Flourishment: Seeing the Embarrassment of Riches
In thinking about how persons flourish in various “service vocations,” I have often mused on our tendency to be overly serious and self-critical. It was fifty years ago this past summer, 1966, that I was ordained as a clergy person in the United Methodist Church. Along the way there was graduate study in the social sciences and teaching in university and theological seminary settings. It has been to my benefit to act as what anthropologists call a “participant observer.” As such an “insider” I am aware of what can be learned by our professional foibles and “mistakes.” In fact, being embarrassed is a way to capture what might be called a “liminal” or “view from the margins of normality” to better understand both the limits and joys of one’s calling. Let me share some narrative that can help with what I am suggesting.
These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness. All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life. It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment. Yes, I said embarrassment. It keeps one humble. One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one's own foolish efforts at vocational perfection. Here is my top ten list -- memories of times I played the role of "that dumb preacher."
- One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, "Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband." Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan's, eyes, I knew that she was not "Jennifer" and he was not a "Mike." And, I couldn't remember their names. I searched papers tucked in my Bible. It took an eternity -- probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities. I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, "that poor, dumb preacher."
- Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one. I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks. I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone. As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation -- I was even at the wrong funeral home! Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, "How did you know my father?" No words came for several seconds. Then I muttered, "Oh, I knew of him." Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
- Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me. More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person. Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit. I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
- Then there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones. On more than one occasion, I continued to "broadcast" when I should have turned the darn thing to "OFF." Let's just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying. Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound. These were not the rushing waters from Elijah. These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
- Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding. We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and... yes, all was ready. Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar! Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married. I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to "say it again" and then confirmed it by shouting "yes, to what he said!" I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
- We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday. I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another. This seemed safe enough. Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, "It must be great to have 70 happy years together?" The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, "Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage." The congregation roared with laughter. Too late. Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
- And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship? Well... somehow the tailor didn't tie off the knots along the leg seams. As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch. It was, so to speak, open territory. What to do? Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services. Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe. I wore a robe all the way home that day!
- I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own. On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist -- at all five services! Let's just say I wasn't prepared. At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice. More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn't need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service! I don't recall much of the sermon in service number five -- I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
- Advice to young pastors -- don't attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full. As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and... oh yes, the baby! I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby's pacifier fell out of her mouth. Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier. The baby came down as well. She was baptized on the wrong end! The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day. I did catch the pacifier -- after all, what is truly important?
- Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home. Before I knew it three small children were beside me... then crawling over my lap and shoulders. Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair. The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored. I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers. One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, "You don't know what to do with us, do you?" Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on "that dumb preacher."
Much has changed over the past fifty years. Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as, more and more, "sidelined" denominations. We grow anxious, serious, more determined. We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline. Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades. We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us.
The burden often falls on the clergy who serve day-to-day in challenging situations. Often well-intentioned denominational leaders only add to the load a clergy person may face by suggesting erroneously that there is some formula or easy answer to the challenges of congregational life in this ever increasing secular society.
Too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric. Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of my denomination -- Wesley United Methodist Church at the University of Illinois. The week before I had attended a denominational event where there was hand wringing about the need to be a “global church” and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline. There is, of course, truth in these concerns. Still, I couldn't help but laugh out loud after I preached at Wesley Church. Dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service: I was aware that our “global reach” is often wider than our denominational leader’s limited vision to see.
We may not need to go out to the world only – but to understand that the world is already at our doorstep. Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, "you don't know what to do with us, do you?"
I would not argue that clergy and congregations should not seek to be relevant. I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch. Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church -- some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments. Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help. A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.
I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments -- there are dozens more I could offer. This will do for now. Enjoy... and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said. I think she is right. We just don't know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us. I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.
Philip Amerson is a retired United Methodist pastor and educator. He is a consultant for the Flourishing in Ministry research project. Previously he served as president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. He has taught in a number of university and theology schools and for over twenty-five years served as pastor in urban and university settings. You can read more of his thoughts at philipamerson.com.