An ordinary ordination

This week we asked our bloggers to reflect on their ordinations.  Here are their blogs.

I’ve wanted to be a pastor since I was a kid. That’s not true for a large number of people who become ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament, but I knew about my calling when I was taking those career exams they made us take in high school and middle school. I remember the test it spitting back out a number of different career choices, most of which didn’t appeal to me. And, to be honest, I don’t remember at this point if it even listed “pastor” as one of the options, but the exam definitely got me thinking. I spent the next eight years exploring and educating myself and making sure of things, but as soon as I got out of college I entered seminary.

Getting ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (or, as they did it “back in my day” in 2012, as a teaching elder) defines the course of your life. It’s true that it sets you apart to a special kind of service, but I know that for a lot of ministers it becomes one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. To be honest, my experience of ordination didn’t quite meet that high standard.

Looking back, I would think that after preparing for ministry for 11 years, getting ordained would be a “mountaintop” experience of connection with God and the joy of having my calling recognized by the church. But in the moment, it was mostly a lot of logistics, planning and organization. Less a moment of bliss, more the logical outcome of the steps I had taken to become ordained.

In a sense, ordination should feel like the “next logical step” for the person being ordained. You don’t get ordained by accident in the Presbyterian Church. It’s not like you could just be minding your own business, searching for videos of clumsy baby giraffes on the internet and suddenly find yourself getting ordained online or something. It takes years of planning and lots of hard work to navigate the ordination process. So no, ordination didn’t feel like some organic, spur-of-the-moment explosion of divine assurance. It felt a lot more like a waypoint in a much longer journey.

That longer journey defined, in many ways, how I felt about that moment of ordination. Rather than being coached on the uniqueness and holiness that comes with ordination, I remember hearing about how ministry is a way that “God calls some persons from the midst of congregations to fulfill particular functions” (W-4.0401). It’s not “advanced Christianity” or a way to become more holy, get special privileges or to get yourself a better mansion in the sky. And it’s certainly not a prerequisite for doing God’s work. I try to take to heart the advice to not view ordained people as a “privileged elite,” but instead I see myself as an ordained person who is called by God to a particular function, just as God calls other people to other particular functions.

As I’ve spent more time thinking about ordination, I’m beginning to think that the ordination we have traditionally practiced to the ministries of elder, deacon, and Minister of Word and Sacrament are simply the easiest ones for the church to recognize as divine calls. They’re the tip of the iceberg, but God is doing a lot more under the surface. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Fred Rogers, whose ordination was a call to serve “children and families through mass media.”

Presbyterians used to ordain ministers to one of two forms of service: ministering to an existing church or gathering a new church. Today, there are innumerable ways to serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (but since we’re Presbyterian, I’m sure someone has indeed numbered them), and that’s in addition to the nearly infinite possibilities of service that the church could commission. It makes “traditional” church service seem like a small part of a much larger whole – and it is.

Yes, ordination is a special thing – a way that the church can recognize the voice of God speaking to an individual who has been called to serve. But it doesn’t make me better than everyone else – I’m no more faithful, holy, intelligent or capable because I’ve been ordained. What ordination does for me is bind me to God’s call in the eyes of the church and the world. It frees me to serve by confirming that the call I heard from God to serve the church was valid. It doesn’t guarantee that I will serve well or for the entire length of my life, but ordination does tell me that this isn’t something I should walk away from lightly. These thoughts are what I carry with me throughout my life – not the memories of an ordination service, but the reminder that there were people of God who, at one point, examined the call I thought I heard and told me: “Yes, that was God speaking. Now go and follow!”

This experience of God speaking isn’t unique to Ministers of Word and Sacrament. It’s something that anyone can experience at any time in life. The church is capable (most times) of figuring out whether God called you to preach, but we’re not quite as good at figuring out if (and how) God called you to teach children, heal people, encourage coworkers, advocate for justice, develop lifesaving technologies or produce children’s television shows. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling – it means God is calling in a different way than God calls people to ordered ministry like the offices of deacon, ruling elder and Minister of Word and Sacrament. Sure, I got my special day where a whole presbytery validated my call – but that isn’t what makes it special. What makes my ministry special is that it comes from God – that it’s supported, validated, maintained and designed by God – and that I have the privilege to be a part of what God is doing.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.