A birthday reflection

Yesterday as we drove into Omaha for the annual meting of our conference, we were talking about how many annual meetings we have attended. We started by remembering the locations of annual meetings that we attended before we were married. There have been annual meetings of the conference that we have missed. Most recently, we missed the 2018 annual meeting of our conference as we were on sabbatical. So we haven’t attended every one, but we’ve got a span of 50 years of attending annual meetings together, and we haven’t missed very many of them. We’ve also attended a lot of Association meetings, cluster groups, and other church meetings. Both of us have served terms on Committees on Ministry and on the Board of Directors of conferences. We’ve both been delegates to General Synod and attended other Synod meetings as visitors. We’ve been very involved in the gatherings of the wider church.

Somewhere around the middle of our career, the United Church of Christ began an effort to provide recognition to and encourage the development of young clergy. There began to be meetings of 20 and 30 year something clergy. There were even t-shirts at a few gatherings of the Synod that identified clergy who were in their twenties and thirties. By that time, I’d been a UCC clergy person for 20 and 30 years and so I joked about being a member of that group. What I didn’t share is that I was a bit of a phenom when I was in my 20s and 30s. Since it is by birthday today, I guess I can brag a little bit and be a bit nostalgic.

I completed my Doctor of Ministry Degree before I celebrated my 25th birthday. At the time I was one of the youngest people in the United Church of Christ to have earned that degree. And Susan and I had attended seminary as a married couple, both completing our degrees. The phenomenon of clergy couples was fairly new at the time, even though the United Church of Christ and its predecessor denominations had led the world in ordaining women clergy over a century before. Ordination of women was a new phenomenon in other denominations and our own didn’t have very many women clergy. We became a part of a UCC clergy couples group and quickly discovered that there weren’t many clergy couples who both served the same congregation. Upon ordination, we served the same parish and have done so throughout our career.

There were quite a few years when we were among the youngest clergy at the annual meetings of our denomination. Once in a while we’d be recognized for our accomplishments and we enjoyed the attention. Often we were told that we were a bit too young and a bit too inexperienced for particular roles within the church. Back when we finished seminary, I was the youngest counselor at a Wholistic Health Care Center and had my eye on specialized health care ministries. I had served as a licensed minister in a small rural church for 9 months, I had taken CPC in a different counseling setting and I had interned for two years as a health care counselor in a church clinic setting. I was working with some ground-breaking ministers and leaders. But I was told by others in the field, including Granger Westberg, that I needed to accept a call to serve as pastor of a local church. He wanted me to gain at least three years of parish experience before going full-time as a minister in a health care clinic. I accepted the challenge and Susan and I sought a call. We were called by two small congregations in rural North Dakota. We fell in love with the work of a parish minister and, as I’ve been known to say, it seems to have taken more than 40 years to gain those three years of experience.

Somewhere along the way, I went from being too young for many positions in the church to being too old. Today as I celebrate my 66th birthday, I have officially reached the age of retirement with full social security for my age cohort. I have visited at this meeting with clergy who retired at 62 and 65 and I have heard from friends in other vocations about their retirement. The urge to retire hasn’t captured me in the way that it seems to have done so for others. I hear them describe a sense of losing their call, but I don’t feel that at all. I feel like I am still called to the ministry. I feel like I still have much to offer. I feel like I’m still a capable preacher and pastor and servant of the church.

It isn’t that I haven’t thought about retirement or moving to a less demanding call. I have. Some days are very long and exhausting and sometimes I feel like stepping aside so that new leadership can emerge would be good for the church and good for me. I know that there are ministry settings with lighter work loads and more free time for family. I know that I have a lot of options. As I look around the room of clergy gathered for the conference annual meeting, I’m aware that conference meetings are settings that attract a lot of retired clergy. I’ve spoken with quite a few in the first day of the conference. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to go to a conference meeting without some sense of obligation to the church. I go to these meetings because I feel a need to remain connected for the sake of the congregation I serve, not because I am addicted to the meetings themself. When I think of retirement, I think of retiring from meetings like this one. Perhaps I will attend conference meetings after retirement, but I doubt it.

What I do know is that I’m keeping my record of not being quite the right age for my role in the church. Somehow I went from being too young to being too old without ever being exactly the right age, but that’s OK. I’m willing to accept my age and even wear it proudly. My health is good and I’ve got a few more good years and a few more good sermons in me. I get great joy in seeing younger people assume leadership in the church. For now the fact that I’m eager to get through this meeting, go home and get back to work in the church is a good sign.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!