A REFLECTION ON MINISTRY

I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
[Ephesians 4:1-3]

The Lutheran Church of the Covenant
Maple Heights, Ohio

I recently visited the congregation I served before my election to the Office of Bishop. Their pastor is away for a few weeks, and I was asked to preach and preside for a couple Sundays.

In retirement, I have been making every effort to keep a low profile. Thus, I am being extremely selective when invited to provide pulpit supply. I would not have done it except that these folks are so dear to my wife and me that I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I reflect on my time in active ministry, something I do quite frequently these days, I do so with a sense of profound gratitude. The Holy Spirit has surprised me at just about every turn in my personal and vocational life.

Because I entered ministry late in life, my vocational history consists of only three calls, beginning as developer of a Latinx mission, then to the congregation where I preached last Sunday, and finally, to the Office of Bishop.

All three calls had their charm as well as challenges.

My initial congregation was quite the adventure. If you read anything about the history of the early church in the apostle Paul’s letters, you are aware of the many complications he had to confront. My experience was strikingly similar.

While still in seminary in Columbus in the year 2000, I began traveling to Canton on weekends to lead a worship service in Spanish for a group of mostly Mexican immigrants. That group eventually became the mission congregation of which I became pastor after my ordination in 2003.

Group photo from final Sunday at Iglesia Luterana La Trinidad
August 2009

At the time, most of these faithful had been in the United States less than ten years. They worked mainly in low-paying, service-type jobs. Much of what they earned, they sent home to support their families in their countries of origin. They spoke little if any English, thus limiting their economic and employment opportunities and other benefits that many of us take for granted.

None of my seminary training or any previous experience prepared me for the challenges that I encountered in trying to gather a group of people in what for them was a foreign country, and develop them into a community of faith. For many of them, I was not only their pastor, but their interpreter, chauffeur, and advocate in numerous other ways.

It was truly a ministry of accompaniment. Yet there were often times I felt unsupported and alone in this evangelistic mission.

My second call was quite a contrast. When I was seeking a call, it was not on my radar. Yet I was led there to serve the faithful of that congregation, and those five years among them were arguably the most fulfilling of my brief time in ordained ministry.

My wife and I developed some deep and abiding relationships there. We felt so at home. And as I mentioned to the congregation last Sunday, not a week goes by that we don’t recall some memory, whether a person or an incident, that brings a smile to our faces and a warm feeling in our hearts. Last Sunday was a time of rekindling connections and renewing heartwarming friendships. We felt blessed beyond measure.

I obviously did not seek the call to the office of bishop. I often quote Bishop William Willimon of the United Methodist Church, who said to a group of ELCA Bishops a few years ago, “Becoming a Bishop was God’s idea before it was ours.”

That’s the wonder of it all – that God sees in us, what we cannot see in ourselves.

It is still too soon to publicly assess the joys and challenges of my time in that office. There were times that I truly struggled, that I had misgivings about my competence. Yet it seems that in those moments of self-doubt, God always produced someone to encourage me, to let me know that God had called me and that my labor in the Lord was not in vain.

As I told the people of Northeastern Ohio at my final Synod Assembly, I brought all that I had done and all that I had left undone to the foot of the cross, asking Jesus to bless what needed to be blessed, and to forgive what needed to be forgiven.

These reflective moments remind me that every aspect of our life is service – a ministry – regardless of whether we are ordained or not.

That is our calling as Christians. And the good news is that in spite of our shortfalls, Christ can use us all to accomplish God’s mission and purpose and to grow God’s Kingdom here on earth.

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