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“It’s okay to be green:”
My Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor assured me after I relayed a mistake that I had made in a pastoral conversation that day.
I glared at her.
As I prepared to enter into my final year of seminary at 24 years old, I needed to be better than that.
Soon, I would have to take ordination exams, a task that didn’t offer much grace for those who were “green.”
And people’s spiritual lives were at stake right then and there in the hospital—they needed a seasoned chaplain.
It took the whole 10 weeks for her words to begin to sink in.
“It’s okay to be green” wasn’t just an excuse for pastoral ignorance; it was a blessing to move forward despite what I didn’t know yet.
It was permission to be me, in all my present wisdom.
It was God blessing the young David.
It was Jesus holding up a child’s faith as model to the disciples.
It was what began to pick away at the anxiety that haunted the perfectionist in me.
It put a highlighter on one of my favorite Scriptures.
In his farewell discourse, Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).
I had to remember, Jesus chose me as new green sprout, and if I was enough for Jesus, I needed to be enough for me, too.
A few years into ordained parish ministry, I would remember my CPE Supervisor’s words as balm to my slipups and fumbles, of which there were many, and felt God blessing me as well.
In those early years of ministry, I heard another quote that stuck with me.
Okay, so this was more of a pointed rebuke, which I took at the time as a compliment.
I was in my office working way more than my 40 hours per week, as was my usual, when late one evening, my administrative assistant rolled her eyes at me.
“Why don’t you just go home?” she asked me.
“It’s late. No one is here.”
Then she remarked, “Stop working like you are trying to get Jesus fired.”
At first, I laughed and smiled at the comparison, though she didn’t mean it like that.
She was telling me that I was out of line.
All that talk in seminary about self-care and boundaries hadn’t sunk in.
In an effort to hide my greenness, I was trying to prove myself as worthy of my calling.
“Stop working like you are trying to get Jesus fired” was a reminder that I serve Jesus.
I serve a Lord who took naps.
I serve a Lord who lasted three years in ministry on this earth.
I serve a Lord who’s already been crucified so that I don’t have to be.
My assistant’s wise words gave me the gift of Sabbath.
With my newfound freedom from attempting to steal Jesus’ Lordship title, I had to learn a new way to be a pastor.
If I wasn’t the savior, who was I?
How did I minister to people if my job wasn’t to fix things for them?
This began a season of ministry in which I actively tried NOT to do what I had done before, which was a lot of advice-giving and doing it all.
Instead, I’d just show up to the performance or sit in the hospital waiting room or hold a hand at a bedside and listen to the upset parent or distraught patient and try not to say something foolish.
I did a lot of sympathetic head nodding during that time.
One day, I received a thank you letter from a widow who wrote, “Thank you for just showing up.
Everything has been chaotic around me.
Even my family is walking on eggshells around me and always fussing over me.
But you gave me the space to pray and grieve.
Thank you for giving me that time. It felt like Jesus was really with me.”
Thus began my “just show up” model of pastoral care.
When in doubt, just show up.
When you don’t know the right thing to say or do, just show up.
In many of life’s most trying moments, the presence of a person’s pastor reminds them of God’s very presence with them.
So, when you don’t have the right words or plans or the power of healing to raise someone from the dead, just show up.
Of course, that’s not all there is to ministry.
A congregation is a complex system of which you are very much a part.
My second call has been as a solo pastor in a mid-sized church.
After some struggle with finding my balance on this complicated web, I signed up for the Leadership in Ministry cohort at Columbia Seminary, which uses the tools of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) to give direction and clarity to church leaders.
I described for my coach, Bob Dibble, the aggressive and hostile reactions of a few in my congregation toward me after my support for the nomination of an elder who is gay.
Bob shrugged and replied, “No good change goes unpunished.”
His BFST twist on the proverbial saying, “no good deed goes unpunished,” made sense of why I had become the subject of anxiety from a change of which I actually held little control.
Though I stood my ground and offered my support for the nomination, I was actually not in charge of this decision—it was a congregational election.
But it was a significant change for some of them, and those few were causing chaos in the system.
I was being punished for a good change.
But honestly, my convictions about what is right, along with my understanding of BFST gave me the courage to face the heat.
Ministry can certainly bring the heat at times.
The past year and a half of ministry during a global pandemic is a prime example.
As leaders in the church, we’ve certainly felt the weight of our decisions.
If we cancel Sunday School, how will we continue Christian Education?
How do we offer sacred space to the Zoom-weary people of God?
Who is going to figure out the tech stuff to make this work?
You already know all these wonderings.
Like most congregations, my church has canceled in-person events except for those that can be spaced and masked or outdoors.
It has been painful to see programs for which you worked so hard and relationships that you nurtured with such care fizzle out before you.
What gives me hope during these grieving times is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said, “After death something new begins, over which all powers of the world of death have no more might.”
The promise of the resurrection is that there is always life after death.
This pandemic, which has taken the lives of almost 5 million people worldwide, is also killing many of the dreams, programs, and plans we had so thoughtfully created in the church.
However, after death, something new always begins.
There will be resurrection.
Jesus will not stay in the tomb.
We’ll figure out how to do ministry in new ways, and we’ll likely mess up many times the progress.
But the Spirit will assure that new life will emerge.
The Rev. Catherine Cavazos Renken has served as the Pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw, GA since September 2011. She received an M.Div from Columbia Theological Seminary and B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Arlington. She has served churches in Brentwood, Tenn; North Palm Beach, Fla; and Fort Worth, Texas. Catherine volunteers as a Chaplain for the Cobb County Police and is passionate about supporting organizations that fight human trafficking. Catherine is married to Brad, who is the owner of Hearthstone Luxury Pools + Outdoors, and she is the proud mother of two young children.