This is my last Pastor’s Pen, anticipating this day coming, a lot of topics have raced through my mind. 10 years of ministry here and 30 more in 5 other churches makes for a lot of memories and life experiences. Add to that reality there is this, I am writing an article not a book! So many people have been significant to me in my ministry, so many experiences and situations has shaped and formed how I have gone about ministry. But the one experience that has been life changing and transforming for my ministry happened years before I entered ministry.
One of the metaphors Paul uses for ministry is a soldier. It appears in many of the letters he writes to the churches and to Timothy. He extols many of the attributes of a soldier as a minister of Christ; their obedience, faithful service, unswerving commitment, loyalty, courage and bravery. One of the things I have found out about myself throughout my years in ministry is the powerful impact my time in the Marine Corp has had upon me. So much of me as a person and as a pastor has been shaped and formed from my military service. So when I look to find and identify a metaphor for my ministry I am drawn to Paul’s comparison of the believer to a soldier. Yet the soldier metaphor that I relate and identify with is of a certain kind. It is what we in the Marine Corp call a “Lifer”. Coming into the full time duty in the Corp after basic training lifers were looked on with distaste and distain. They were defined as people who could do nothing else in the real world so they stayed in the service their whole adult life. Yet serving with them, rubbing shoulders and getting to know several of them I came to realize and recognize they served the Corp a lifetime because of the call they felt and served with a lifetime commitment to serve their country with honor and distinction.
Lifer in the Corp enlist with no agenda to leave after attaining a certain skill, earning enough time in active service so to receive financial aid for school or put in twenty years for the pension and benefits so to purse a second carrier. They enlist because of the call they feel deep in their heart. It could be to continue a family tradition or for love of country or some event which moves them yet this call is real and powerful. Their response to this call is a lifelong commitment. It is the permanent vocational choice they make and when they do it is a done deal. They don’t look back but to the service they can give their country.
I certainly can relate to this call and commitment in my life. My call was real, powerful and clear and when I made the commitment there was no doubt it was a lifetime commitment. Like the lifer in the Marines there is no turning back in either preparing or serving. No other vocation was or would be an option.
The Lifer of the Corp in their time of service witness and experience the good, bad and ugly of military life and service. Yet when their time of service is over, the six years they have signed up for, they reenlist again and again knowing exactly what that involves for themselves and their families. They serve their years not with regret or remorse, not discouraged nor cynical or sarcastic about it all. When they put that Marine Corp uniform on and report for duty they are all in. They serve with a total commitment to Duty, Honor and Country. It is both a beautiful and amazing thing.
I believe that coordinates and complements with the pastoral ministry. It is in pastoring and leading a church you see the good, bad and ugly of human beings, life and this fallen world. In your first few charges you understand and realize wherever you go, whatever congregation you serve this experience is the same, you encounter the gambit of the human experience. There is no running from it or church absent of it. What is needed is a commitment to serve despite it. For this is ministry, engaging a fallen world and imperfect human being with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is needed and necessary in this encounter is every time you stand in the pulpit, teach a class, visit or chair meeting you do so with a complete devotion and full dedication to do it to the best of your God given abilities and His empowerment. Our life, our time, our skills and gifts are the property of God, family and church.
As a Lifer in the Corp everything is temporary as orders sends them to different duty stations for different periods of time. You have very little say or sway as to the duty station, its location or the duration of service because these orders come from the Commandant, Marine Corp Headquarters. These orders declare and determine both where you will go, what you will do and for how long.
I see here real parallels with Parish Ministry. I am convinced that there is a call to serve a specific church and there also comes a call to leave that church. These calls come from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In his call to pastor a church you sense His leading, catch His vision, and connect with the congregation. This call is affirmed in many different ways both to you and your family. The call to leave is also from the Lord. This call can come from either feeling your work is done here, decline in passion and energy for the work at hand or the Lord laying another congregation on your heart. Like the Lifer in the Marines our time at our duty station, that is our ministry in the church we serve, is temporary solely dependent on the call of our Lord, the head of the Church.
Because the Lifer in the Marine Corp does not retire after 20 years but goes on in their service, retirement is their call. This decision certainly can be affected by health but most important by coming to the realization that you have fulfilled your service to your country to the best of your ability. It is time for you to step aside and let others take the lead.
As I get closer to the age of 66 I am convinced there is a corollary. Pastor’s usefulness in Christ’s church and Kingdom is not determined by age but by so many other things: gifts, abilities, health, opportunities and need to name a few.
The limit of this metaphor comes with the things which mark service. For the Lifer in the Corp that which marks their service are rank, medals, citations and commendations. So much of their service can be worn. Their rank, years of service can be found on their sleeve, for officers also on their collar and hat. Medals and battle citations are posted on their jacket. Certain commendations hang around their neck. All of these are worn with pride and honor for the sacrifice and service to achieve them. You cannot look at Lifer in uniform with their medals displayed and not be impressed. The uniform, rank and medals all signify exemplary service for their country. At their funeral a flag is given to the family in appreciation of a thankful nation for their service.
For pastors who serve faithfully in Christ’s church such memorabilia for service rendered, actions done, heroic measures taken do not exist. The best we can hope for is when we leave a church a gift is given by the congregation expressing their thanks for the years of service given to them. To be honest that is more than we should expect to receive. For our service while given to them is really done for Christ and His Kingdom. His reward and gifts for this service are not given to us here on earth but in heaven. And like everything else the Lord Jesus Christ gives us they will be graciously more than we can imagine or deserve. I am content to wait, Thankful to our Lord Jesus Christ for the privilege of being able to serve as a Minister of His Gospel and a Pastor in His Church.
I am humbled and thankful to you the members of the First Reformed Church of Lincoln Park for giving me the opportunity to lead you for the last 10 years as your Pastor and the Lord Jesus Christ for giving me the privilege to Pastor within His Church he last 40 years.
I have been truly blessed.