Today (April 25) I returned home from a few days off in Rochester, NY followed by a Marriage Encounter Weekend in nearby Canandaigua which ended last night.
This weekend was notable for several firsts. It was the first time a local team couple presented their talks on a weekend. They had just finished writing and having them approved. It was the first time a team couple from East Hartford, Connecticut had done a weekend in upstate New York. It was also the first time we faced a major medical energency on a weekend. A husband had to take his wife to the hospital on Saturday night and on Sunday she underwent emergency heart surgery in Rochester. The husband called to let us know she was fine but we are still praying for her recovery.
On Friday and Saturday we shared our facility (Notre Dame Retreat Center) with a group from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The sign outside their meeting room said “Upstate New York Synodal Candidacy Meeting”. I was talking briefly to a young man in the hallway and got the impression the meeting was about approving for ordination seminarians studying for their church as part of the process by which they would gain a position as a minister with a local congregation.
In one room sat the committee which I presume interviewed and determined the future of the seminarians who were gathered in the adjacent room. The seminarians were a group of young men and women who looked nervous while trying to bolster each other’s spirits. I do not know anything about the process by which the ELCA forms and selects its ministers. I know the process in many Protestant churches is similar to that in the secular workplace: resumes are sent out; candidates wait patiently for a congregation to respond; interviews are arranged with several individuals and one is finally chosen. Since the cost of training is born by the candidate, it was must be difficult financially and emotionally to undergo many years of training (with debts piling up) and then worry about whether one will get a position.
As I watched the ELCA candidates and our new couple presenting this weekend, it brought back memories of the awkwardness associated with some of the firsts in my life: my first day at universiy; first day working as a summer student at GM; first day in the seminary and first day in my first parish. You can tell yourself you are properly prepared for any situation. You can try to convince yourself everything will work out fine. You can express your confidence to others. Yet, you do not know if something unexpected (for which you are unprepared) will happen. You come to recognize how many things in life are beyond your control. You must prepare for the possibility of failure and accept it if it comes. You realize you need more of God’s help than you first thought.
Life is full of risks. Pastoral formation has more than its share. No one I know enters the seminary expecting to fail. Yet, the academic formation is on par with university studies. There are papers to complete and exams to pass. Not everyone can do the work. Spiritual formation can be demanding. There is the development of a prayer life and spiritual direction. Not everyone has the commitment. Pastoral formation forces one out of one’s comfort zone. There are unruly Confirmation candidates and upset hospital patients. Not everyone can respond to the challenges. Finally, human formation pushes one to become an integrated human being. There is the need to get along ith all kinds of people. Not everyone has the patience.
Those in ordained ministry or undergoing formation for it should remember the anxieties associated with the firsts encountered by the people they serve; like the first child brought for Baptism, first death in a family or the first day of a newly ordained Priest. Firsts can be exciting as they signal new possibilities. They can also be terrifying as they remind us of how little in life we control.
Those seminary students reminded me of the lessons the firsts in our lives can teach us about trust and hunility.