Teaching Elder, Ordained April 2012.
Katie has been serving the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, NC, for ten years in an unordained position, remaining a candidate under care. New Hope Presbytery voted to approve her ordination in February.
Over the past several years, I have participated in an ecumenical group of clergywomen and educators from churches in the Triangle (NC) area. Part of our time together involved working with writing coach Carol Henderson. Through random prompts and the intentional work of compiling and publishing our stories of God’s call upon our lives (Wide Open Spaces: Women Exploring Call Through Stories and Reflections), Carol provided us with the space, the resources, and the courage to delve into the depths of our spiritual journeys.
One of the poems that Carol brought to our attention is “I used to be, but now I am” by Thomas Berrigan. The poem itself is good, and listening to the reflections of others after encountering it is even better. As I was preparing for the oral exams and now as I prepare for my ordination, I have found myself reflecting quite a bit on what was, what is, and what will (or, might) be.
When I went for Final Assessment in August (2011), one of the CPM members asked me what I gained from this extended preparation stage. I answered that when I came out of seminary, I would have told you that I was indeed prepared to enter the ministry. Now, after a decade serving post-seminary, I can with confidence say that I know much less now than I thought I knew then. I learn every day – mostly through my mistakes; I grow every day – in my relationship with God and with those whom God has placed in my life; and, I am reminded “control” is no longer a viable word in my vocabulary – obedience, trust, hope have replaced it.
I used to be one who believed we could change people’s minds, but now I am able (in my best moments) to allow others to be who they are, where they are, and trust that is enough. Sometimes, I’m even able to allow myself that same space.
At first, it seemed like there must have been a way to get people on the same page, to be of one mind about the ordination of LGBT people – if we could just work hard enough or find the perfect words to say. We stood at different microphones at Presbytery meetings – some with poise, some with tears, some with deep-seeded anger, and we said the same things year after year after year. The vote count did switch. Some people changed their minds, for sure. Yet, I wonder if Amendment 10-A passed because we came to know each other – our joys, our struggles, our hopes, our fears. We served alongside, listened to, and prayed with one another. We saw the heart of God within each other and could no longer deny the unity with which we have been bound together within the Body of Christ – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the immense diversity of background and perspective and thought within our denomination. Our challenge now will be to continue learning to live into the unity we have been gifted with in Christ.
I used to be focused on the goal of ordination, but now I am keenly aware that the most amazing part of becoming approved as an inquirer or candidate or teaching elder was NOT reaching that milestone. Rather, learning to trust God and God’s promise; relying upon a community of support; and, experiencing grace-filled moments with people – especially those with whom I disagree – have been the most meaningful experiences of this journey.
After New Hope Presbytery approved my ordination, the almost 100 people from the Church of Reconciliation (the Rec) who attended the meeting gathered in the narthex of First Presbyterian (Durham), where we were meeting. There were lots of hugs and smiles and tears. And, in the midst of that, a retired pastor from South Africa, who attends the Rec and has faced his own struggles and challenges, whispered to me, “welcome to the club.” It was the most troubling statement made to me that day and in the days since.
Surely, I heard it in the lighthearted manner in which he meant it, and I also heard it as a challenge to my ministry, to the Presbytery, to the denomination. As communities of faith and as leaders (ruling elders, teaching elders, deacons) in the church, we are called to go outside of our traditionally insular communities – trusting God’s promise to journey alongside of us, relying upon people we know (and don’t know) for love and support, and acknowledging and experiencing grace-filled moments with all of God’s people, including and especially with those with whom we only share a common faith in Jesus Christ.
I used to be disheartened by the polarization and divisiveness in the church, but now I am brimming with hope for the future. February 18, 2012, was a remarkable day – right up there with our covenant union ceremony and the birth of our daughter.
One of my pastor friends described the Presbytery meeting that day as some kind of crazy Holy Spirit moment, and I’m not sure there is any more theological way to talk about it. There was a balcony full of Rec folks and standing room only on the floor – with people young and old – in slings around their mom’s shoulders and in wheelchairs guided by beloved friends; there were men and women, people of many races and birthplaces; there were Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and even those who are so frustrated with any side that they can’t find a place where they belong; there were rich and poor – in Spirit and in resources; there were believers and doubters, evangelists and quiet servants… and, yet, there was ONE Body… One Body of Christ, united by the only thing that can ever bind us together – the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
That vision of God’s beloved community… the notes of support and compassion in advance by those who most assuredly voted no… and, the grace of that family gathering cast out the fear and cynicism and hopelessness from my heart and filled it with a love that could not be contained. And, I know I was not the only one who experienced this blessing.
New Hope Presbytery was church that day. We were a provisional example of the Kingdom of God – not because we hid who we are, not because we kept silent to avoid conflict, not because we were resigned to the state of the Church and had given up. We witnessed to the Kingdom of God because we came together, with prayer and love and integrity. We welcomed each other as God’s beloved children – witnessing to the Beloved One who came to set us all free.
My hope and prayer is that we will glimpse more and more of these moments as we continue to listen to God’s call upon our lives.