Twenty-five Years of Pastoral Ministry

November 1, 2012

All Saints Day

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I have assigned to this day a lot of personal significance and indulged in some reflection about my call in life and ministry. This summer my beloved and I celebrated 37 years of marriage. The question has come up in both contexts—marriage and ministry—whether I have felt the years fly by or not. Joyfully, in regards to our marriage I can honestly say the years have flown by with only a couple rough periods. But in regards to ministry, I feel every single one of those 25 years in slow motion.

I was ordained on November 1, 1987 in San Francisco Presbytery, as associate pastor of a large and growing church in the suburbs of Contra Costa County, east of Oakland. That particular ten-year call was intense, rewarding, stretching, and preparatory for the challenges I would face in my next (senior) pastorate thirteen miles down the road. For nine years, starting with my installation on November 1, 1997,  I slogged it out in a church family that had chewed up and spit out five pastors in the ten years prior to my arrival. After an extremely difficult first three years in that call, things settled down and a truly creative period began. When God called me to leave after a nine-year stint there, the parting was sweet and I left a church family healthy and functional. Since January 2007, I have swum in the academic pool, working on a Doctor of Ministry degree under the professorial guidance of Dallas Willard and N. T. Wright, Richard Peace and Roberta Hestenes, and Reggie McNeal and writing a 217-page dissertation. During this time I also taught Preaching, Teaching for Christian Formation, Teaching the Bible, and Missional Church and Its Leadership as an adjunct faculty member for Fuller Seminary. I have relished the opportunity to teach and mentor the next generation of pastor-teachers, who now include a daughter and her friends in the Seattle area.

When I was first ordained, I told my pastor I’d go to presbytery but not get too involved for a year, to concentrate on developing a pastoral identity, learn the ropes, get to know people, and tackle all the other tasks a newly ordained young’n’ faces. I attended one or two presbytery meetings—monthly in that era—and found myself unable to sleep afterwards because of upsetting things that occurred or were spoken. It only made it worse that I said nothing myself, as I witnessed questionable business approved without any sort of evangelical/conservative answer. It didn’t take me long to decide that I would need to participate actively in meetings in order to maintain a clear conscience. Since then, I have fully engaged in the work of presbytery through plenary and committee involvement (Mission Interpretation and Stewardship, COM, and CPM). During that time I was also elected twice as a Commissioner to General Assembly, after which my eyes were opened to the system at work and its impact on the local scene. Elders for years had kept track of business and informed presbyters of upcoming issues, and in 2007 the San Francisco Presbytery evangelical caucus was formed officially, led by a team of five to this day.

I have witnessed a series of denominational transitions through periods of service as Board member and President of Presbyterians For Renewal and in similar roles with the Presbyterian Coalition. As part of that service, I have attended at least ten General Assemblies and coached commissioners for their service. A series of decisions in San Francisco Presbytery that went south in 2007 necessitated entry into the PCUSA judicial world and three appearances before the GAPJC. Let’s just say, I would find it interesting to take the Polity Ordination Exam now, after really learning the D-book (the Rule of Discipline for my non-Presbyterian readers). But in lieu of that, it has been fun to tutor an occasional candidate having trouble passing it, though I am still internalizing nFOG (the new Form of Government adopted in 2010).

Having said all this, the ministry focus that rings my chimes the most is being there, face-to-face, with a person who is making a life decision of some kind and offering the opportunity to process the options from a Christian faith perspective. Jesus Christ is Lord of all of life, and I try to apply Willard’s version of WWJD?, which is “Lord, what would you do in this situation if you were in my shoes?” My favorite venue is the teaching/learning moment, either in the “classroom” (broadly defined) or in the pastor’s counseling room. Perhaps this is the reason why I am a sucker for a Facebook query, the out-of-the-blue theological question, the “stump the pastor” moment, and any opportunity to teach the Bible. If the task is to “bring the Word to life,” I’m there.

Which is why I blog!

Thank you for indulging me on All Saints Day. Over the years I have loved the fact that my anniversary was on this particular feast day. It has continued to remind me that my ministry call is one of many, and I am indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. My ministry is distinct from but not better than yours. There is so much to be done in the Kingdom of God, and only the Church as “team” can do it! Thanks be to God, who, by his Spirit can manage this team to be most effective if we all would do our work for our Savior, rather than for those mere mortals signing our paychecks or conducting our performance reviews. Keep this in mind the next time the job feels bigger than your capabilities or is making you crazy. May the peace of the Lord be with you and the confidence of his call ring clearly in your life.

In my next post, I will reflect on the twists and turns of the PCUSA during the last twenty-five years. For those of you who have been asking for a chronicle of PCUSA erosion in doctrine and morality, this may be the post for you. [It may take me more than one day to write it, so stay tuned.]


7 Responses to “Twenty-five Years of Pastoral Ministry”

  1. Emily McColl Says:

    Thank you for your story. Mine is similar except that I and my husband were local church leaders. When we joined the church 30 yrs ago there were NO children. When my son was born we built a nursery out of a closet after I could no longer keep him with me in the choir.

    We never went to presbytery but we lived and shared God’s good news of salvation in Jesus Christ with our neighbors. We worked hard at church. My first presbytery meeting was contentious and I did not want to be a part of that group, but God’s call on me to serve as TE was strong and I needed their validation to be an inquirer and go to seminary at age 37.
    We left a church that was healthy and thriving, >100 children in the children’s programs that I ran as a volunteer. It was all good, and I am glad to point that God’s work in that church continues through pastoral changes, life changes, and even local disasters. Jesus Christ is Good News for all of life!

    After seminary graduation and ordination, my experience has been as you describe. Hard, good work, loving people and bringing presence and good news while denominational issues impede and wear down. I think back to the church leader I was and am not sure if I would go back. God has developed me in so many ways out of the fires. No longer naive, but much more Christlike (oh, if you knew me then!). Recognizing that I am Christ’s work in progress, I can let the Lord be the Lord of my life (yes, I said LORD). And so I press on for the goal, the honor of sharing that hope with others who so desperately want to know for certain, the God who saves.

    The hard part is that now I serve in the very fires of pcusa that shape my calling. They are, as you describe, hot and getting hotter. Bless you sister.

  2. LaVonne D. Niccolls Says:

    Congratulations and sincere thanks for your mentoring and teaching of our son, Steve. God bless you.
    LaVonne Niccolls

  3. Twenty-five is a good swath, pal — congrats! I wonder if I was there — I got to most ordinations, a year before I left SFP.

  4. Dennis Evans Says:

    You sound like a good influence in my original presbytery (I was in the LIve Oak church that no longer exists.) I have told you how when I first came “under care” I thought most Presbyterian ministers didn’t believe in the historicity of the Bible, or the divinity of Christ, or the incarnation or resurrection, or the subsitutionary atonement. (That was about 1970 and onward, though it got strangely better by the late ’70’s). I told you how the care of candidates committee told me I was too narrow and that I would be happier in another denomination. God told me that he had given me his grace here and that I should be faithful to him here. So I have, and so he continues. The Lord bless you and his body in Sacramento Presbytery.

  5. John E Says:

    Congratulations Mary and may you have many many more years of witnessing to others about Jesus Christ and teaching people about the Reformed faith!

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