I recently celebrated ten years of ordained ministry. To commemorate the occasion, I did two things. I first wrote letters to ten people whose lives and witness have blessed my vocational walk over the years (a few seminary professors, the pastor who ordained me, mentors from around the country). Second, I spent some time on retreat reflecting on my ministerial journey.
During this quiet look back, I found myself reconnecting with my first few years of ordained ministry. Sadly, the feeling that I recalled more than any other was not excitement or delight. It was insecurity. Not just a rookie's nervousness and unfamiliarity, but a deep, binding insecurity that dominated much of my early ministerial work.
The chain that binds
Many of us wrestle with vocational and personal insecurity, but in the life of the preacher, scholar, or writer, insecurity can be a chain that holds us back from saying, doing, and being all that God has for us.
Oh, the sermons that I almost preached! On those Sunday mornings when I was asked to mount a pulpit, my greatest concerns were that I'd "do well" and move the congregation to "Amens" and "Hallelujahs," and have my theology and facts straight. Gaining the approval of the senior pastor and the congregation outweighed any desire to see individuals draw closer to Christ or love their neighbors in a deeper way. I can remember crossing out lines that I thought might be a little too controversial or divisive. I can remember not addressing certain things happening in the world because of my fear of people knowing what I really thought about an issue. This wasn't a fear of people not tithing, but rather a fear of people not liking.
When I wasn't guest preaching, I spent my time as a hospital chaplain. If I'm being honest, I was more concerned with gaining the respect of the doctors and the nurses than I was with being a calming, caring presence to them and our patients. Pastoral care demands just as much courage as homiletics. Deep needs to be liked and respected can hinder us from going deep, from being vulnerable, from saying a challenging word and from, well, loving.
Humans are complex. So are our motivations. I was, of course, not simply motivated by the need for approval. I entered the ministry because of what I sensed (and continue to sense) as a call from the God I love. And during those days that I was blessed to be able to preach, teach, counsel, or write, I did so out of a desire to love others, to benevolently challenge our world, and to bring glory to God. And yet early on, these internal motivations seemed to be chained up. My vocation was walking as if in shackles. Moving, but very slowly. Never running. Never leaping.
As an African-American man, the image of being chained is a painful one. I know the names of some of my ancestors who were enslaved in this country. Some escaped slavery and lived the rest of their lives in freedom. How can I not leave my chains behind? How can I not also run to freedom?
I remember well the day that I began to be free. University chaplains are often called upon to deliver invocations at graduation ceremonies. This is a tradition that extends back well before the first colleges and universities of this country were founded.