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Today is the 35thanniversary of the day I was ordained to the pastoral ministry. Thirty-five years ago on this day my friend Kendra and I were ordained in my home church in Aurora, Illinois. The denomination in which we grew up – the Advent Christian Church – was a loose affiliation of churches with a congregational form of governance dating back to the 1860s. Because of the biblical literalism in the DNA of the church from its earliest days when William Miller combed through the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation to determine a date for Christ’s return, there was also a tendency to read scripture through patriarchal lenses. The denomination had ordained some women across its history, but generally women were not viewed as pastoral leadership material. So Kendra and I enjoyed that Sunday afternoon sharing the spotlight and demonstrating for our local church at least that women and men are equal in bringing leadership gifts to the ministry of the church. She was the Minister of Education and I was the Minister of Parish Life. We worked with a Senior Pastor to create the programs and ministries for a 550-member college-affiliated congregation. We had several good years of working side by side before Kendra’s life was cut tragically short by a brain tumor.

As I reflect on this anniversary, I can’t imagine my sentimental journey holding much significance for anyone else. I simply feel an inner need to mark this date as a way of honoring the work I do. It is so amazing to me that I have spent 35 years caring for congregations and communities with love, hope and a passion infused by the Holy Spirit. Although I did not remain in my inherited denomination in spite of the fact that both my grandfather and great grandfather were ordained Advent Christian ministers. I knew that I needed to spread my wings and grow into a larger vision of God’s work in the world. I even talked with my grandfather about my exploration of the United Methodist Church before getting serious about connecting with those who would open that door for me. He gave me his blessing without hesitation, something I have always cherished. If he were still alive today though, I doubt that he would fully understand some of the personal choices I have made or the theological/moral/ethical positions I have taken on social and political issues of our day. However, he would respect and love me still, of that I am confident.

Over these years of ministry I am aware of many personal failures, and in my private reflections I confess these to God. Times of insincerity, timidity, laziness! Times of pride, uncaring, impatience! Whenever I have transitioned from one place of ministry to another I have made sure to incorporate the liturgy for parting from our Book of Worship that allows pastor and people to celebrate the gifts that have been shared freely with one another and to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness. I have been helped in each ministry setting by being able to admit my sins to the Christ who reconciles all things so that I am free to move on to new adventures by the grace of God.

So today I remember some ministries I have launched over these 35 years in various places. I’ve served in suburban, urban and rural settings. I’ve served in Californian desert and coastal communities, Hawaiian tropics, and the good ole Midwest. I’ve done local church ministry, campus ministry, and military chaplaincy. As I look back, it’s been a fun, meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and fascinating ride! God is a God of amazing surprises, and perhaps foremost among them is being called to ministry myself! If I had ever doubted that God called me into ministry, I would have immediately stopped and found something else to do. I am not naturally gregarious, extroverted, erudite or talkative. I work deliberately and thoughtfully at everything I do. I have to stretch myself and risk a great deal to simply get in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and speak the truth God has placed on my heart. But the Gospel keeps drawing me in and I can do no other than proclaim the grace, mercy and acceptance of the one I call Savior and Lord!

Among the ministries I’ve helped start in various places over the years: Evergreen Outreach (a social and spiritual gathering for elderly homebound), PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter, an ecumenical housing option for houseless persons near Chicago), a young adult ministry at a San Diego church, a one-room Sunday School with more than a dozen children at a small rural church (where my 1-year-old son was the only child when we arrived), Messy Church (for children and families), CROP Hunger Walks (raising tens of thousands to alleviate hunger through Church World Service), People of Faith for Justice (an interfaith group in San Luis Obispo County), an ecumenical centering prayer group, Showers of Blessing (providing showers, toiletries and other supplies for houseless persons), summer outdoor worship at a local state park, and Easter sunrise services for the community at a local nature preserve. I’ve maintained a public witness through speaking, writing, and organizing for the common good, and have especially appreciated the shared community work with persons of other faith traditions and all persons of good will.

In my current pastoral appointment, what brings me the most joy is the process our congregation has gone through to become a Reconciling Congregation, giving testimony to our commitment to welcome all people into the community of faith regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve participated in the annual Pride Celebrations in Santa Barbara the last several years and have hosted a PFLAG group in our church facility, as well as Fratelli (a Men’s Chorus for gay men and straight allies, providing rehearsal and performance space). Through our hospitality and active engagement we are announcing that God’s unconditional agape love embraces our LGBTQI siblings just as they are!

My heart is full. I feel privileged to have been given the position to be able to offer something of value to the Kin-dom of God! As have so many others in the great cloud of witnesses! It is a blessing, a joy, and an honor to be among the followers of the One who came that all may have life, and have it abundantly!

Thanks be to God who can use even me – to contribute to the common good, the beloved community, the Kin-dom of all creation! I am deeply blessed!

Mark Richardson, June 26, 2018