In many ways, it sure doesn't feel like it. Seems like yesterday I "took a knee" at the front of the sanctuary of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh and felt the hands touch my head and shoulders. Aware of the closeness of the gathering, so many people in such immediate proximity. My eyes were closed, so I really had no idea who all was up there. But that was kind of the point, because the more important thing was that they all knew me.
I remember the ordination vows I took - that long string of "will you's" and "do you's" prescribed by the heralded Presbyterian Book of Order. They seemed to go on forever. In a weird way it reminded of the Kevin Bacon movie She's Having A Baby, where his character is getting married to Elizabeth McGovern's, and in his imagination the minister's standard "will thou have this woman to be your married wife" morphs into "will thou provide her with two weeks in the Bahamas, will thou try to remember the little things that mean so much like flowers on her anniversary, will thou be understanding when she is tired or has a headache, will thou listen patiently to long stories about kids with colds, will thou be not such a pig when you shave and shower......"
Kevin Bacon, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, nevertheless says, "I do." As I said to the church twenty years ago. Which seems like yesterday. Even though the actual twenty years of ministry feels like every bit of it.
And I mean that in a good way. A great way. I am humbled and amazed by the things I've been part of these past two decades simply by virtue of being a minister. And the people who've graciously invited me into their lives - too many to count. Three churches worth. Inviting me into their sacred spaces over and over again: births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, retirements, funerals. And not just the huge events ensconced with ritual and remembrance. There's also the side conversations in the church hallway, the quick text exchange, the chance interaction in the grocery aisle. All of it, sacred and holy.
I've learned what people need most out of their minister - more than a good sermon, more than a great Bible study, more than set office hours or following proper protocol - is simply knowing their minister genuinely loves and cares for them and the rest of the flock. And I've learned the value of being authentic. When I started this journey I was worried I'd be pressured to fit a mold that didn't truly reflect the contour and symmetry of the person I was; that I would have to "play the part" of someone people wanted me to be. What a relief to find out that what people really needed from me is just me as I am. The best ministers I know are the ones who fiercely remain their most authentic selves.
I've experienced grace too many times to count, including people I've disappointed or inadvertently upset who nevertheless offer forgiveness and a second chance. If you're one of those, thanks. I've been inspired over and over again by lay church leaders who so willingly give of themselves, their time and talents and treasure, to further the church along in a turbulent world where the challenge of being church keeps growing even as the need for church keeps growing too. And they do this in addition to the many other callings in their life. At least with me it's my full-time job. They do it on top of theirs. I find that totally inspiring.
It's not always fun and games, of course. Ministry is not for wimps. You don't clock out of this gig at 5pm. There's always a sermon and worship liturgy waiting to be written; what a colleague of mind brilliantly refers to as "the relentless return of Sunday." And I've had to deal with a few difficult people along the way, God bless 'em. Ministry teaches you by its sheer force not to take yourself too seriously or too lightly; not to accept too much credit when things are going great, nor bear too much blame when things get rough. It keeps you in check - and I'm grateful for that.
And how fitting it is that I'm observing my ordination anniversary in a place so formative to my faith. As many times as I've been to Montreat, this is my first as a back-home leader with my church's youth group at the Montreat Youth Conference. Years before I knelt on those steps at White Memorial, it was here at this conference where seeds were planted, seeds by the dozens that found fertile soil and room to grow. I've been back to this valley dozens and dozens of times since, and the growing continues.
And the truth of the matter is that I wouldn't trade this gig for anything. Because it's in my DNA. I've grown into it as much as it's grown into me. From time to time I've thought - just thought, I assure you - about what it would be like to have a "normal job," if there is such a thing. And I keep coming up blank. I honestly cannot picture doing anything else - which I guess in part is what it means to "be called" to ministry.
On that day twenty years ago when I was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, on the day I said "I do" and "I will" to all those vows, there was one in particular I remembered specifically in the moment, and love to this day: Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
You bet. Count me in.
Now, time to go write a sermon.