Letter to Annela: Pastor Aunt to Niece, A Candidate for Ministry

My niece, Annela, has started the journey to become a Lutheran pastor. This is my letter of love to her as she prepares for her future at seminary and beyond.

Hanging with my pastor peeps, Heidi and Erin!

Dearest Annela,

As we sat on the shores of Nokomis beach this summer, I listened to you. I smiled as the water reflected the summer sun and we felt the humidity drench our faces with sweat. I felt like I was participating in the same conversation I had with myself 25 years ago when I felt the inner tug and listened to my heart about wanting to be a pastor.

As I discerned the call to pastoral ministry, I remember the following questions which rolled around in my head; “How could God use someone like ME?” and “What if people really knew who I was and how  many times I’ve messed up?”, and most importantly, “What if I make mistakes or even worse, fail, and am not the perfect person I think a pastor should be?!”

Crap. I shouldn’t be a pastor. God can’t use someone like ME. If people REALLY knew who I was and how many times I’ve messed up, it could be awful. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes and fail (which I hate to do) and won’t be perfect (even though I might die trying). I’m going to be a big let down if all this goes through and I actually become a pastor and, and, and……..blah, blah, blah, blah. I’d like you to notice how much this was all about me and how little it had to do with God.

So, with that being said, it was never about me; it was always about God. I just seemed to think it was about me.

This desire to know God deeply and serve God in church ministry started at the age of fourteen when I went on a church mission trip. The intern pastor and his wife showed me that faith can be super fun, serious, full of laughter and music, and at its very core is all about the relationships we have with each other which revolve around God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

After that mission trip, I started going to a Missouri Synod Lutheran High School and that experience shaped my call to ordained ministry. I suspect the school wouldn’t take pride in that, especially since women are not allowed to be any kind of leader other than a Sunday School teacher.

One warm spring day when I was a junior, we spent every class period discussing and biblically reflecting on how women are not called to serve as pastors. My teachers actually thought that it would be better to skip the designated subject lesson at hand, as this was a biblical topic I needed to understand more fully. I was the only non-Missouri Synod Lutheran kid in my class. It was me vs. the teacher and my classmates. (These were biblical literalists who told me the world was created in seven, 24-hour days, so you might understand I was fighting a losing battle.) At the end of the day, I felt more than ever that I needed to discern how God was working in and through this conversation and in my own heart. Looking back, I think God was just starting to scratch the surface of my call as a female clergy. After the big debate in school, I went to my own pastors on Sunday to ask for ammunition, but who, in quiet, calm, grace, asked if I really needed to fight or if it was even worth it. I decided it was probably not. Nevertheless, the day still sticks in my mind.

It would not be the last time I would find myself theologically reflecting on how and why women can and should be ordained and more specifically, how I was called to be a pastor.

The theology I experienced in high school was law-based, judgmental, all about earning God’s love by striving for perfection. As I watched my classmates, many of whom behaved in ways I thought were sinful and unforgiving, I tried harder to be perfect. I would show them what it meant to be good on so many levels. And I was….. except for the time I was peer pressured into toilet papering another classmate’s house the week before I graduated. (I know, can you believe it?!)

All was good, until I moved away from home, went to college, and decided I’d try new things (the usual kinds of things most college kids do) and none of them I will post on this blog. I spent four years of college in church every Sunday morning confessing and asking forgiveness for the behavior I’d exhibited the previous days. My faith became about recognizing how sinful and not-perfect I was and knowing how much I needed God’s grace. The only thing was, I didn’t think I deserved that big dose of grace that was imparted to me Sunday after Sunday. It was exhausting, trying to be perfect. To be honest, I’m still working on that. (“That” would be letting go of perfectionism and letting God’s free grace drip all over me.)

After four years and an education degree (which I am SO glad to have), I was half-way through student teaching when I found it difficult to wake up in the morning to go. I dreaded the long days and couldn’t imagine working day after day after day as an elementary school teacher. It just wasn’t life giving. One Sunday afternoon as I reflected in my journal, I read the words I had just written; I really want to be a pastor. I told my mom, who said, “Well, why don’t you do that?” Yeah, why don’t I do that?! Crazy thinking, that’s what that was.

When I started seminary with my rose colored glasses, I thought every other person there was nearly perfect. (If I kept quiet enough, no one would know that I’m not, right?!)  I mean, I thought my pastors were really holy, perfect people, as most of their congregants do. Wait, what? Pastors are just like every other human being? Wow…..and then, I took my rose colored glasses off and quickly came to learn that this new seminary community was pretty wacky, weird, fun, and just as broken as I was, some just hid it better. Seminary contained people from all walks of life and I soon found out that most others hadn’t really figured things out either. We often didn’t want to share if we weren’t TOTALLY sure about the pastor track, because it might look bad. Then there were those academically and theologically driven folks, who separated themselves from most everyone else. I must admit, they bored me and I prayed I didn’t have to listen to their theological banter at the cafeteria during lunch or dinner.

