surrounded by the distressed, the indebted and the discontented, their faces anxiously turned to you for hope and guidance.
Eugene Peterson said it best in The Contemplative Pastor: One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know your emotions are as fickle as ours, and your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to extract a vow from you. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it….With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.
Not long ago, during an interview for a new position, I was asked to describe my ministry experience in one word. My interviewers seemed rather taken aback by the swiftness of my answer and the confidence in my voice when I replied: “burden”. Yes, I admit, there are dozens of other words that would describe the joyful and privileged aspects of this, my life’s work, but when it comes right down to it, since my ordination I have felt that a weight has been strapped to my shoulders and an inner voice compels me to walk.
This past Sunday I said goodbye to parish ministry. It was a happy occasion filled with a gush of kind words and gestures. I leave in a good frame of mind, contented, yet ready for the next step.
A week from now Renata and I will be off to the UK where I will take up a chaplaincy role at London’s Heathrow airport. I’m glad to leave parish ministry behind (for now?) and for the change of pace. But as I do, I have only the deepest respect and gratitude for my colleagues who persevere, often in the same parish, decade after decade.
One thing I know I won’t leave behind: the distressed, the indebted and the discontented. “The poor you will have with you always,” someone once famously said. It’s kind of what our vocation is all about. And that burden. Thank God we don’t carry it alone.