Pastors love telling their call stories. It seems that most of us know the exact time, the exact moment when we first felt that nudge from God telling us we had bigger fish to fry.
For me I suppose it didn’t really start with the wedding cake. It really all started with my mom making sure my three siblings and I got to church, at least for special Sundays. We were very involved in our Ukrainian Catholic congregation and learned Ukrainian dancing. We were taken to catechism class for the prescribed year but at a Roman Catholic School (Mary, Queen of the Universe- I love that name.) When a nun came to our front door one evening carrying a box with a clear cellophane window containing a bright red confirmation gown just the right size for me, my mom firmly turned her around explaining that in OUR church babies were confirmed into the faith when they were baptized. I can still vividly picture the expression on Sister Mary Elizabeth’s face dropping so quickly that I almost felt an urge to wrap my arms around her waist and tell her everything would be ok. I was disappointed. I would have loved wearing that red gown.
Seeing those Roman Catholic nuns at Mary Queen of the Universe so close up made me want to be one. I thought long and hard about being a nun, marrying Jesus and wearing ‘his ring’. Sigh….
It seemed like it would be an ok life when I was nine or ten years old.
But my mom had to have been the biggest influence on me as I grew up. My mom was VERY religious and that meant she even went to church on days she didn’t have to. The irony is that if you asked her if she was religious, she would have denied it.
She often gave us a choice about going to church with her on those extra church days. My choice was always to go and not so much because I just had to be part of the special worship service but because I didn’t ever want to leave my mom and I never wanted her to leave me. (One time she was getting ready to go bowling with her bowling league. And frankly she deserved time away from her children. The writing was on the wall that Wednesday night. She’d already told us no when we asked if we could go too. I went out to the car and found the door unlocked so I opened it and climbed into the back, hunkering down on the floor in front of that long back seat. My mom, always very astute, probably watched all this from the living room picture window. All I knew was that some how her ma-dar told her I was there so as she opened the car door she said simply and firmly, “OK Alana, get out of the car.” I was crest-fallen.)
I didn’t realize the significance of those special worship services we attended on occasion during my childhood. I know now that many of them happened during Holy Week. The sanctuary was darkened and mostly filled with short, stout babushkas wearing black dresses and looking sad and serious. They would lie prostrate on the floor during parts of the service. And at one point in one of these special services mom and I stood in a long line of grandmas waiting for a chance to go by what was probably a paper-mache cave, very large and realistic, with a plastic covered two-dimensional image of a bleeding Jesus lying inside. As we walked past we leaned in and touched the image or even more often, kissed his wounds. More prostrating always followed this.
Like any good Catholic teenaged girl, I turned away from the church. The whole thing just seemed silly to me for a while except for the brief time when I dated my boyfriend Jimmy, a Roman Catholic who I would sometimes go to church with on Sunday mornings.
By college though, I was completely gone from the church. Too busy wearing bell bottoms and flannel shirts, working through the night on art projects for my college classes, going to church seemed a ridiculous idea. What was the point? I certainly didn’t believe in God though even then I was searching for something. I wrote a paper on Taoism and it seemed like a very good idea for staying connected with my spiritual nature. But I was just too busy even for that.
It wasn’t until after my first child was born that I began once again to feel a need for some sort of religion. David, my husband, raised Methodist, was not at all interested so I went to church by myself and though I had no idea at the time, chose a very liberal church, the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, which was walking distance from our home. I chose it because Carol Longsworth never stopped inviting us over the years.
It wasn’t until an interim minister who was there for a year or so between ministers asked in worship one Sunday if any of us had ever thought about going into ministry. She was the first woman I’d ever seen in the pulpit and that made an impression. I sheepishly raised my hand along with only one other person in the meetinghouse.
About five years later, a caterer and restaurant owner by that time, I was delivering a wedding cake I had made to a very tiny church in the country. I set the cake down on the table as I’d been directed to do. I carefully placed the fresh flowers I’d brought for decorating the cake between the layers and around the bottom layer. I loved the way those cakes looked after they were all finished and ready for the reception.
I don’t remember if I asked if I could see the sanctuary or if I just gravitated in that direction but as I stepped through the door I was awe-struck. It was a tiny sanctuary; much smaller than the church I was attending in Oberlin. I’m guessing now it had a capacity of fifty at most and that would be fifty tightly squeezed in barely room to move people. I stood in that spot in complete silence taking in the darkness. The sunlight created elongated colorful shapes through stained glass windows onto the floor near them. The altar gleamed with modest painted gold detail. And I stood in that spot feeling a sort of chill; a sort of knowing washed over me. Time actually slowed down and I remained in that moment for what was probably too long a time to the church-ladies waiting for me so they could get on with their work in the kitchen. As I prepared to leave, as I turned back to the door, I said to myself, “This is exactly the sort of church I want to pastor.” And at that very moment I knew what I needed to do.
