Monday, 02 June 2014
I Have Become One of “Them”
By Carl Hansen
In 1964, I was ordained as a pastor and accepted my first call to a small inter-racial parish in Camden, New Jersey. A few months after settling in, I attended my first synod assembly - an annual gathering of pastors and congregational delegates to conduct business for the churches in a particular geographic area.
I don’t remember much about that event except for the day a number of pastors were given recognition for their ordination anniversaries.
Beginning with those celebrating 25 years, the pastors were called forward in five year increments and given a certificate.
The last group were pastors who had been ordained 50 years. They were the only group whose certificates were framed (I assumed that was the ecclesiastical equivalent of a gold watch) and the only ones who were invited to pose for a group picture.
As I was a newcomer to the New Jersey Synod, all of these 50-year pastors were strangers to me. And, while it pains me to admit it now, to my 26-year-old-eyes, each one of them seemed to be absolutely ancient.
As the years passed, my attendance at these synod gatherings continued in a variety of places as my calls took me to other parts of the United States. This gave me an annual opportunity to watch the “parade” of pastors being recognized for their ordination anniversaries.
And, over time, a number of things changed as I watched them march by.
For one thing, I gradually knew more of these pastors personally. While the 50-year pastors of that first synod assembly were strangers to me, more and more of the 50-year pastors recognized in later years were friends and colleagues I knew quite well.
I also realized that with the passage of time some of these veteran pastors did not seem to look as ancient as had that first group in New Jersey. I was aging, looking more and more like the ones being recognized, than the young pastors who were now coming up through the ranks.
Most of the 50-year pastors were retired but some were still active in various ministerial calls.
Those who were retired seemed to fall into two groups: some were so happy in retirement they were filled with joy they no longer had to attend these annual meetings on a regular basis. But others, not so happily retired, could still be found at the assemblies usually as non-delegates sitting in the visitor’s section.
Sometimes, when I was also a visitor, attending a synod to which I did not belong but which supported the church college where I worked, they would share their grumbles with me.
Some felt sorry for themselves now that they were relegated to the sidelines and no longer able to participate in the legislative process of the synod. Their laments were predictable: “Nobody wants my advice,” “The church is going to hell in a hand-basket,” “We’re making too many changes too fast,” “This is not the church into which I was ordained.”
In those moments when I listened to their complaints, I made a quiet vow: If I were to live long enough to reach the 50-year milestone of ordination I would not be like “them.” Even though I would have to accept the fact I would likely look “ancient,” I was not going to go on and on sharing bitterness over the state of the church.
Above all, my hope was to avoid suffering from the hardening of the categories, becoming more and more conservative theologically and so enamored with the “good old days” of the church I would be unable to celebrate what it had become and what it was yet to be in the future.
Well, guess what. At the 2014 Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly meeting in early May in Meto-Denver, I became one of “them.”
Having been a parish pastor, a professor of religion and college chaplain, the president of small college, a development director for a Lutheran social service agency, a pastor of adult education, an interim pastor for three different churches and now a part-time visitation pastor, my turn came to be recognized for my 50th year of ordination.
I am sure that in the eyes of the young clergy in the audience the day my group was recognized, I look “old as dirt.” But if truth be told, in my eyes many of them look as if they have not yet graduated from high school, let alone from college and seminary.
I also have to confess I have my share of grumbles about some of the changes I see in the church today. But when I’m tempted to express those grumbles I pray for the good sense to follow the advice of my sainted mother-in-law: “Better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are stupid and out of touch, than to open it and prove you are.”
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]