I haven’t been to many ordination services–a handful, I suppose, including my own. I’ve never been to an ordination service in quite the context we find ourselves in the church today–with all the talk of mainline decline, and the battles in the Episcopal Church over budget, restructuring, and the future.
As I sat in the service and over the last two days, as I reflected also on the celebration yesterday, when one of those two new deacons preached and served at Grace, I wondered about the church that these two young ordinands will serve in twenty or thirty years. What will it look like? In what sorts of programs, ministries, and people will the grace and love of Jesus Christ be expressed and made incarnate?
For a moment or two, I felt I had become like a priest I knew a decade or more ago, when I was first beginning the ordination process. He was close to retirement, near burn-out, and pessimistic about the future. I imagined myself saying to these two new deacons exactly the sort of thing he said to me ten years ago.
The other clergy in attendance seemed much more engaged, sharing in the excitement of the event and of the ministries of these two young men. I wondered whether the reason clergy like ordinations is that by participating in the discernment and ordination of new candidates, our own decisions to have gone this way is somehow confirmed. “Look,” we say to ourselves; “people still want to become priests. That’s proof that our call is valid and our ministry meaningful.”
I thought back as well to my own theological education, and the year I spent teaching at an Episcopal seminary. Of the latter, I remembered most the sense that all was right with the world–that the institutional church was safe, built to last, and that ordination promised a long career in ministry immune from the vagaries of corporate buyouts, mergers, and downsizing. Well, the church is downsizing now, and I wonder if the conversation we are having about the restructuring and the future of the church is also taking place in our seminaries. How are they preparing students for the uncertainties they will face when they graduate?
In other words, why would anyone jump to serve on what may be a sinking ship? Why would anyone seek ordination?
But then came yesterday–a lovely pair of services, one of them largely bilingual, the ministry of a gifted deacon who will serve the church effectively, and conversations with people that reminded of our hope in Jesus Christ.
We can’t control the future. We can do very little about the budget debates and structures of the Episcopal Church. We need to remember, though, that we are not called to create structures or programs, or even denominations. We are called to serve God in his church. What that might look like in five or ten years is hard to imagine; for some clergy and laity, what that ministry might look like today or tomorrow might inconceivable. Nonetheless, we are called to serve God in his church. We are called–lay people and clergy–to serve God.
At Grace, we are beginning a conversation that in some sense parallels TEC’s conversations about restructuring. We’re talking about restructuring, too, but we mean it quite literally. How might we adapt our building for ministry and mission in the twenty-first century? It’s a hard question to answer, because we know what the building was designed for and what sorts of programs have used its space over the decades. But what might a Grace Church adapted for the religious and cultural contexts of the next decades look like? Can we think outside the box, when the box consists of stones and mortar and plaster?
In that sense, in the sense that both locally and across the church, we need to engage in creative thinking, experimentation, that to use the language of Bishop Sauls from last week, “everything is on the table,” who could imagine a more exciting time to be in the church, a time when all of our creativity, intelligence, and sense of adventure is needed. What better time than now to be ordained a transitional deacon in one’s mid-twenties? Think of the infinite possibilities that lie ahead, the uncharted territory, the future into which God is calling all of us!
So, I suppose I’m just a little bit envious of those two new deacons, envious of the futures that lie ahead of them, of how they will shape their ministries in a context where “everything’s on the table,” envious of all the new ways and new places in which they will encounter God and help others encounter God. And yes, I’ll be praying for them. I hope you will too.