Ordained Leadership (Deacon Ordination)

by | Nov 18, 2017

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’
Jeremiah 1:4-9

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:-6

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Luke 12:35-38

Let me begin with a word of admiration and gratitude: Marilyn and Diana, those of us who have shared even a portion of the journey that has brought you to this place are rightfully in awe, not only of what you have undertaken, but the way in which you have opened and challenged yourselves, intentionally placed yourselves in environments sure to stretch and, by the grace of God, transform you. And you have done so with grace and grit.

I  know your hearts are full to the brim with gratitude for all who have supported and loved you along the way, many of whom are here to celebrate this particular marker, the day God places upon you a mantle of spiritual leadership. We are here to witness and celebrate with you, and pray this may be for you an occasion of unambiguous joy.

The Danish writer Isak Dinesen once suggested that there are three occasions for such joy in human life: when there is an excess of energy; during the cessation of pain; and when we possess the absolute certainty that we are doing the will of God. The first of these, she said, belongs mostly to youth, and the second is, by definition, brief. The third, however, is open to anyone at all times.(Quoted in Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations  by Robert A. Johnson.)

Now, rarely can I say with absolute certainty that I am doing the will of God. But I do know what it feels like when God seems to honor and bless the best of my intentions with an experience of affirmation and love. I think that’s what Jesus experienced when he rose from the waters of baptism, and several years later, when he stood on a mountain coming to terms with his destiny in Jerusalem. Both times he heard a voice, saying, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Diana and Marilyn, we have no doubt that you are God’s beloved, and that with you God is well pleased. I daresay God is grateful and so are we.

On this, the first of your ordinations, I’d like to speak briefly about the difference between ordained ministry and ordained leadership. The two share a common foundation, but they are not the same vocation. One isn’t better than the other, but there are times, places, and entire seasons when there is greater need for one or the other.

I’m not entirely sure if the distinction holds up entirely–in other words, I may not have this exactly right. As a preacher on occasions like this, I often feel as if I should give the disclaimer included in the welcoming address given to those entering medical school: “50% of what we will teach you here will one day be proven wrong. The problem is we don’t know what 50%.” So take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Here is the common foundation for ordained ministry and leadership: a life-changing encounter with God, our version of what Jeremiah experienced when God said to him, “I am with you wherever you go.” For Christians, the divine encounter is through the living presence of Christ, one that compels us to dedicate our lives to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the gospels, follow him in the ways of love, and take our place in the community of Jesus followers across time and space.

That is the spiritual touchstone for all in ordained leadership, but it is not just for us. As Isak Dinesen said, the experience of knowing God and feeling the power of divine affirmation is open to everyone. Jesus, of all people, stood for that–he was determined to break down the barriers that professional religious people who look like me, and in short order like you, are tempted to put up that intentionally or unintentionally communicate a kind of spiritual caste system.

But that experience is the foundation for ordained life: knowing ourselves as being known and loved by God, and wanting to love God back which always involves loving other people as Jesus loved and loves us still.

Another dimension of that common foundation is a sense of call, the experience of  feeling a claim placed on our lives, a beckoning, a path opening. Again, this experience is not unique to ordained life, as you know from other times in your life when you felt called to something, and as you observe others whom God is clearly calling in particular ways. But it is an essential part of this life, which is important to remember when things get tough. If you’re called to a particular path, you don’t stop when it’s no longer fun or when the lights go dim and you can’t see where it’s taking you.

What distinguishes ordained ministry from ordained leadership may be as simple as this: in ordained ministry, our primary focus is on individuals and the ways we might be of service to them, in concert with the Spirit of God working within them and in us in a moment of encounter. It’s a wonderful experience; perhaps the greatest joy for most of us in ordained life. Most clergy I know–and I include myself here–wish that we could spend most of our time focusing on individuals. Many in our congregations want the same from us. I see it all the time in parish profiles. People want their clergy to love them, care for them, show up in the hospital, be there in the hour of need, inspire and encourage them as individuals from the pulpit.

In ordained leadership, the focus shifts to the collective–who are we as a people, as a church? Where is God leading us, what might God be calling forth from us. It’s a different focus, a different responsibility, and frankly, it’s a lot harder than ordained ministry and the possibilities for failure are greater. Because leadership involves collective movement in a common direction, and all the dynamics of collective human behavior come into play, some of which are not pretty.

You two have been called into ordained life when in the Episcopal Church there is a disproportionate need for leadership, because as an institution, as the Episcopal expression of the Body of Christ in our time, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, there is need for collective spiritual renewal and structural transformation. While there are certain pockets of health in the Episcopal Church, the collective indicators of vitality are worrisome for those of us who love and have found our spiritual home in this church. Our church needs leaders. You are here today because in the screening and discerning process of this diocese we have seen in you the potential for leadership.

So I say to you, as your bishop, colleague and friend: from the beginning of your ordained life until you retire, you must be a student of leadership. Not many of our clergy, frankly, are interested in leadership. They felt the call to ministry and want to spend their time ministering to individual people. They don’t like to be evaluated on the scales of leadership. None of us does. So we’ll say things like, “It’s not about the numbers.” How on earth can it not be about the numbers if numbers represent people, and our church isn’t reaching very many people?

I often think in this context of a literary character: the Presbyterian minister in Norman MacLean’s story, A River Runs Through It. He had two sons and loved them both. One, however, did not want his love in the way the father tried to give it. At his son’s funeral, he said it was the greatest sorrow of his life–to have love to give that is not wanted. How do we, as a church, adapt what we have to offer so that it can be received by those around us?

There are many things I love about the Episcopal Church, far too many count. There are many reasons why I believe this particular expression of the Christian faith is of priceless value in our time. I’ve dedicated my life to the task of its spiritual renewal and structural transformation, so that our church might thrive in the mission fields we find ourselves in.

But one thing I don’t love about our church is our tendency to criticize and distance ourselves from other Christians that we don’t like or understand. We spend a lot of collective energy defining ourselves over and against other Christians, even those who clearly know things we need to learn. Now, I am the first to take offense and speak out against the caricatures of Christianity masquerading in our culture right now, but as a people we could use a little more humility and curiosity about the expressions of Christian community that are, in fact, reaching people and why–not to become something we’re not, but to learn from those who have something important to teach. We still seem determined to continue to offer what the vast majority of people are telling us that they do not want or need. There’s purity in that. But is it wise?

Diana and Marilyn, the three of us are close in age. I came to ordained life as a young adult and have lived my vocation in the church; you have lived your vocation thus far in other institutions from which you have garnered  important experiences of leadership. You are now persuaded, and so are we, that God is calling you to offer your leadership in the church.

The three of us will share, God willing, a season of leadership in this diocese together. On our watch, we are responsible, as all leaders are, not only for the present, but the future, not only for those in our churches now, but those who might experience the love of God and the claim of Christ because of our church’s witness and vibrant expression of the Gospel.

The next decade is critical in the life our church. It’s also critical in the life of our country, and for the future of our species. Even as you strive to follow the one who calls us all, to be a servant among us, do not be afraid to lead. You will need all the ministry skills you have and can develop, so that others will trust enough to follow you.

The foundation beneath you is sure: God loves you unconditionally. Christ is with you always. You have been called to this.

Do not be afraid to lead.