marks the 11th anniversary of my ordination as Priest in the Orthodox Church but there’s more to the story. I was first ordained as a Baptist pastor in 1989 so, in fact, I’ve been in ordained parish or chaplaincy service for over a quarter century and what a long and interesting trip it’s been!
I remember those days late in my last year of seminary, contemplating the future as a fresh, new, and young minister. I had hoped to do good things, many even great ones, through the best way I knew how namely the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. I had studied. I had tested. I had taken psychological tests. I passed the various boards and gatekeepers. I had arrived.
Two parishes followed in reasonably quick succession, parishes with good people but also malignant and vocal minorities who really did plan and scheme and attack and make life miserable. I remember being curled up in a ball deep in my tears in the hall of the parsonage of the church in Kansas that had just fired me without even a clue or a specific reason that I could recall. Somebody somewhere didn’t like me and they had the votes. Everything naive left in me died in those days as we packed our stuff and made plans to head back to Minnesota. All I knew was that I wanted to leave that little town and never go back to a Baptist church, ever, and writing about this even now hurts a bit.
Yet the hurt of those days led me home to Minnesota, older than my years and much wiser through pain. I found a “day job” and then a chaplaincy position in the environment where I started my working life, the nursing home. My studies, too, had taken me far from where I had been. I left the American Baptist Churches, became an Episcopalian, and briefly considered holy orders in the Episcopal Church. I knew then, though, that this community had already gone too far too fast from everything it had cherished and there would be no home for me there.
Instead I discovered in a magazine about a new movement called the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a group of evangelicals and charismatics who had embraced Liturgy and their understanding of the ancient Christian Faith through an Anglican ethos. There were trips to Kansas City to visit the Bishop and, in time, I was ordained Priest and sent back to Minnesota to plant a church. While this was happening I came in greater contact with Eastern Orthodoxy and began to explore its life and ethos. In that time of discovery my heart began to become Orthodox and when I, and then we in our tiny mission, discovered the Western Rite we made the plans to change. Our hope had been to continue our little community as a Western Rite Orthodox Mission (Up here in Minnesota where about 80 percent of everyone who claims a Christian title is either Catholic of Lutheran there is still great potential for such a thing).
Yet it was not to be. Our mission was fervent but larger things were at play and, in time, we chose to leave the mission behind and become part of St. George Orthodox Church. I was eventually ordained Deacon and then two years later Priest and sent to St. Elias Orthodox Church in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The parish was full of good people but needed money for repairs and the necessities of life so, over the years, I served bivocationally, living in St. Paul and traveling to Wisconsin on weekends. It was good work but the travel and the time left me exhausted and my feeling was to move on and let someone else build on a better foundation so I could rest.
My hope was that I would take a sabbatical year and then be picked up in the “draft” my term for the assignment of Priests that usually happens in the early summer. It never, for reasons I still don’t know, happened. Six years from St. Elias I am still in St. Paul, attached to St. George in West St. Paul, and in a mobile ministry of helping parishes in transition while I work my day job. I am a circuit rider of sorts but instead of a horse I have a Nissan and while the Apostle Paul made tents to keep a roof over his head I plan programs for Seniors in an Assisted Living.
I still dream of planting a church here in Minnesota. There is a great potential for this area but, at the present, the will is just not here. This dream, and its deferment, have been a constant in my heart and while I understand that it was not possible while I was in transition to Orthodoxy I may never understand why the dream has been given but its fulfillment has been rendered impossible to date. I still believe in Jesus, as well, even though there have been times when the people I trusted to care for me have provided plenty of evidence to the contrary. There is sin in me and sin in the Church and I’ve tried to be wise and forbearing in it all. Sadly, I’ve also learned through hard experience to be careful with my trust. They say “Once bitten twice shy” and there is some real pastoral wisdom in that phrase. A Pastor without an escape plan when things get hard places themselves in a very vulnerable place so have a solid amount of cash in the bank if a church board or Bishop changes their mind. If I would say anything to current seminarians it would be to love everyone but also be wise because some of the people you love won’t even try to return the favor.
It’s also been a great privilege to serve and help people which is part of the reason I got into the “business” in the first place. A good Priest can make a significant difference in people’s lives, a difference for the good. While pastoral ministry can be painful there are also many moments of joy, of the true satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference, and those moments are the fuel that keeps that original spark burning. For every hurt there are many more happy moments and when I doubt that I simply look back through my file of cards and letters and pictures to remember everything, good and bad, in its proper context.
Right or wrong, sinful or forgiven, at my best or worst, I’ve never lost the awe of serving at the altar and I suppose that if there is anything that could be salvaged from these years it would be just that. There have been moments, of course, when I just wanted to quit, to retreat from the battle and rest for a while. Somehow I always find my way back which either means I’m crazy or called. I’ve also never stopped believing in Christ, although sometimes that belief has come through tears or clenched teeth. Nothing that’s happened to me, good or bad, as a Priest and Pastor has changed my belief that Jesus is exactly who he and his Church claim he is and, because of that, everything he is and says is of the utmost importance.
As the 11th year comes and goes the truth is I have no idea what is going to happen or where this long, strange, trip will take my wife and I. Sometimes I wish I did but that seems to be about me learning the lessons of trust. There are things I would change, of course, like never moving to Kansas, but for the most part its been good and for that goodness the glory goes to the God who has enough of a sense of humor and even more of grace to let me ordained not once, but three times (Baptist, Anglican, and Orthodox) as a tender of his flock.