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.
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.
I was first given the opportunity to offer the invocation at graduation the year that my predecessor had taken a different position on campus. I was asked to serve as the Interim Chaplain while the university conducted a search for his replacement. I felt led to apply for the position and by the time graduation came around I was notified that I was one of the finalists.
As I prepared my prayer for graduation I was very much aware that in a sense I was getting a "try out" for the job. Thus I spent nearly a month crafting my two-minute invocation. My goal was to mix eloquence with subtle inspiration. I rehearsed in front of a mirror. I planned when I would gesticulate for added emphasis. I even worked on the tone of my voice.
And when the big day came I glided to the microphone and performed my little prayer. I turned to walk back to my seat on the stage and was pleased to see the University President and the Provost who was in charge of the search smiling and giving me thumbs up. Well done!
I sat down and was suddenly convicted. I had forgotten that I was praying before the God of the universe. I was charged with invoking the Spirit and blessing this ceremony and five thousand graduates and my greatest concern was gaining the approval and affirmation of my boss. I was more concerned with my job and my reputation that I was with engaging my Creator.
I suppose awareness is the first step towards liberation. How can one ever be free if they can't even see their chains?
I had lunch with a friend of mine who is a choir director and worship leader soon after and he explained to me that as a musician in church, he wrestles with remembering the difference between performance and praise. He talked about how some musicians can become enslaved by the music. What he means is that some are so concerned with sounding good and pleasing the congregation that they only perform and never praise.
I shared that I had felt that tension at times in the pulpit and how when I was invited to serve as a guest preacher I wondered whether they would want me back. I can even remember practicing my "run" at the end of my sermons so that I would be accepted as a "good preacher." I was performing. Insecurity not only can hinder us from not doing, but it can sadly motivate us to overdo for the wrong reasons.
I know a minister who once said that the most dangerous moment for a preacher is immediately after the sermon when he or she is shaking hands. It's a chain around the neck of the insecure minister.
My insecurity extended to my writing career. I can remember posting articles online or sharing them on social media sites and checking how many people read them, "liked" them, or shared them with others. I loved the affirmation but I'd be devastated by a disagreeing comment.
This was my chain: A need to be loved and affirmed. And love and affirmation are not bad things, until they become idols. Until they become chains we need and not gifts we receive with gratitude. We have to be able to see our chains before we can pick the locks.
Or lift them up for a Saving Liberator to unlock them for us.
I'm still on my long walk to freedom. Probably not all the way there yet, but I have taken some big steps toward Canaan. I'm on my way. I suppose my journey began when I got into counseling. The chain of my insecurity even made that difficult as I had to get past the stigma that comes along with therapy and counseling. But having someone to talk to and process the ministerial life with has been a tremendous gift to me. I encourage everyone in ministry to be in some kind of a counseling relationship.
The first thing that came out in my sessions with my counselor was that I needed to take a break. My efforts to keep up my "Glittering Image" (to borrow a phrase from Susan Howatch) were slowly burning me out. Chains can kill you.
My uncle tells me the story of how one of our ancestors was taken in chains from Western Africa, not understanding what was happening to him. When he arrived here in the colonies, he became aware that he was enslaved. As the story that has been passed down in my family goes, amidst the dehumanization and brutality that he was forced to endure, he never forgot that in his homeland he was royalty and he had certain marks on his skin to verify this. Once he made this known to those who enslaved him he was released from bondage because of a British law forbidding the enslavement of royalty. He would then go on to use his freedom to help others gain freedom.
In the letter to the Galatians, we read "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." Not just our own, but for the freedom of others.
I still have moments of falling into old patterns. I'm still the wounded man who lost his parents at an early age. I still make selfish need-driven mistakes from time to time. But I'm working on it. Or rather God's working on me. Leading me to the Promised Land and I'm trying to point the way for others as well.
I am not there yet, but I'm ten years closer. Freedom is in a sense a life's work. But the sooner ministers begin this long walk to freedom, the sooner their ministries can be used to liberate and free others.
Rev. Chaz Howard is University Chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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