Thursday, August 20, 2015

An open letter to the ELCA

Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ Jesus our Redeemer and Head!

            This letter has been a long time in coming from me. Not because I am an innately wave-making person, but because I feel I am doing a disservice to my fellow leaders in God’s church by not speaking up on this matter. For a little background, I grew up in a Congregationalist tradition, where church leaders rose up from within the people based on their gifts in leadership. As such, I came late into the ELCA and brought with me a healthy skepticism toward the institution and the office of ordained ministers. When I search the Bible, I find very little about a church body appointing leaders, and read much more about all of us together participating in Christ’s church in our own unique ways (1 Corinthians 12:12). The best explanation I heard in seminary came from Dr. Steven Paulson who, when pressed, said that it is a matter of protection—to assure that the church is served well, and that the sacraments cannot be misused. I struggled with this explanation for a long time, but after considering my own less than stellar church experiences came to accept that although this process of candidacy and ordination is not perfect, it does provide some measure of control over what happens in our church.
            I will back up again and say that I came to ministry rather reluctantly. Although I have now fully embraced my vocation as a minister, I felt for a long time that God should send somebody else. My brother speaks so much better than me, can’t he do it? I don’t like those Ninevites! Send somebody else. Ultimately, God’s call won over my reservations and I found myself in seminary and diving into ministry whole heartedly. Internship was challenging, but I learned to love parish work, from preaching to confirmation and even (I know!) public speaking engagements in the community! But alas, during my time in seminary I found myself, as young people do, enamored with another young person who had just recently joined the University of Minnesota as faculty. It quickly became apparent that we were called to be together, and we became engaged around the same time he was beginning the arduous process to gain tenure. Because of his excellence in his field, this turned out to be quite straight forward for him and in no time he received a nice little plaque declaring that he could never be fired from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. My plans for going where the Spirit willed were upended. As anybody facing a geographical restriction knows, this is not an easy issue to deal with. In academics they call it the “two body problem” and one that universities go to great lengths to work with. In the ELCA, it is called an unwillingness to be open to the call of the church.
            Luckily for me, I happen to have a degree in psychology and an interest in a variety of different ministries, and so I found myself applying to a chaplain residency at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, and soon I was working there sharing the gospel through mostly one on one visits. My first clinical assignment was to a neurological-surgical intensive care unit where I ministered to families in crisis with counseling, comfort, blessing services, baptisms, and more. I worked not only with patients, but also ministering to staff who might not have any connection to a faith community. I witnessed beautiful, sacramental moments where Christ became flesh in and among us. And yet, when a patient asked for communion I had to go talk to one of the other ELCA ministers who had, regardless of their desire for it, put in their “time” as parish ministers before going onto their actual vocations here at Fairview. This didn’t bother me much, because ministry on an ICU does feel quite different from a parish, but all the while I was seeing a paucity of openings within the Twin Cities for a first-call, inexperienced young minister wondering if I would ever be welcomed into the office to which I feel so strongly called.
Before long, I switched assignments to behavioral health, which includes people suffering from chemical dependency and mental illness. These folks are housed together on locked units and stay from a few days to several months. As chaplain on behavioral units, I led weekly spirituality groups on topics such as hope, healing from shame, being the hero of your own story, and finding forgiveness. I “preached” daily to those who did not feel God’s love in their lives. I wrote services to remember baptism, to celebrate joyous moments, and to grieve loved ones who had died. My patients referred to me as “my pastor” and one gentlemen in particularly called me “woman of God.” Patients who I had helped in particularly poignant ways would chat me up and tell others to talk to me. “She’s cool, even if you’re not into that God stuff,” I heard my drug addicted patients say. Because of the length of these patients’ stays, we formed, every few weeks, a new community which would be together for some time. Sometimes small groups would want to listen to hymns or Christian popular songs with me. Sometimes we would gather to pray. Sometimes after my groups (which are interfaith and inclusive to all religions), groups of patients would form prayer groups of their own. And yet we say this is not part of the office of the ordained. I have become increasingly frustrated as I look at my gifts and skills, and the difficulty of finding a parish call which suits them, and see an endless wait.
Ordination is important. It is important not just because of being allowed into the “club” with the ability to preside at the Lord’s Supper, but because of the authority that it represents. We non-ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament (just the one, it seems) serve God’s church in ways different from, but on the whole quite the same as, congregations. The office of ordination gives us authority from a church body that has recognized our education, our insight, our gifts, and our ability to gather the people together. To be barred from this office because of a misfortune of geography or because we possess different skills and passions than those who thrive in the parish is disappointing. It is disappointing both to those of us who are left out, but mostly it is disappointing to those in need because it limits the ways in which the world can be served by those who are called.
I bring this up not only because I personally would stand to benefit if the ELCA would begin to officially recognize this work as part of the work of the church, but because I think it is woefully detrimental to our parishes to give ministers called to chaplaincy or other specialized work no choice but to spend time in a parish when their skills and gifts cannot be fully utilized there. It is unfair both to the pastors who must waste their time doing so, and it is particularly unfair to the churches who would receive such leaders. The church faces an enormously high burnout rate among its leaders, and to pastor a congregation is to be preacher, counselor, building manager, on-call chaplain and more. Who would want a pastor bringing less than their whole heart to this work? What minister would want to lie to a church about his or her devotion simply in order to be ordained? If we consider ourselves a church that truly recognizes the priesthood of all believers, with the office of ordination as the officially sanctioned position that recognizes outstanding, educated, creative, and passionate leaders serving our church (which I define not as congregations but as all those professing Christ risen), why are we limiting how those leaders function by insisting on time spent in one particular context?
I do not have my stole, but I am a pastor to those that I serve. I never refer to myself this way, but my patients begin to recognize my “invisible stole” the moment I sit down with them to hear their story. I work with people who may have never been seen for more than their illness, addiction, or failures, and I am privileged get to love them with my whole heart, and that loving is significant to them because I bring the authority of an office with me which represents something bigger than me. When I love a patient and show them care and listen to them and pray with them, they experience more than my love, but God’s. If that is not the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I don’t know what is. Just because our table is a therapy room does not mean we are not a community of believers and humans gathered in the name of Christ. It’s time that this organization begin to recognize that the church begins in the world—in classrooms, in firehouses, in hospitals, in parks, in libraries, prisons, malls and shelters! The church begins in the world and gathers in the parish, and those of us who minister to those who have not yet made it into congregations (or are barred by their circumstances at the moment) are also called to this office and should be given the same authority and responsibility as those whose calls are in the gathering places known as churches.
I ask you to consider a resolution to recognize chaplaincy and community-based ministry as part of the office of ordination and remove the three to five year requirement of parish ministry for ordination. Our world is full of so much need, and there are people bursting at the seams to usher in God’s kingdom in innovative, non-traditional ways. We have been seeing for years that the model of the church is changing, declining, becoming obsolete to the younger generations (et cetera), so isn’t it about time we think about making some changes ourselves so that we can best serve God’s amazing, beautiful, broken world? We who don’t fit the traditional model have so much to offer to this church and to these people, so please help us find a way to do that which includes us in the roster of ordained ministers of the ELCA.
Peace and blessings in the name of Christ,