Pastors and Teachers: Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath

The following was preached on Sunday, March 13, 2016 for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath as the Associate Pastor of First Parish Church in Derry, New Hampshire:

Installations are oddly named events.

I know this has all been said before, but it bears repeating. We think of “installation” and we think about setting up washing machines or installing a piece of software or going to an art installation. We don’t think about something having to do with an active human being. Even other professions use words like “inauguration” to talk about the start of a new position.

But here in the church world we have stuck to “installation”. No one is exactly sure why, but that’s okay. The good news about church installations, though, is that unlike installing your dishwasher or a new computer program, this is a pretty exciting occasion.

Representatives from all over the Rockingham Association and the greater UCC are here. Heidi’s friends have come to Derry today. The choir is singing special pieces, and there’s a big reception down in the fellowship hall afterwards. We are making a pretty big deal about this installation of Heidi Carrington Heath.

And that’s why I think it’s so important that we remember that today is not about Heidi. Not really, anyway.

165959_10154423704977538_3898712089897527048_nSome of you were at Heidi’s ordination back in December. That was an amazing day, full of celebration. And that day was not just about Heidi either, but it definitely was about God’s call on her. She made ordination vows, and we laid on hands and prayed for her. That day was about who God has called Heidi to be.

But today is about First Parish Church of East Derry, and the chapter of ministry that God is now calling you into together. And that’s why the words we read from Ephesians are so important this morning. Paul writes to the Ephesians that, “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

You have called Heidi to be a “pastor and teacher” of this congregation. She has been called to the ministry by God, and she has been trained and equipped to do the work that is set before her. But she is not called into this ministry alone. Every one of you who is a member of this congregation is being called into this ministry too.

That is because we are all called to specific forms of ministry by the very fact that we have been baptized into Christ’s body. The calling of pastors and teachers is specific, but it is not any more valuable than any other calling. And in a congregation, if the pastors are the only ones who are living into their call to ministry, that is not sustainable. Each of you has a calling, and by being here today, you are saying you are going to listen to that calling so that Heidi can effectively live into hers as a pastor and teacher of this church.

And that’s why this reminder from Paul is so important here. Listen to what he tells the church in Ephesus about there callings: “I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Unless you are willing to live into that calling together, there is no point going forward in this installation. Unless you are willing to, as Paul says, “live a life worth of the calling” and work together to make this a place of exceptional ministry, you cannot hope to have a vibrant ministry here.

You have stepped out in faith to call Heidi. You have listened for the voice of God and, after discernment, you have created a new associate pastor position. That means that you have helped to create this ministry, and by installing Heidi into this position you are not simply turning it over. You are saying that you will continue to live into your own calling to ministry, and that you will serve with her. You are taking these installation vows alongside of her.

And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a few reminders that I offer at every installation I’m asked to preach at. First, a reminder that Heidi has been called to ministry here. She has not been hired, and she is not your employee. She has been brought by God to this ministry, and you have affirmed that call.

That means that, unlike an employee, sometimes she is going to say and do things that challenge you, or that push you out of your comfort zones. That’s her job. Know that she will never do those things to be unkind or difficult. She will only do them because she truly believes she is doing what God asks of her.

Also remember that just because she is not an employee it doesn’t mean that she is any less invested in her work. Trust me, I live with her. Heidi works hard for you because she is already living into this covenant with you.

That also means that, like every clergy person I know, Heidi is going to overwork at times. And so, if you want to keep her running at her best, make her practice self-care. Make her take time off. Make her do continuing education and professional development. Make her take the time and space she needs to be refreshed so that she can serve you creatively.

Next, remember that while she is “installed” she is different than other things that get installed. She is not a laundry machine or dish washer that you load up, flip on, and walk away from while she does all the work.

Nor is she a software program or an app that has been installed at the church and which will now solve all your problems. Nor is she a piece of artwork whose job it is to remain passively in its place.

Heidi is a pastor and teacher. She is one your pastors and teachers. And the single greatest predictor of great she will be at that role is this: how you choose to minister with her, and how you live into your own calls to ministry.

And so, as you get ready to start this new chapter of ministry together, I have one piece of advice that I hope you’ll take to heart. And that’s this: pray. Pray for Heidi. Pray for all who serve your church. Pray for your church itself.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying just do it today, or whenever you think of it. I’m asking you to commit to regularly, even daily, praying for your clergy and for this congregation. Pray that God would bless your clergy with insight and faithfulness. Pray that your church would proclaim the Gospel and serve the world. But most of all, pray that God would make clear to you your own call to ministry in this place, and that God would give you the ability to live into that calling every day.

God has great things in store for you, First Parish. Today is just a reminder of that fact. And as you turn the page on that new chapter, I pray that you would keep writing this story with Heidi, and with one another. It’s going to be an incredible one; I just know it. Amen.

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

The Unexpected Pastor

When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that “real ministry” wasn’t done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.

But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30’s whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.

There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.

On the darkest nights I told myself, “I think I made a mistake.”

I didn’t leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God’s will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.

I’m glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God’s love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I’ve learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I’ve learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they’d rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they’d learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.

I’ve learned about pain, but I’ve learned other things as well. I’ve learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn’t understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I’d never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I’d find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families’ laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.

They’ve also taught me to find grace. I’ve learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I’ve played golf with people whom I’m quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I’ve learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I’ve never picked up a gun. I’ve come to respect the honesty of those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.

I’ve even come to love Yankees fans.

But more than anything, I’ve learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I’ve done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner’s 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I’ve witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I’ve seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.

It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I’m challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial “dark night of the soul”.

And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn’t do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can’t imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.

I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that’s the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I’m thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.