Next Saturday I will be Ordained to Word and Sacrament by the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is an event for which I’ve hoped, worked, prayed and prepared for years. As I’ve shared my news with family and friends, a few have asked why a pastor needs to be ordained and why I am choosing to do so. These are good questions and I want to write my answers here so that you may understand why this is so important to me.
While many pastors talk about ordination as the natural result of spiritual gifting and call, I think that identity – one’s personal story and its intersection with God’s story – is fundamental to the journey toward ordination. So here are some snapshots of my story.
I was raised by two parents who had such genuine love of God that it naturally flowed into our family life. God’s love was clearly explained to me. I was taught about the love and sacrifice of Jesus each week – and I cherished those lessons – but there was a sense in which I didn’t need to be taught. I already knew. As my friend Meg likes to say, I knew in my knower. I knew that God was real, that God loved me and that my life was, and would always be, full of meaning and purpose. At a very young age I felt what I can only call the joy of the Lord. I wouldn’t have said that exactly at age five, but I knew it deep within. I always felt like my joy would someday burst through my chest like rays of sunshine break through clouds.
Things were not always so light for me. From sixth through eighth grade, I was abused by a group of boys at school. I don’t share the details of those experiences with many because some have minimized what happened to me and that is almost as painful as the abuse itself. I’ll simply say that what I experienced those three years had a profound impact on my soul. I constantly received mixed messages about my worth. Filtering for the truth and battling the lies left me emotionally exhausted. Loneliness became a physical force leeching much of the joy out of me. I withdrew socially, read a ton of books and hid my pain from everyone, even my family. But late at night in the quiet of my bedroom I would pour out my fear, my pain and my desperation to God.
God was there with me. He met me in the pages of the Psalms where ancient people cried out against things that should not be. God sat with me in the dirt at the foot of the cross. God heard me and saw me when I felt like no one else did. God was with me every day doling out love and compassion and strength and by this grace, I got through and gradually healed.
A few years ago I worked with a counselor who asked if I had an image that would represent my life for those years. Quickly, I pictured myself surrounded by huge piles of manure taller than any man and so stinky it would make you retch. But here’s the thing I’ve learned about manure – it’s the best fertilizer around. During my years of pain and loneliness, a tremendous root system of compassion was developing in me and God would use that for good.
Flash forward to my junior year of college when I served as a resident assistant, or RA, in my dorm. Being a RA is like being a peer mentor. You plan events and build relationships and try to set a good example for others. There were 24 women on my floor. They were fun, creative, talented women but within two months I discovered profound suffering among them. They smiled through their days and pushed themselves toward academic excellence but behind closed doors they were falling apart. One woman attempted suicide and was hospitalized several times, only to check herself out and return to campus and class as though nothing was wrong. Another woman collapsed in the shower and was too exhausted to get up. Three others had to carry her to her bed but she refused to seek help. I found out that she was starving herself but running many miles every morning. Clinical depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive relationships, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity – these women were suffocating from brokenness. Standing in the middle of this cloud of emotional debris, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, God said to me –
Corrie, this is what I have for you. Care for them.
God’s call on my life was like a lightning bolt at midnight. It was suddenly clear; I knew it in my knower. And I panicked. At that point I was still mostly in denial of my past pain, so I thought I was inadequate to the task. Who was I to step in? What did I know about suffering? But God’s call was clear and I knew it would be scariest but best to obey, so I jumped in the muck with both feet. I sat with woman after woman and listened to her story. I offered the simplest of things – a silent, (outwardly) calm presence and words of support. There was no judgment, no trite sayings stretched from scripture, no platitudes, no easy answers. I was very clear about not having many, if any, answers, but I did have a ton of love to offer. That year I tapped into that deep root system of compassion God had grown in me. I also understood that this call to care for the suffering was not temporary; it was God’s call for my entire life, as well as my call to professional ministry.
