Rites of Passage

I realized that ministry was my optimal vocation when I recognized it as the last great outpost of the generalist. My father always considered himself a “renaissance man,” and I followed in his steps. But, in our increasingly specialized world, I found little appreciation for people who looked at the “big picture,” and sought interdisciplinary solutions to problems. Clergy, though, tend to wear many hats – preacher, teacher, activist, counselor, administrator. And, under their suit of armor, they need a caring heart, a soft shoulder, a firm hand, and a stiff upper lip.

But, in spite of our Sears Craftsman toolbox with a thousand little drawers, we do manage to fit into certain types.

  • The Inspirer, the amazing preacher who should never be allowed into any committee meeting;
  • The Organizer, who can juggle a million tasks but has little skill at motivating others;
  • The Artiste, who designs moving worship services, but can’t connect with children; and
  • The Counselor, whose one-on-one skills cannot translate to the pulpit.

I’m sure there are many others (and I’ll leave it to others to assign me to my category!).

But, I was reminded yesterday of one simple way of identifying members of the clergy, and that is by which rite of passage energizes them the most. Specifically, I’m talking about weddings and funerals.

Now, some ministers simply rock at funerals. They tend to view times of loss and grief as our best opportunities to evaluate our lives and assess what is truly important. These clergy tend to be fantastic at hospice care, hospital chaplaincies, and emotional presence. Other ministers shine at weddings, where the purity and innocence shines light on all that is possible in our lives. These clergy tend to be outstanding teachers, public relations, and ministerial presence. Now, I’m sure that some ministers are great at both weddings and funerals, but even the most ambidextrous person probably has a preferred hand.

Yesterday, I officiated at a wedding at my church. It was a simple affair – just the couple and immediate family on both sides. No flowers, or fancy clothes. No wedding party or family drama. Brothers and sisters were moving around snapping pictures. At the end of the short ceremony, the groom’s little sister wiped her eyes and said, “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

But, I do. Because weddings hold the potential for such raw joy that we forget all of those devices we carefully construct to shield us from sharing emotions with others. For that one moment, we feel no doubt, no fear, no hate – just unadorned, unrefined love. At that moment in space and time, only hope abounds.

For me, weddings are the one big surprise of ministry. I always knew that I would love preaching and teaching, and that I could comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But, the rush I get from weddings, whether small and simple or massively elaborate, continues to surprise me.