I recently heard a priest at Conception Abbey offering the homily at Eucharist, attended by all the young men preparing to enter the priestly vocation. He was making the point “it’s not about you” to these who might presume overweening importance in their congregation.
He recounted how as a young pastor he was torn over whether he should abandon some overdue vacation time to officiate at a wedding. He made the wedding, but many years later he overheard this conversation.
“Do you remember your wedding? Who was the priest? Uh, it was Father … I don’t remember ….” Another overheard conversation: “Who baptized your baby?” It was that new priest, Father … uh ….”
From these conversations, Father Patrick discerned it was much more about serving the church than his personal significance. It was an important discovery, and it changed his perception of his vocation.
I recounted this story at the installation of one of Central Seminary’s alums, Seth Vopat, yesterday. It seems a fitting word for all ministers. Here’s what I said:
The Apostle Paul offers similar wisdom in the Epistle reading (1 Cor. 3:1-9). For those in the Corinthian church who had divided into special interests by claiming they followed Paul or Apollos, the Apostle has a word of correction.
These leaders, Apollos and Paul, are simply servants; they are not to be a source of adulation or division. The evidence of the immaturity of the members of this congregation is their factionalism. There is jealousy and quarreling, and this behavior demonstrates that they are more attentive to the flesh than to the Spirit. He flatly calls them “babies” even though they think of themselves as quite spiritual. Rather, they are acting just like ordinary people — not believers.
Paul differentiates his role from that of Apollos: he planted; Apollos watered; but God gave the growth. These two leaders fulfilled their God-given tasks, however, they remain servants to God’s larger purpose. This is the point anyone in ministry must realize.
When Paul uses the word diakonos to describe himself, it expresses his humility. Clearly Paul claims no special status or honor by this self-description; rather, he seems to use it as a term to describe someone whose work is a channel for God’s working. This is an expectation for all believers.
Besides it being one of the lectionary readings, why highlight this text on a day when we install the Reverend Seth Vopat to his ministry among you? Did you not call him because of his distinctive vision and gifts for pastoring youth and their families? Of course you did! Yet, you are aware that his role in your midst is not as a savior figure, but as a co-worker with families, other ministers and the youth themselves. Together you comprise “God’s field.”
Paul’s images are rich with implications for the life of faith, and it is not surprising that he wants to focus on growth. The nurture and care of any member of God’s family or any planting in God’s field requires the attention and tutelage of many others. Ministers are to equip the saints (all of you) for the work of the ministry. From Seth, you will learn patterns of accompanying youth, but he cannot do it alone.
Every person in the congregation has a nurturing and supporting role to play. When I was a fledgling youth minister, I hated to ask anyone for help. While I was eager to invite youth to assist in varied ways, I did not want to bother their parents. Little did I know how much they wanted to be involved in their church’s nurture of the youth. When I matured a little, I learned that it was not all up to me, and that there were many co-workers in the field.
One who serves leads by example. Words matter, but actions are more enduring. The Psalmist encourages persons to walk carefully in the discipline of God, ever seeking God with their whole heart. This is a charge to you, Seth. People will listen to your words, but they will watch your life and hopefully pattern their lives according to how you manage yours.
They will see a serious scholar, a committed husband and father, a playful person who can still nail a flip into the foam pit at skyzone, a coffee connoisseur and a fine writer. Seth will see things in you, also, especially in the youth of the church. Not only will he know their names and interests, he will notice, name and nurture their gifts. He will be a reliable guide as they discern their vocational pathways.
An installation is a time for the church to celebrate that God continues to provide the leadership most needed. You have put a significant pastoral team into place, yet this is not a pastor-centered church. When each of these who plants and waters moves off the scene, God will continue to give growth. You will be remembered for the ways in which you intersect the lives of members of the church in their liminal experiences — birth of a child, crisis, illness and death. The impact of their service will linger, even when the name may not come readily to mind.