What I know for certain is that it has been 30 years since I was ordained. You would think that I could remember the date . . . or that I could look at my ordination certificate (if I knew where I put it) . . . or that the ministerial pension plan would mail me some sort of pin or award for having survived 30 years in the ministry. But, I can’t . . . all I know with certainty is that I was ordained towards the end of April in 1983 in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. It was 30 years ago . . . and, as the Grateful Dead sing in their song Truckin’, “Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
I believe that God calls all of us to ministry in one shape or form . . . and, I believe that most of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out exactly what that ministry is supposed to be. At the same time, there are some who are certain that when they hear that call, they know exactly what that ministry is, and they jump into the pool with both feet. I am not sure that I was one of those sorts of people even though my track record might argue otherwise as I have been pretty much in the pastoral ministry business most of those 30 years. The stark contrast to that is the fact that I am not really sure that pastoral ministry was where God wanted me . . . I think that God and the congregations that I have served over the span of those years have been patient, kind, and understanding . . . they have put up with a lot. Because of that, I think I am among that group that is spending a lifetime looking for what ministry is supposed to be for me.
Over the span of 30 years I have served six congregations. Over that span of time six congregations have survived me and, I have survived them. It was sort of a mutual survival pact . . . but, for the most part, I think that I served them faithfully and they worked hard to respond in a like manner. I think that I did okay . . . five of the congregations I served are still in existence . . . one died of old age (actually it was two, but they were a two point charge) and that is the truth. All of us involved in these ministries, these churches, would say that there were good days, bad days, and a whole lot of days that were pretty average and uneventful. Through it all we tried to listen to God, respond faithfully, and do the best that we could with what we understood and knew.
Thirty years . . . if you had asked anyone who knew when I graduated high school, they would have told you—first and foremost—that they never imagined me in the ministry. Second of all, they would have told you that they would have never imagined me doing anything for 30 years—especially the ministry! I have never gone back to a high school reunion since I graduated, primarily because I don’t think I could handle the shock of all of my classmates looking at me like I was some sort of strange figment of their imaginations—John Keener, a minister! Sometimes it is better to avoid the stares and just let them think that I drifted off in the sunset on some wild adventure never to come back.
Admittedly, it has been an adventure . . . or a “long strange trip” as the Grateful Dead would say. Though I have never lived up to the lyrics of the Grateful Dead’s song, I think I understand the longing that the song is about . . . the longing to come home . . . home where I belong. Isn’t that what we all really desire . . . to come home, kick off our shoes, and just be . . . be ourselves, be in the moment, be in the presence of those we love and who love us? Isn’t that what we are all striving for . . . to get home? Isn’t that why we keep Truckin’?
Yeah, it has been a long strange trip . . . it has had its highs and lows (as the Dead sing, “Sometimes the lights all shining’ on me, other times I can barely see.”) . . . it has had its moments when there was the deepest love shared, and it moments when there was great hurt inflicted . . . there have been friends and mentors . . . and, there have been those who made life a living hell. Moments when the divine was revealed, and other moments when none of us had a clue where the divine went. Lots of laughter, lots of tears . . . and, lots of moments when both those I served and I looked at one another and wondered, “Who are these people!” The past 30 years are the stories and experiences that movies are made of . . . comedy, mostly . . . or dramedy as they call it today (a combination of comedy and drama).
Thirty years . . . that is a long time. I have been an ordained minister for more than half of my life . . . longer than most of the cars I have ever owned totaled up. In those 30 years I have been offered one-way tickets to Russia where they need to hear all of the peace and justice crap, as one elder in the church told me. I have been run through the wringer numerous times with broken promises. I have endured slanderous statements about my character . . . my faith . . . my life. I have worked hard to make it financially over the years earning much less than the average member of the congregations I served. While, at the same, I have received grace and love and support when the darkest hour seemed the worse. Yeah, it has been one heck of a roller coaster ride. Pastoral ministry is not for the faint-hearted.
After 30 years, one would think that I have figured it all out . . . know all the answers (or at least where to look for them) . . . know all the shortcuts . . . but, I don’t. I still regularly stick my foot in my mouth . . . still screw up my references to scripture . . . and, make mistakes that take months to repent from. After 30 years, one would think that I could put it into cruise and slowly head towards retirement . . . but, that is a pipe dream thanks to our government who keeps raising the age of retirement. After 30 years, in my mind and heart, I am no closer to the ministry God is calling me towards than I was when I began this long, long journey.
Yet, at the same time, I feel like I am getting closer. I feel that God is equipping me for whatever ministry that is going to be. I mean, over 30 years, I have learned some really cool stuff . . . learned some great children’s sermons . . . and, have culled my joke repertoire down to a fine art. I think God is calling me to be a used car salesperson! See what I mean about it being a long strange trip!
For a week or two I have been thinking about what it means to hit the milestone of 30 years as an ordained minister. It means that I have told a lot of stories . . . put more than my share of people to sleep on Sunday mornings . . . married and buried a lot of people . . . sat with a lot of people enduring gut-wrenching crisis . . . laughed a lot, cried a lot, and hae done it with people I loved, and some that I couldn’t stand. I have written at least ten sermons. Prayed at least twice. Blessed at least a couple of times. And, I have survived over a thousand potluck dinners. What a trip!
I have also been thinking about those people who have been a part of that journey. I have thought about Paul, who encouraged me towards ministry –-he would be the central figure and I could shine his shoes. He is no longer in the ministry and here I am 30 years later. To Bob and Mary who were loving, encouraging, and with me every step of the way through seminary . . . they were my foundation even though I often had doubts about myself. Even today, they believe in me. To my wife who has pretty much been with me since the beginning—encouraging me and laughing at me when I really screwed up. To the many people who have survived my leadership as their pastor over those 30 years—they have more love and grace than anyone could imagine; and, they have more patience than Job . . . and, we all know how patient Job was. Thank you, one and all. Thank you for being a part of the “long strange journey” called ministry. Hey, we all survived!