By Ken Kovacs
Author’s Note: At a recent Service of Ordination for my friend Erin Counihan, I was asked to give the charge to the pastor. Erin graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in May and has a received a call from the Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO. While the charge was written with her in mind, spoken to her, I was struck by the way it resonated with many others at the service, particularly the other pastor-types. And so, with Erin’s permission, this is for anyone trying to discern God’s call for his or her life. To be baptized is to be called.From a Service of Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church, Dickeyville, Baltimore, MD
6th July 2014
Erin, as you know, everything that we’re about here this afternoon is not about you. Your ordination, this worship service…it’s not really about you. We are here celebrating God’s call in your life, the acknowledgement of that call, the journey that led to this place and time: called, led, and guided by the Holy Spirit. We are here to witness, to say that God is still calling God’s people to preach, to teach, to love, and to serve. All that we’re doing here today is not really about you. It’s what God has done and is doing and will continue to do in you and through you.
And yet, if it weren’t for you—your connection to Dickey Memorial, to Baltimore Presbytery, to Princeton Seminary, your connection to your particular family and to this gathering of friends—if we didn’t know you, we wouldn’t be here today, but somewhere else on this holiday weekend. While it’s not ultimately about you, at some deep level it’s all about you—all of you.
Who you are matters, matters ultimately to God. God’s call is never made in general; it’s always particular. I remember professor J. Christiaan Beker, at Princeton Seminary, saying, “God’s Word is always a Word on target.” It’s pointed. Directed. While there’s a general or common calling for humanity to serve God, our particular sense of vocation, what we individually feel summoned by God to do, is never directed to something or someone “in general.”
God has called you. And it’s to you—all of you, who you really, authentically are. All of you—not just the Master of Divinity part of you, not just the PresbyGeek part of you, not just the “religious” or “Christian” or spiritual part of you. God summons all of you, the totality of your being, both spirit and body, both who you think you are, consciously, as well as the part of you that is unconscious, unknown to you but known to God, and still part of you. God’s call is to all of you.
Why is all of this important? Because in ministry it’s so easy to lose your soul. It’s so easy to lose yourself—and not in a good way. Far too many ministers meld their identities with their public roles or personas, and then they begin to believe they are their personas (the masks they present to the world), which is deadly for ministry—both for the minister and for the church. That’s how you lose your soul.
Far too many ministers conflate their identities with the congregations they serve; some begin to think they are their congregations, which is also deadly for ministry—both for the minister and for the church. That’s how you lose your soul.
I charge you, Erin, to remember your baptismal identity, remember who you are, who you really are, in the eyes of your Lord. Don’t let the church tell you—the church doesn’t know who you are and it has no authority to do so. Don’t let the pastor persona tell you who you are. We all have personas, but wear yours lightly. Hold on to and preserve those parts that are uniquely you. The Spirit hasn’t called you to live out a persona, but to live from the deepest core of who you are, to bring your experience to your call—everything. Your history, your experiences of ecstatic joy and love and the deepest, rawest pain in your heart and soul and body—all that you are, use your unique and particular perception of reality and then bring it all to bear upon the way you tell the story of God’s love.
That’s what God wants from you. That’s what God calls forth from within you. Not just for you—but for the world. Your life then becomes part of the ongoing incarnation of the Divine Logos—not only your life, but also the life of every soul in the cosmos. English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) asked, “But for I am a woman, should I therefore live that I should not tell you the goodness of God?” The answer? Of course not. You must tell. You—Erin.
Julian also said, “The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.” You, Erin, are one who lives gladly—for this, too, is part of who you are. Don’t allow the church to make you too serious. (This from someone who is probably too serious.) The great theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) once said, “It is not wise to be too serious.” (Sounds odd coming from someone like Barth, but he knew how to be playful.)
Be sure to save your silly side, the part that doesn’t take yourself or others too seriously, the part that can laugh and smile and take delight in silly things. You need a sense of humor in ministry. I have a friend who often says, “God is hilarious.” God is. You have to have a sense of humor in ministry, because, in case you haven’t heard, there are a lot of silly things that go on in the life of the church. Some days all you’ll want to do is cry. But sometimes all you can do is laugh. The ability to laugh, the presence of laughter are signs of health, for individuals, for pastors, for churches. The evangelical writer Steve Brown is on to something when he says, “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis.”
When you remember that God’s call is not to only a part of you, but to all of you, you will trust and cherish your experience and from your own experience reach out to the world in love. Honoring your experience—what God has done and is doing through your life—will help you honor what God is doing in the lives of the people you serve. They, too, will come to honor their lives—and that is an extraordinary gift to offer someone! To help someone recognize, honor, cherish, celebrate what God is doing in and through one’s life—that’s is an amazing gift to give someone.
The brilliant psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), whom I read a lot these days, child of a Reformed minister, a child of the manse, once gave this advice to anyone thinking about being a psychiatrist. There are striking parallels here to what it means to be a minister, a minister who’s not afraid to search for God in the depths of human experience. Writing in 1916, Jung said:
Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. [One] would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away [the] scholar’s gown, bid farewell to [one’s] study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in [one’s] own body, s/he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give…, and [she] will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.
Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? You will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul. There was a time when ministers were known first as physicians of the soul. In order to do that, you have to know yourself, you have to know who you are and whose you are.
I charge you, Erin, to “wander with human heart through [God’s] world,” to draw from the depths of your experience as you help, by God’s grace, heal the wounds of God’s people and offer hope.
Ken Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD. He has served churches in New Jersey and Scotland and is the author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (2011). He blogs at On the Way.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter vi.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love.
 Karl Barth, Table Talk, ed. John D. Godsey (Edinburgh, 1963), 16-17.
 Steve Brown, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God (New York: Howard Books, 2008), 198.
Carl Jung, “New Paths in Psychology,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 7, para. 409 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).