So I went on to pursue a Master of Divinity, gained mentored ministry experience and have expanded my skills and knowledge on a wide range of pastoral care topics. Over the past 14 years I’ve seen God do some pretty incredible stuff. God brought me to several people at just the right time so I could intervene and prevent suicide. God brings to me despairing people, desperate people, and those who are in so much pain they can’t even think straight. I don’t heal them – I can’t – but for many I am the first person who takes the time to listen well, to see them, to hear their pain, and to help them find a way back from the darkest places. It doesn’t seem to matter what my title or job description is; this is always the substance of my ministry.
So how does this story lead to ordination? Certainly I don’t need to be ordained or even have the title pastor to live out this calling. But here’s what clinches it for me. Here’s why I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the past four years and why I’m flying thousands of miles from Hawaii to Chicago next week to speak the ordination vows – the church is a pain machine.
Churches cause pain in their communities and across the globe through action and inaction. Pastors disappoint their parishioners and parishioners lash out at their pastors. Zealousness for truth or “right” theology has made us rigid and callous and we ostracize the people who so desperately need the good news that Jesus called us to proclaim. Sure, we Christians do a lot of important work in the world – we plant urban gardens, rescue women and children from sexual slavery, develop clean water projects, run soup kitchens and thrift stores – but even as we dig into these good works we aren’t loving or caring for each other well.
The church is busy denying abuse and protecting abusers. Christians are in pain but we aren’t mature or courageous enough to lovingly confront the person or persons who hurt us. We’re fighting theology and worship wars and our main opponents are people within the church, our spiritual sisters and brothers! We’re letting bitterness cement walls between us. And even as we are embroiled in all of this terrible infighting, we scratch our heads and wonder why the church is shrinking in North America, why most denominations are splitting or dying, and why we’re accused of being hypocrites by those outside our walls. When I look around, I see a church that has sacrificed the greatest commandment for the great commission.
The church has a wellness problem. Our attempts at loving neighbor and self are diseased and dysfunctional at best. This is where I hope to intervene as both a person and a pastor. Because of my experiences of pain, because I experienced God’s love and healing through the church and because, though imperfect, the church still expands my love for God, I won’t give up on the church. Instead, I’m choosing to take vows to lead and serve it well.
The church needs all kinds of pastors. I want to be the kind of pastor who tries to right the balance between our expression of the greatest commandment and the great commission. I absolutely want churches and Christians to be biblically literate and intentionally missional in their communities, but first I really, really want them to know God’s love intimately – a love that shatters abuse, overcomes shame, and brings joy to the frayed human spirit. I want churches and Christians to feed and hydrate themselves with this love until it heals and matures us to the point that we can wisely and widely extend love and shalom to our neighbors. I want the church to be known as a healing machine rather than a pain machine. I want the church to be praised as a place for grace seekers and grace givers, a safe place for the suffering to gather and find rest and renewal. I want the church to be a place that values emotional maturity as much as (but preferably more than) it does attendance numbers, small groups programming and pleasing music.
This is what I’m about as a person and it is what I hope for the church as a pastor. Next Saturday, along with 66 other women and men, I will take a series of vows and commit my life to the service and leadership of the church. I don’t know how most pastors feel as they approach their ordination day. I am humbled by the honor and responsibility it is to be called and gifted to lead the church. I feel both inadequate and empowered. After all, I’m just me, a woman with a story. A woman who loves God and cares for the church and thinks the world desperately needs the hope we can give. A woman who knows that I can only be a pastor through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I’m also a woman who knows that the support of family, friends, churches and even a denomination will be vital to my health and longevity as a pastor. So I ask you to pray for me this week just as you would for a loved one approaching her wedding day. In the days and years to come I will need your affirmation and accountability like I need food and water.
My sincere thanks to each of you who have shepherded me to this day – to El Roi, the God who sees, to my parents and extended family, my mentors, professors, pastors, counselors, confidantes, elders, and especially my soul-sisters – you know who you are.