BOS 01 14 2021 doublesize
Two weeks into retirement seems like a good time to reflect on thirty years working as a minister.

Sometime in my first few years, I said to an older minister that one of the hard things about a week with a funeral was that you had to think of two wise things to say. He shrugged and said that most weeks he couldn't think of one.

While I accepted the point that we can't always be wise, I tried. Back when I was considering whether ministry was a fit for me, an old family friend said that a minister is a teacher. "I don't have anything to teach," I said. "Then maybe ministry isn't for you," she answered. That stuck with me. I spent time in community work before completing my training for ordination. I wanted to know something more than the twenty-two-year-old who first entered seminary.

"What is the wisdom in this week's passages" was the question that occupied my thinking early each week. Then, once something had surfaced for me, I asked myself why the people who would listen to me would care about that thought. This discipline formed me.

Funerals almost always came unexpected, pushing the week's schedule to the side. Sitting with families as we prepared the celebration of life was a privilege. These encounters were intimate. Stories would be told that said mountains about the one who was mourned and the ones mourning.

A few times, the family or the person who had passed were complex making these planning visits incredibly painful. When I was in training for ministry, there was one where the family wanted to be somewhere else, with anyone else. I complained to my supervisor that if they wouldn't talk to me about the person or themselves, how could I write an appropriate funeral service. My supervisor said, "It isn't about you." That also stuck with me, reminding me to let the conversations be what the family needed.   

Recently, with non-church families, early in the conversation, someone would ask what I was going to say at the funeral. Usually, something they had said provided a clue and drawing on themes and images I had used before, I could outline a reading and a thought that I would likely share. I found this helped them relax and trust the process.

Another privilege was visiting maternity wards. I was regularly reminded how small and fragile and alive a newborn is. Conversations with families seeking baptism for their child was also special. I usually brought along a member of the congregation, and we talked about family and aspirations, community and belonging.

Being part of wedding preparation involved some of the same conversations about family and dreams, belonging and not belonging. These could be quite difficult as family expectations and the couple's plans did not always mesh. I often told them that the negotiations about guest lists among other things were not wasted. They were establishing patterns for their life together and with each other's family. It was worth getting the conversation right.

Hospital visits were likely the biggest part of pastoral care. Sometimes I knew why the person was in. Sometimes I would only learn what they were willing to share. I never read the charts, figuring that my job was to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

Working in a congregation also entailed helping the people figure out their ministry. To my surprise looking back, in all but one church I worked for, there was a building project. Mostly accessibility. Modernizing a space. Putting up solar panels. My job was to facilitate identifying the community's goals, helping them design the project, and encouraging those who took the lead so they could get the job done.

In some communities, there would be a pattern that concerned me because it excluded some people or created conflict or set a priority that felt off track. Pushing, challenging, opening options sometimes shifted the patterns. Sometimes not. That was humbling.

Ministry was service, working to support others on their journey and in their work. I am sure this will continue in less official ways in retirement. But I also remind myself that I was a disciple--one who seeks to know and follow God--before I was a minister. To paraphrase the prophet Micah, my life-task is still to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway


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