A Ministry of Listening to Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robin Clardy

Ministry takes different forms. As a Presbyterian pastor in a validated ministry, I provide pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, and church consultation on end-of-life issues. In my elected position as moderator for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, I moderate business and committee meetings, install pastors, and represent and speak on behalf of the presbytery at ceremonies and special meetings. In all of this I am called upon to preach, teach, and present at workshops and retreats. No matter the setting I find that people desire to be known, accepted, and loved. We want to know that our actions serve a purpose and our lives have meaning.

I am grateful to listen to people tell their stories, which can be messy, disorganized, or in transition. They can be filled with pain, tragedy, longing, and loss. They come from people who have known great wealth or scrape to get by. They come young and old alike. How we tell our stories and own our stories matters. How we are allowed to have our stories matters. It takes time to unpack our stories.

I hear many stories. Los Ranchos just celebrated 50 years of stories in grand style at one of our churches. We worked hard to tell stories of our successes and challenges. We invited churches to tell their stories. They highlighted where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. These many and different voices told our collective story.

Photo from Los Ranchos Presbytery Facebook page

I also visit our churches and new worshipping communities, where I hear the stories of their hopes and their challenges. I have found faithful 90-year olds who still serve and care for others in the congregation. I have discovered deacons who maintain relationships with members long past their ability to attend church. I have heard from pastors challenged by their aging congregations and saddened by the continual stream of memorial services they officiate. I talk with pastors, elders, and members who are committed to rolling up their sleeves to pitch in and build houses for those needing sustainable, affordable housing. I’ve listened to those who are doing jail ministry, refugee resettlement, shower ministry, after-school programs, working on behalf of farm workers’ rights, ending gun violence, rights for the mentally ill, #me-too movement; this is just scratching the surface.

I let these stories inform me as I help lead the presbytery. I learn from those who live a different life, speak a different language, have a different culture, and face different challenges. I hear, and I learn. I‘ve learned that we are the same: we need to be respected, listened to, appreciated, equipped, resourced, and allowed to do what God has put in our hearts. I’ve learned the importance of stepping aside so that someone else can step in. I have learned to be silent so that someone might speak up. I’ve learned to slow down and consider that which I see with my eyes, but have no understanding of. I’ve learned to let people tell their stories in their way and to speak up when it is helpful and needed.

I pray that we all take time to listen to the stories of those around us, those in our church, presbytery, community. Listen for people’s longings, hopes, desires. Listen to how they want to belong. We all can do this, pastor, moderator, elder, layperson alike. And may our horizons be broadened by our understanding and learn from these stories. May we build bridges to cross the divide that separates us.

Robin Clardy, a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and former hospice chaplain, is moderator of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.

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