Last night, on a random Tuesday night at the end of summer, I attended an ordination.
Actually I didn’t just attend, I participated in an ordination.
Ordination, the act of consecrating someone as a member of the religious clergy, is sort of an antiquated ritual that is probably most familiar to Americans when it comes to the Catholic Church.
Yes, that Catholic Church, the one in which sexual abuse of minors by ordained Catholic priests continues to run rampant, continues to haunt the faithful in news reports such as the one that came out last week, identifying more than 1,000 child victims of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in six of the eight Catholic dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania.
Studies of sexual abuse by ordained clergy have merited an Academy Award, countless headlines, and even official apologies from Pope Francis. Our local Catholic diocese, Minneapolis-St. Paul, declared bankruptcy in 2015 after paying large settlements to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy.
And it’s not just the Catholics. World-famous megachurch pastor and author Bill Hybels retired early from his megachurch temple, Willow Creek in Chicago, after allegations of sexual misconduct arose early in 2018. Later, resignations followed by his newly named succeeding lead pastors, and Willow’s entire board of elders.
Church after church, including the place where I served my first call as a Lutheran pastor, have been torn apart by clergy misconduct: be it sexual, financial, or simply born of overwork and burn out.
The church, we seem to read in the news at least once a week, is dying.
Still, on a random Tuesday night at the end of summer, I put on my long white robe and burning red stole, tied it with a rope, and walked into a congregation for an ordination.
Why in the world would anyone get ordained today?
I myself felt anachronistic, wearing my costume and processing in silently behind a large wooden cross to organ music. I had wondered, lately, what it all meant — if it all meant anything at all.
Last weekend marked five years of ordination for me. Five years of declaring fealty to the Bible and, to a lesser degree, the Lutheran confessions. Five years, almost, of being yoked to a congregation and a denomination.
In the Catholic Church, at least, ordination and marriage are the two sacraments that cannot coexist. Priests and religious sisters in a sense marry the church and promise to be celibate. In my own Lutheran tradition, and in other American church bodies, ordination can coexist with marriage, creating a situation where many of us have taken a number of vows that sometimes contradict one another. As a married ordained minister, with children, you’re constantly weighing the weight of your vows. Which one should I neglect today?
So I wondered.
I wasn’t one for religious pageantry. I preferred no alb, no clerical collar. I felt sometimes about ordination the way I felt about church youth group. I wasn’t good enough, pure enough. I felt more comfortable on the outside. This in-group of pastors, with their rituals and tradition and confidence and comfort in a sacred role could create the worst kind of impostor syndrome.
Lately, as I navigated full-time motherhood, full-time marriage, full-time writing, and part-time pastoral ministry — I wondered if it wasn’t time to just put an end to the anachronistic ritual. I’d traveled the country interviewing Christians and pastors, and while there was so much to hope for, there was also so much fatigue, so much compromise, so much time spent on all the wrong things, and these ministers of the gospel were weighed down by the world in many cases more than they were lifted up by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus concludes a section of his lengthiest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, in this way:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
It seemed too tall a task. But there I was, dressed for the occasion, sitting in the pew, and the ordination began.
The ordinand was Heather. I met Heather in June 2017, just a few weeks after moving back to Minnesota from California. It was probably my first time setting foot in a church after saying tearful goodbyes to my former congregation. I stepped gingerly, but Heather greeted me warmly.
“Hi! We’re so glad you’re here!”
I was taking my son, Jacob, to Vacation Bible School at the church nearest our home. I’d never met Heather before, but she was just so welcoming; it seemed like I already knew her. Jacob was whisked away into worship with guitars and those familiar old camp songs, and he was just absolutely belting it out. He felt at home right away.
I was remembering the Vacation Bible School I’d helped plan with our children’s ministry director back in California. We did Talent Camps, and more than 400 kids signed up. I was so proud.
Watching my son feel so at home here, hearing those familiar songs, feeling the dearth of my own pastoral ministry in that moment – I felt my face getting hot, tears starting to well up. Heather hugged me anyway. Later, we’d tell each other our stories of ministry, her as a former missionary and children’s ministry guru, now serving out a three-year pastoral internship in a long-awaited seminary graduation and ordination.
Now, she was standing in front of the church. Ordinations can be a somber thing, full of mysterious ritual and unfamiliar phrases, but Heather wasn’t going to have that tonight. Instead, I watched as several children came forward: reading the Bible lessons, saying the prayers, even leading the congregation in a Bible-focused “Hokey Pokey.”
These kids looked up at Heather like she was their own personal superhero. She made it so fun, so easy, so comfortable to say and feel with their hearts that God loved them. She gave them permission to lead as they were able, and she trusted them enough to hand over her ministry to them, even at this most important moment.
Later the Bishop would come and preside, and we’d lay hands on Heather, as they once did for the apostles of the Bible. She’d receive her own red stole, and we’d take photos afterward, members together of an imperfect, anachronistic, outdated, morally flawed religious sisterhood and brotherhood.
For me, what I clung to was the kids.
You know maybe like me you wonder why in the world anyone would get ordained today? Why anyone would want to dedicate their life to a corrupt and morally compromised institution like the American church? Why would you purposefully commit your life to something that was so obviously dead and dying?
I’m still figuring out my answer to that question. But what I saw in Heather and at her ordination service last night, was that the answer lay in Jesus and his own death and resurrection. As surely as the old American church is dying: as the megachurches crumble and the decadent, shrouded, secretive priesthood is exposed — as surely as death surrounds the American church — so too does new life.
I looked around and noticed that most of us there in our funny white robes were women. Young women, older women, mothers and grandmothers, wives and widows and single women. Women, who until recently had never been allowed to wear these robes and say these vows.
I noticed in their eyes not resignation but hopefulness.
Just as Jesus promised that there would be new life even out of ignominious, ugly, painful death — so too does Jesus promise that New Life is afoot in the church. It is for this new life, for the new life promised by the children who led us in song and in prayer, that Heather was ordained.
And because of her reminder, I will wear my own ordination proudly as well: an homage not to the past but to the promise of God’s future.
This article originally appeared on Angela’s blog.