MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of the first bloggers I ever read, and her generosity in writing about her experience of both ministry and motherhood has, over the years, been extraordinarily formative for me. I am a better pastor, writer, and mother because of her, and I'm honored to share her wisdom here.
I recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of my ordination to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I'm pretty big on milestones, so I've been reflecting a lot on the past decade---what I've learned, how I've grown, the joys and the challenges. I've decided to compose a top 10 list of the most memorable moments of ministry and what they revealed about the God I believe in and this vocation I am called to pursue.
Here they are in no particular order:
When I became reverend mother. I went through the final steps of ordination with a 5-week-old infant in tow. I remember showing up to one of the clearance interviews with a briefcase under one arm and a baby in the other. It felt very right to carry those two vocations, one in each hand. I have never known motherhood without ministry, nor ministry without motherhood. Maybe it would be less messy if I only had one to contend with. But for me, these twin callings teach, balance, and mitigate one another.
The time the communion table caught on fire. I learned that when you pray, "Surprise us, O God," you'd better be ready with a fire extinguisher. I also learned the vital importance of laughter in this vocation.
The time I was late to church. Very late. We have a service for wholeness and healing on Sunday evening four times a year, but I had a brain cramp and got the time wrong. I showed up 25 minutes late to find an elder at the door, holding my robe open for me to dash into. I swept into the sanctuary to the sounds of an increasingly desperate organist, gamely vamping his way through the hymnal.
When I realized my mistake and called en route to the service, I was disgusted with myself, apologizing all over the place. The elder on the other end of the phone stopped me and said, "You're human." That simple message reminded me to extend the same grace to myself that I extend to others.
The closest I'll ever come to being a rock star. I had the joy of preaching at the Montreat Youth Conference nine years ago. Montreat (a conference center in North Carolina) is Presbyterian Mecca, and the youth conference planning teams are fabulous at making the speakers feel like royalty. The first night of the conference, the other leaders and I were introduced to 1,500 youth who were cheering, clapping and whistling. I learned that there are still places in which the proclamation of the Word of God matters very deeply.
The times I hurt someone's feelings. We have a prayer of confession in our Book of Common Worship in which we ask forgiveness "for what we have done, and what we have left undone." I remain haunted by those times that I chose my words badly in the pulpit, took a faithful volunteer for granted, or misjudged a pastoral situation by calling on the telephone when the person really needed a visit. I learned that, while we cannot be all things to all people, and we must be kind to ourselves, what we do and what we fail to do has consequences for the people we serve.
My big fat gay wedding. Recently I was asked to officiate at the wedding of a friend of mine who planned to marry his partner in Massachusetts. I knew right away I wanted to do the service, but I agonized over how to tell the elders in my church, knowing they were not all of one mind.
I shared some of my personal journey, my understanding of theology and of scripture, and said, "This is where my conscience personally leads me. Here I stand; I can do no other. But let us stay in conversation, and stay in relationship." Most of the session was supportive. Those who oppose gay marriage were still supportive of me personally and understood why I felt called to officiate the wedding. I learned that relationships are deeper and more gracious than the issues and convictions that often divide us, and that growth happens in the struggle to understand one another.
The first time a person left the church "because of me." I put that last part in quotes, because we never really know what causes a person to leave. The bottom line was that the church was going somewhere this person didn't want to go. I learned that such departures can be painful. I am someone who wants to be liked, a condition that afflicts many clergy. But I also learned that I can survive the departure of a church member while neither begging them to stay nor compromising my sense of vision or God's call for the congregation.
Finding my writing group. Many years ago, I stumbled into a newly forming group of minister-writers and found a nuance to my vocation I never would've imagined when I was ordained. Six years after our first meeting, I published a book, and the Writing Revs are still going strong. I learned that we can never predict what the Holy Spirit will do with us. I also learned that I need community in order to do this work, whether it's taking a chance on a book proposal or leading a congregation through transformation and change.
The first funeral of a child. And the second. Memorial services are never easy, but when we bury a person who dies at an old age, there is a certain bittersweet joy at celebrating a life well lived. Not so with a child. Walking with a family through the death of a child exposes just how helpless we are as pastors. We cannot fix this. And shallow, bumper sticker theology will only make things worse. All we can do is stand with those parents who are gazing into the bowels of hell and refuse to flinch.
It's my 10th ordination anniversary, but there are only nine items on the list. That's as it should be. There should be room for new learnings, for events that don't seem significant now but will take on added resonance as I look to the second decade of ministry.
Thanks be to God. Blessed be.
About Today's Contributor
The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is a writer of numerous articles and essays, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time through Chalice Press. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader around issues of spiritual formation, church leadership, and congregational transformation. She is also co-chair of NEXT Church, a movement that seeks to call forth and nurture vibrant and creative ministry in the PC(USA). She is married to Robert Dana and has three children, Caroline, 10; Margaret, 7; and James, 5. Connect with her at her blog, The Blue Room.About the Women in Ministry Series
The Women in Ministry Series is a collection of guest posts that aims to provide an alternative to the women in ministry debates by telling the stories of women in ministry and encourage women to explore their God-given callings.
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