On January 6, the church recognized Susan and me on 25 years of ministry. Dr. Marshall Peters, Aiddy Phomvisay, and Susan also brought brief messages at the service.
Text: Isaiah 40:28-31
Thanksgiving Day was the 25th anniversary of my ordination. I was ordained by Oakhill Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana, the Southern Baptist church that I grew up in. The ordination council was composed of about 15 people, all men. Most of them I had know for most of my life, and getting through the ordination council wasn’t too difficult (although if they had known I would become an American Baptist, it might not have gone so well).
Next month, Susan will celebrate her 20th ordination anniversary. After seminary, Susan was serving in ministry for close to six years before she was ordained. Ordination was a tricky thing for a Southern Baptist woman in those days. (Of course, now it has gone from tricky to pretty well impossible.) Susan was ordained after becoming an American Baptist.
So, here we are to celebrate 25 years of ministry. This is a humbling thing. I know that many of you have worked for 25 years in your profession without being recognized. I also remember a Ministers Council retreat where we recognized those present who had significant ordination anniversaries – some newer pastors were in their 5th or 10th year of ordination, others were maybe 20 or 25, and I think Royce Jones was 40. And then there was John Anderson – 70 years of ordination. So while it seems like a lot, maybe 25 isn’t so much.
My thought was to talk about “What I Have Learned in 25 Years,” which sounds interesting enough, but I only have about 8 minutes. That would surely take at least 10 or 12 minutes. So, I’ll save that for another tine, maybe even next week.
A recent study showed that around 50% of clergy leave the profession in the first 5 years. It is a sobering statistic, really an amazing statistic and I hardly believe it, but it is cited by Kristen Stewart in her 2009 article, “Keeping Your Pastor: An Emerging Challenge,” published in the Journal for Liberal Arts and Sciences. Whether the number is actually 50%, there is no question that ministry can be a real challenge, and a substantial number of folks can’t hack it or they have the good sense to move on, depending on your point of view. That study certainly puts the challenges of ministry into focus.
I chose to read a scripture from the prophet Isaiah – it is one of my favorites. And I think it fits well with the practice of ministry. The text speaks of “rising up with wings like eagles.” For me, this is what grabs my attention and makes this a memorable and inspiring passage. There are those times in ministry when it feels like we are soaring. Christmas Eve. Easter morning. A wonderful cantata. Music Camp (especially right after it is over). The baptism of a new Christian. Mission trips that are both great fun and that open our eyes to the need and the possibility around us. The joy of seeing young people grow in the faith and do well and get excited about following Jesus. The feeling of really making a difference in someone’s life. Sometimes, we are soaring.
It isn’t always like that, or course. The prophet goes on and says that God gives us the strength to run and not grow weary. It’s not flying, but running without growing weary is pretty good, you have to admit. I think of all those recurring tasks, the work of ministry that keeps on coming. Sermons, week after week. I know someone who compares the task of preaching to the mythological figure Sisyphus, who was condemned to push this immense boulder up a hill. As soon as it reached the top, it rolled back down and he had to start pushing it up again.
The work of the ministry keeps on coming: there are Bible studies and appointments and visits and committee meetings and choir rehearsals. You get through one and there is another staring you in the face. There are newsletters and bulletins and mailings of various sorts. There are mini-crises and sometimes full-blown crises. There are building issues and, yes, denominational meetings. Sometimes there are even church basketball games. Calendars are busy, life is busy, there is a lot to do, and to be able to run and not grow weary through it all can be a wonderful gift. I am a jack-of-all trades kind of guy and for me, the variety of it all is part of the appeal. I’m not complaining, I love all this stuff, but it is a blessing that God gives us strength to run and not grow weary.
But there are those times when that is too much. There are those times when we are just plain tired. There are times when we are too sad, times when we are too unsure of the path to take and the best we can do, the best we can hope for, it to just put one foot in front of the other and go on – to walk and not faint. Now to walk and not faint doesn’t sound very ambitious. If a genie were to grant us three wishes, that probably wouldn’t be one of them. But the prophet says that God gives us the strength to do just that, and there are times when we need that kind of gritty, persevering, strength that comes from God.
And in fact, maybe the strength to walk and not faint is the bigger gift. In a list of items like this, the “biggie” always comes last. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” Or on a game show, a contestant is told, “You have won a case of Turtle Wax, a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat, and a new car!” There is a buildup to the really big gift. And there are times when being able to walk and not faint is nothing short of a miracle.
Just as those times of soaring easily come to mind, I can remember times of just trying to walk without fainting. I was president of the Ames Ministerial Association on 9/11. It felt very heavy. We organized a community prayer service and we trudged forward, offering God’s hope and strength. There have been those kind of moments scattered over 25 years. I have had dear friends become ill and then lose the battle with cancer. I have been with folks experiencing great pain. There have been those phone calls in the night when you know it can’t be good. I have stood with parents who are deeply concerned about children and don’t know what to do. There have been those times when it seemed as though possibilities were really opening up for the church, and then seemingly overnight, a whole slew of young families take jobs in other cities. And on and on. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes all we can do just hang in there, to walk and not faint.
Now, I don’t have to tell you that this is not simply the way it is with ministry. This is the way it is with life. This is true for all of us. Sometimes we fly, sometimes we can run and not grow weary, and sometimes it is all we can do to stand up and put one foot in front of the other.
To come to a milestone like 25 years is to me a celebration of God’s grace. God has been with me and God has been with us in all of the times of life – those times when we are soaring and those times when we are barely trudging along, and all of those times in between.
Like the song says, “for all those dangers, toils and snares that he has brought me out.” There have been those hard times, but God has never failed me yet.
One of the ways God provides for us and sees us through those dangers, toils and snares is through a caring community. I never aspired to live in Iowa and didn’t imagine we would be here going on 14 years, but that surely says something about this church. Ministry is a shared endeavor, something to which all Christians are called, and more than half of my ministry has been here in Ames. I am grateful for this church and I am grateful for caring friends and colleagues. I am grateful for excellent regional staff over the years, people Like Les Rempel and Gary Reif and Gary Grogan and Soozi Ford and Marshall, who is not only a fine executive minister but a good friend. Ministry is a shared effort, we are all in this together, and “God hasn’t failed us yet.” Amen.