Through the colorful tapestry of people that God calls into the world of seminary and beyond, YOU, Annela, will be one little strand, just like I am. Somehow, God works through all of us. Studying scripture taught me how God used and uses those who are broken to share the Good News. I started to love the Old Testament for this very reason. Theologically, I started to love why I was a Lutheran and how the theology of the cross was exactly what I needed. Throughout the seminary process, what I discovered is that most of us are just trying to figure out who we are as beloved children of God. Not only that, but the process of becoming a pastor never really ends. Even after fifteen years, I’m still discerning my call and still feel inadequate for the tasks at hand. BUT….there is always a big BUT, I strongly feel God calls me to share the Gospel news and it is usually in ways I never imagined.

Throughout seminary, your friends, however young or old they are, will stick with you, uplift you, pray for you, and will love you, that I can promise. When I need a word of encouragement, I think about and reach out to my pastor friends from seminary who, even though they are far away, encourage, love, listen, and pray for me. Because we have experienced this bond of going through what we did to become a pastor and working in church ministry, we have a kinship similar to those who have fought wars and have walked through battle together. We just get each other.

One of the greatest challenges of being a pastor is the fact that it is primarily “people work”, so you don’t often see the fruits of the work you’ve done. But every once and awhile, you get a glimpse of how God worked through you and it touches you deeply. It gives you hope and energy to keep doing what you love.

Last week, I received a message from a former parishioner whose name is Adam. I sat and wept as I read this note, which was so personal and vulnerable. I thought about how privileged I was to walk a small portion of this man’s life with him. You see, Adam was in a very bad car accident two and a half years ago and when I showed up to visit him at the hospital, doctors warned me that what I would see, might be very disturbing. When I walked into his room, Adam was lying flat on his back, with a shattered pelvis, broken legs, wearing a neck brace and had tubes coming out of every place in his body. The fact that he survived the accident was a miracle in itself. I silently sucked in my breath and asked God for grace. I didn’t want to cry, even though everyone around me was.

I listened to his girlfriend, his mother and father, and extended family and friends who sat nearby. I held his hand and watched the tears fall down his cheeks as he told us he was concerned about his two children, who were the same ages as mine. I leaned over,  whispered a prayer in his ear, and left him with these words, “Adam, always remember that God is with you. You are a child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever. Until I see you again, peace.”  I walked out the door, held it together until I got into the car and then sobbed.

Over the next year, I watched Adam slowly heal.

I watched Adam go from being flat on his back, to sitting up, to a wheelchair, to walking again. The fact that he lived was a miracle, but his life has been forever changed. Since the day of the accident, Adam has been in pain. He takes medication every single day to manage and do what he does to support his family and loved ones.

Before the accident, Adam was a high school basketball referee and his dream was to “ref” at the college level, but I knew the accident would make it that much harder for him to achieve. A year after I visited him in the hospital, I attended a local basketball game. As they introduced the referees for the night, I watched Adam walk out on the floor (with a little limp) and the tears rolled down my face. A couple next to me asked why I was crying. I turned and said, “If you knew the full story of what an accomplishment it is for this man to be standing before you, you would be crying too.” I was so proud of him that night, but I knew it would take days for him to recover.

Adam amazes me. He was sad when we left our Iron Range community to move to Norway, but said he would keep in touch. The latest note was filled with God’s love, grace, and gratitude, which I was so happy to receive!  It was vulnerable and difficult and yet, incredibly uplifting. By God’s grace, Adam lives a life of love and healing, even with all of the great challenges that lie before him. It was a privilege to be with Adam and he ministered to me, as I ministered to him. That’s what pastoral ministry does, you know……it goes both ways.

At the moment, you know I am on-leave from call as our family came to Norway with Joel, your uncle, where he serves as pastor at the American Lutheran Church. I am not able to serve as a pastor, so I am working as an elementary school substitute teacher at an International School, which if you remember from my undergraduate degree, is what I am grateful for. Stepping away from pastoral work is both my Nordic light and darkness in so many ways. My ministry now is different, as I spend my days leaning over desks teaching young ones how to put things in alphabetical order or how to use the metric system (which I am still trying to figure out). It’s not nearly what it was when I was student teaching and on many levels, it is a whole lot easier.

What do I miss the most? You probably know.

As you prepare for the journey ahead, know your years at seminary will teach you a great deal, some of what you will remember, but a lot you will not. You see, institutions cannot teach you how to hold the hand and pray for someone who is dying of cancer, or what the best way is to deal with the leaking roof at church, or when it is the best time to change or try a new liturgy (because the old one has been done since 1864), or how you deal with those who do not believe you should be a female pastor, or why you cry when you preach the Good News. God will work through your shining moments and perhaps even more, the ones where you didn’t feel adequate enough. You will laugh, cry, raise your fists in frustration, ask questions, listen, and wonder what in the world you got yourself into. Annela, your story, your narrative, will tell the Gospel.

Hold this close; faith and doubt go hand-in-hand and you will dance with them as you continue to discern God’s leading.

Annela, may you know you God is with you and you are a beloved child, marked with the cross of Christ, forever. I am cheering you on, loving, listening, and will encourage you each step of the way.

Klem fra Oslo, (Hugs from Oslo)

Aunt Emily