It has now been over 2 years since I was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and each of those years I have spent in more than full time ministry as a minister in our congregations, as well as a reserve military chaplain. Prior to that was a little over 5 years of ministerial preparation, and serving as the student/intern/resident minister and chaplain in a host of different spaces and places. I have been ordained long enough now that the title “Reverend” has begun to hang a little more lightly on my life and my spirit. I think taking two months “staycation” mostly away from ministry and ministerial writing has helped with that.
I now have enough distance from it, I think, that I can begin reflecting on the transition that ordination was in my life. Other than now being allowed to wear a stole while I am in the pulpit, and have people call me “Rev. David”, I remember thinking in the weeks afterward that ordination was not as big a change as it might have seemed. Over the last two years though, I’ve had to revise that initial opinion.
There are several ways the change of ordination has manifested itself. Let me go to the unexpected first…
I have not always been an ordained minister. I have not always known that I would become a minister. At other times in my life I have had other identities (soldier, stage-hand, events coordinator, college student, etc.) and much of my behavior was appropriate (and not all that bad) for those other identities. I did some of the things that young soldiers do, especially when they are overseas. I did some of the things that young college students do. I did some of the things that stage-hands and event coordinators do, especially when on the road. None of this was terribly bad… although I had a lot of romantic relationships and was not always the nicest guy in how they ended… but I was not (yet) a minister, and so did not behave as a minister does.
So, when someone from my past (often a previous romantic interest) re-encounters me now either in person or through something like Facebook, the reaction to my now being an ordained minister is often incredulous. One recent message began with the words “REALLY?!? ARE YOU SERIOUS!?!” after reading the profile that said my occupation was ordained minister.
I might say it would be easier if we ministers, especially those of us from a liberal faith, did not have a life before we entered the ministry, but I would not mean it. Much of what makes me a good minister now comes from those years before ministry was even a thought in my mind, much less a call in my heart. If I had not loved, lost, loved, and then been a jerk, I don’t know where I would have the experience to do pastoral care. If I had not lost jobs, or worked in fields I did not like, I do not know where I would have gained the awareness to do pastoral care. If I had not made my own bad decisions and found a way to recover from them, I do not know where I would have any wisdom to offer in pastoral care.
So, the transition I’ve come to see since my ordination has in part been through the eyes of others. For me, it was a long, gradual process… and so the transition from who I was then to who I am now is difficult for me to see. I lived it, and so it is difficult for me to notice. It has taken two years of “ARE YOU SERIOUS!?!” for me to see my transition since ordination though the eyes of others.
The other transition that has happened for me with ordination was one of responsibility. My responsibility. Let me tell a quick story.
When I was a hospital chaplain resident, I made a big mistake. Actually, it was a series of little mistakes that created one big one. I loved building pastoral relationships with my patients. I loved visiting my hospice patients, and being in the Emergency Room at the hospital with my families. I even loved discussing life, emotions, and ministry with my Resident Group about 15 hours a week. What I did not like was charting.
I hated charting. How do you chart a deep emotional conversation about death, while still maintaining pastoral confidentiality? How do you turn ministry into a series of interventions that you can check off a list. While I loved hospital and hospice chaplaincy, it could be said that the medical need for charting is why I’m back serving in churches and not in a hospital somewhere.
And so, in the time pressure of the Residency, there was never enough time to do everything. I would look at my list of what had to happen that day, and doing my charting would find its way to the bottom of the list. I’d rather visit with patients (creating more need for charting). And so, after about two weeks of this, my charts were so out-of-whack that I got called into the Pastoral Care Directors office for a “talkin’ to”.
I knew I was in the wrong, and said so as soon as the meeting started. We talked about it, and came up with a plan to fix it, and to make sure we did not have this happen again. Near the end of the conversation I commented that “I was in less trouble over it than I thought I would be,” to which he responded “Well, you are still a student… if you were one of my staff chaplains I might have fired you over this.”
I think this has been the greatest transition for me since ordination… and that is realizing that I am no longer a student. I am the minister. The responsibility is really mine. When something happens that should not have happened, or does not happen that should have, it is my responsibility. I’ve owned that kind of responsibility before, I was a Sergeant in the military afterall… but seminary gives you all kinds of opportunities to learn by making mistakes, and the consequences and responsibilities are far less than they are post-ordination. This is not just a responsibility for the large not-for-profit organization we call a church, but also and perhaps more importantly for the fragile spirits and souls that are placed in our care.
This transition has been on my heart since yesterday. After church yesterday I wanted something fun to do, and so I reached back into my pre-seminary, pre-ordination past. I went to a local Park to watch a Fighter Practice of the local Society for Creative Anachronism group. Many of those past relationships and other behavior center around my years in the SCA… and so it was a moment of remembering for me. I have no guilts, and only a few regrets about those years… and it was a moment to realize that I really am an ordained minister, even when no one around knows that.
It was a good realization.
Yours in faith,