Someone in my presbytery recently texted me: “Happy 5th ordination anniversary.” Our presbytery prints ordination anniversaries in the weekly email, but without that this colleague would have probably forgotten to send the text and I might not have realized my ordination anniversary had come and gone.
Here are five things I have learned in my first four years of ministry. (Rest assured, I learned way more than five, but these are the five that seem most memorable right now.)
- I don’t know exactly what anyone is experiencing, even if I have lived through a similar life event. I put this one first because I learned this one during one of my very first months in ministry. I went to visit someone in the hospital and as this person was sharing with me just how frustrated she felt, I casually, unthinkingly said, “I know.” She corrected me, “No, you really don’t.” She wasn’t kind or gentle about it, but she was right. I didn’t know then and it wasn’t because I was a first-year pastor. I don’t know, can’t know and won’t know now even as a fifth-year pastor. Thankfully, I have found people just prefer a listener to someone who can tell them how it is.
- There are very few things I care deeply about when it comes to worship. I’m still looking for a way for this one to sound positive, but I really think it is.I firmly believe a lot of the little details that people obsess over regarding worship have nothing to do with worship, but instead with personal preference. One thing I do care about is keeping worship fresh. I don’t want it to always be the same, so I look for ways to always say “yes” when someone has an idea to try in worship. Sometimes we have to work together to make it fit the space, but I care deeply about not limiting creativity when it comes to worship because I think worshipping the Great Creator means we should always be emulating God in our creativity in how we love, praise and exalt our Majestic Lord.
- God is infinite, and our names for God are too finite. I am always working on this one, but I discovered right away that most pastors (me too!) have a default name for God.“Gracious God,” “Loving God,” “Father God.” It is so easy to get stuck in our safe, comfortable names for God, and I get lazy and default to mine too. (I return to “Triune God” or “Holy God” … how dull am I and how dull am I making God out to be?) Yet, we do ourselves, God and our congregants a disservice when we settle for just one name or one rotation of names. I am willing to work hard to avoid using only masculine or female pronouns when it comes to God because I think it is important that we all know we all are created in the image of God.
- The congregation doesn’t care about what you say if you don’t care about them. Fortunately, I have mostly been on the upside of this one (for example, I visited someone in the hospital and then preached subpar sermon, and he just remembered the hospital visit). I’ll admit I heard this coming into ministry, but didn’t quite know what it meant. It’s obvious, but necessary. In my first year of ministry, I met pastors who couldn’t be bothered with a trip to the hospital or a phone call to see how someone was doing, and they created a divide between them and their congregants. I have been loved well by my congregation and I want to love them well back — maybe even a little bit like Jesus. And Jesus was a doer. I even wonder if Jesus would have said anything if he thought people could just understand it all without words, but he did some of both. Of course, it’s of course important to match up words and actions, but if there is not enough time for both, I’m going with actions (besides, usually if you show up, you end up talking a little bit anyway!).
- When the Holy Spirit moves, you move. I feel like I will be working on this one for the rest of my life because I always want to stick to myplan. But God knows better and, unfortunately, I have learned this the hard way several times. Once, the Holy Spirit insisted I visit someone, I put it off and he died. I know no one needs me to usher them into the heavenly kingdom, but God sure must be disappointed when I think I have somewhere better to be or couldn’t fit Jesus into my schedule for the day. I’ve messed this one up over and over, sometimes with tearful consequences. Yet, God continues to invite me back — to offer me another chance to get it right. And congregations have too. I will always be humbled by God taking a chance on me and the congregation doing the same.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.