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.
I saw a post that someone sent out asking how we would be spending Easter Monday. I wondered to myself if Easter Monday was really a thing. Should I be relaxing, enjoying my knitting or reading a junky novel? Because my plan was to go into the church office at one of the two churches I’m serving, and put in my usual Monday four hours. Sitting. Working on the bulletin or visit list. Waiting for someone to come in. Waiting for the Office Administrator to stop being busy and start a conversation. Waiting for a phone call. Sitting in an office, from my point of view, is not a very good use of a pastor’s time unless someone comes in looking for pastoral care or even just wanting to talk. But that happens pretty infrequently. Making an appointment to talk happens more often. Going out to people works best.
Instead of sitting in an office, I could be sitting in a cafe working on Sunday’s bulletin but really people watching and engaging customers in conversation. When I do this I manage to bring the conversation around to church pretty easily as I answer the question, “So, what do you do?” And by the end of these conversations, I often make a point of offering an invitation to church or to some church event.
Establishing new relationships is really important to being the church. Too often in churches a pastor has no time to get out, be seen, do walk arounds in the neighborhood, to pray or catch people doing what they like to do. Just ‘seeing’ the neighborhood is important. But it seems the people inside our churches feel the only thing a pastor should be doing is ministering to “the flock”. (Does it occur to anyone else that sheep are aimless and not very smart so I’m not sure we should really admit to ‘caring for our flock’ in our churches. Might be better to refer to “ministering along side our ‘band'” or “equipping our ‘flange'”. Gorillas and chimps just seem to be more on the ball and have a lot more energy than sheep- not that I have anything against sheep. All God’s children have a place in the choir.)
Some of the habits we have developed and now perpetuate in our churches are problematic. Many members of congregations have been raised in churches where the church is about the building, about finances and members’ happiness. “I paid for this church”. Consumerism consumes us. As a Baby Boomer I was raised on this, so I know. And that attitude seeps into the places that should be spiritual sanctuaries; the place where we should be going to sit with God; where we would be better served if we met to discuss the needs of the community. And then went out and did stuff.
Often times the real concern is money. “We need to get more people in so we can pay these bills”. “It would be helpful to reduce the pastor’s salary, so we’ll have more money to have the floor in the social hall professionally stripped and waxed once a year”. If the major concern is money and not actually putting our faith in God, listening to God, and “doing” the ministry God calls us to do we might as well put a for sale sign on the front lawn today.
It’s a trust thing. “In God We Trust”. We’re proud to have put that on our money though it was only added during the Cold War in 1957 and we sure don’t mind telling other people they need to trust in God. But, actually trusting in God ourselves; listening for God to tell us what WE need to do to live a Christian life, is easier said than done.
Jesus didn’t have a church so he surely didn’t sit in an office either. It seems he rented an Upper Room once in awhile when the ‘band’ needed to be together for something important like a last supper.
They made do.