Ordained to be reverent
Culminating two years of being a licensed minister, and following eight years of seeing an inkling of a calling to pastoral ministry grow into a deep truth in my life, I was ordained in December.
For me to be ordained, to be a reverend, is to live with the knowledge of human limitation (including my own) while also seeking a deeper relationship with God and helping others to do so.
Since then, one of my delights has been stepping into and claiming the title of “the Reverend.” Staff members at the hospital where I work as a chaplain address me in that way, and it feels right.
While one meaning of Reverend is “worthy to be revered,” I hope instead that the title conveys “one who is reverent.”
In a contribution to the Christian Century blog, Paul Woodruff, a scholar, wrote about the difference between hubris and reverence. He identifies hubris with people who fought in the crusades, “thinking they knew the mind of God well enough to be sure that God wanted them to kill people.” In contrast, he wrote, “Reverence has a better sense of what human beings can and cannot do”—and what we can’t do includes achieving a full understanding of God.
For me to be ordained, to be a reverend, is to live with the knowledge of human limitation (including my own) while also seeking a deeper relationship with God and helping others to do so. We are all ministers when we share the gifts that God has given us as part of the body of Christ. We all have a calling received at baptism. Yet ordained ministry comes with particular responsibilities, as any vocation does.
In the settings in which I serve, I strive to speak the truths I have come to hold dear about God’s work in our lives, and yet I also speak from recognition of my limitations. Ordination is not a sign of rising above the human condition to be holier than others. Rather, it signifies that a leader is trusted to help remove visions of control and immortality that so often abound, so that we can all see more clearly the ways we can serve God and neighbor also while seeking to grow in spiritual maturity.
I do not claim to speak for God. Neither do the pastors I know best. But I hope to draw attention to the ways in which God is with us, our closest companion and yet mysteriously beyond our full comprehension.
I’m honored by the trust that is placed in me by my congregation and conference—and by the people I serve whenever they share a tough truth, or let me pray for them, or allow me to stand with them in the silences suffering creates. And I was awed by the many dear friends and family who shared in the joy of the ordination service. I take seriously their promises to keep me accountable.
In some branches of Anabaptists, women’s ordination is not the divisive issue it once was. Yet while gender is not a criterion for ordination in Mennonite Church USA’s ministerial guidelines, I know there is no consensus on blessing pastoral roles for women.
There’s no consensus on the meaning of ordination for anyone, for that matter.
It hurts that there are many, including some people who are dear to me, who could not affirm my calling because they see me as stepping outside of the intended roles for women, according to one way of reading some of the New Testament letters. I know they would say that there is only one way of reading those texts and that my way is wrong.
So be it. I can only hope that we can still learn from and with each other as part of this beautifully diverse and sorrowfully broken body of Christ.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.