Jamie Howison offers a few words on marking a milestone in ministry
Last night in worship we marked the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, and as I noted in my sermon this feast day stands as a kind of interesting counter-point to the nativity of Jesus. The nativity of John is observed at the time of the summer solstice (June 24 traditionally being “midsummer day”), while the nativity of Jesus is set at the time of the winter solstice. The story of John’s birth is told exactly six months from Christmas Eve, and so in the midst of the summer we are reminded of the great Incarnational themes of promise and fulfillment.
But for me the Nativity of John the Baptist also holds a special significance for me personally, as it was on that day in 1987 that I knelt before my bishop on the chancel steps of St John’s Cathedral and was ordained as a deacon. That means that as of yesterday I’ve been wearing one of those collars and working in full-time ministry for fully twenty-five years.
One of the great things for me in this is that I’ve just never looked back, nor in any way regretted the vocation that has become my life. I consider myself really fortunate in this, as I do know that many of my colleagues in ministry have faced times of deep disillusionment, disappointment, burn-out, and fatigue. I recently read some statistics taken from the American context that indicated that 33% of pastors reported they felt burned out within their first five years of ministry; 45% say they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry; 70% reported not having any close friends; and 75% reported severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
I don’t mean to sound at all smug here, but I have to say that I’ve just never encountered anything close to that kind of fatigue or alienation. Sure, there have been stretches of time in various contexts in which ministry is challenging to the point of being just plain hard work. Yet somehow there was always good reason to keep plugging forward. And often it was the presence of good friends and solid mentors who helped me to keep things in perspective. And of course for fifteen of the twenty-five years there has also been Catherine, who is supportive, insightful, and bluntly frank… sometimes all at the same time.
I think I have also been very fortunate to have been drawn into a wide array of ministry contexts over the years. After two years serving as the assistant at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Fort Garry, I spent six years as pastoral care coordinator at Marymound School (during which time I met two of the best friends one could ever want, Larry Campbell and Steve Bell), followed by three as chaplain and dean of residence at St John’s College. When I did return to parish ministry, it was in the context of St Bede’s Anglican Church which was then in the midst of forging a union with St Stephen’s Lutheran Church. It was during my six years there that we united the two congregations, forming the first fully amalgamated Anglican and Lutheran church in the country.
It was also during those years that some of us began to envision what was to become saint benedict’s table. I was recently asked to write a brief bio for a conference I’m involved with, and I found myself writing that I think I have “one of the best jobs in the Canadian church,” and I really do believe that. Not only is it a wonderfully creative and diverse community filled with people who want to pray, think, create, and live the faith, but it is also one open to trying new forms for church life. And because we are still less than a decade old, the longing for the good old days – the “that’s not the way we used to do it” syndrome – is simply not there. I suppose that if saint ben’s is still ticking along twenty years down the line someone will surely stand up at the annual meeting and talk at length about how it “used to be” (maybe even speaking about how we always used to always order chicken souvlaki and lemon potatoes from Homer’s for the meeting…), but then again maybe things like Greek food for annual meetings and champagne on Easter make for the kind of traditions you don’t mind having passed down.
All to say that as I look back over these twenty-five years I am deeply grateful for having been called into a vocation that has been filled with both challenge and delight. I feel as if I don’t really have a job so much as I live a life in which the work I do is deeply embedded in who I am. For this I give thanks to God for having nudged me in this direction in the first place; to friends and family and fellow members of the Body of Christ for having accompanied me along the way; and to the Holy Spirit for sustaining me and keeping my imagination wide open.