One of the biggest surprises to me since being ordained ten years ago is that there are people who are willing to call me their minister even though they would never, ever step into a church. These are usually nice people who have either left the church for some reason, or have never experienced church or have never lived life as part of a worshipping community. I believe we all minister at times to people who call on us out of the blue and begin to tell us about the difficulties they are experiencing in life right now. Some will ask for help. Others just need a listening ear. And when possible I am willing to provide both without expecting any sort of return. Basically, that is the definition of Christian love. I suppose this is a big part of the reason people reach out to ministers. Plus it’s a safe bet that whatever is said to a minister will not be repeated, because to do so would be to betray confidences.
Ministers have connections too. Of course, we have that one most important connection. And that’s the one we rely on most often. A simple request for prayer is easy to accommodate. At times though, the need can be more difficult. Money might be an issue. The inability to purchase end of the month groceries for a young family after a job loss; the lack of health insurance and the need to visit a doctor; the need for a small sum with which to purchase an important medication and other requests like these are sadly common. Money is not something the churches I serve or know can easily provide. But, on occasion we have taken up a special collection for someone with a special need. Ministers are also generally familiar with assistance that is available through area nonprofits, though these resources run out more quickly lately.
And then there is the support needed when someone faces the loss of a loved one. A store-owner in the town where I live who had no church, had no support and called because a friend told him he would find talking with me helpful. The bond created by these meetings are quick and deep.
The question of protecting boundaries is important in dealing with these surprises. If I’m supposed to be having time away yet someone approaches with a need, I have to be able and willing to point that person in a direction where help will be available. While I might have it on my heart to “be the change”, it’s important to recognize when doing so will be a detriment to me and to those I serve.
In ministry there are surprises. But, honestly, from my own point of view the people who come to me with open faces and arms and hearts needing to share and trusting that they will not be turned away are as much a gift to me as I hope I might be to them.
There are some ministerial tasks that are surprising. Today I experienced one that is sadly all too common for ministers, but it isn’t something our teachers in seminary can easily teach us about.
I spent my morning at the home of a woman who lives near one of the churches I serve. Someone must have reported her to Adult Family Services. We’re not sure exactly how it is that Family Services became aware of her situation, but it’s a good thing they did. She’d received a warning in the mail. ‘Clean up the place or get out.’ And she didn’t know who to turn to so she came to us.
Now granted, her place is messy. And it would be less messy without the bird, but probably only a little less messy. Let’s just say the apartment is very full. And Family Services said they would and could send a cleaning crew on occasion if they could just get to the floor and surfaces (which we knew were there somewhere. We just had to find them.)
I know all this because I received a call from Mrs. Hartford, a Social Worker and a very nice lady. She said, “I’m calling about Helen”. (This is not her real name).
She didn’t have to tell me really, or even explain because I knew immediately why I was being called.
Helen is a ‘saver’. Yes. That is putting it mildly. I suspect that whenever anyone moves out of an apartment or house in the area, she is right there collecting what ever she can. Fortunately, four Saints from one of the churches I serve felt the same call I did to go over to Helen’s place to see if we could help out.
So we arrived in the morning with buckets, detergents, rags, vacuum cleaner, trash bags. We talked with Helen briefly, hoping she’d understand that we were just there to help. And then we prayed with her. I said to her, “You call the shots, Helen. We’re here for you. You’re the boss.” We asked lots of questions about each stack of linens, box of papers or object we handled, and we filled lots of garbage bags- not with garbage but with some of Helen’s precious stuff. It felt a little bit like we were removing a part of her. Her pain was tangible.
I believe we filled about twelve bags, mostly with clothing and linens, explaining that we’d take them with us, launder them and return them. As one of the saints moved toward the kitchen to gather up items we knew Helen could no longer use since she doesn’t ever cook or bake anymore, she became alarmed; understandably. It occurred to me that some of the stuff we were trying to remove was pretty nice but most of it was no longer useful to Helen. Or how many comforters does one person really need?
Helen is someone who loves to help other people. So I suggested we could take all the extra stuff and we could have a rummage sale at church. She’d be providing valuable goods for us to sell and then we could use that money to help the church help someone else! She liked this idea. She liked it a lot. And suddenly it was ok to throw items into the bag to go for the rummage sale. And it was ok to fill bags with linens and clothing to be laundered to either return to her next week or sell at the sale. And it was even ok to throw some things away. Helen has a very big heart. She always has. And it seemed like her mood changed. She felt as though SHE was doing something to be helpful to others.
We hadn’t planned on having a rummage sale at the church, but since we suggested to Helen that we would, well…. why not? Perhaps we can even put the money we earn into an account to use for her, to purchase a bed for her. She doesn’t have one. She’d probably like sleeping on a bed again.
What about the saints who accompanied me today; who reached out to help someone who needed to be cared for? They too are ‘accidental ministers’. It happens to the best of us. And the day was not at all what we expected. We worked really hard, barely making a dent in the job, but it was such a good and loving task for all of us. Most importantly, Helen was able to experience our presence and our concern for her.
We’re going back next Tuesday to give it another go.