Post Author: Bethany Nelson
Standing behind our piano bench, which was positioned carefully in the front of the living room, I organized a small plate of crackers and a glass of apple juice. I had one of my favorite books of children hymns on one side, next to my favorite pink Bible – the one given to me by my church, with my name in gold on the front. I wore a cross necklace – a stitched one given to me by Grandpa “Mac” and a blanket around my neck, allowing it to swoop down, reaching far past my knees.
In front of me, sat rows of my favorite dolls – they sat upright in chairs, and propped against pillows. My sister sat there too, although she was much less patient than my other parishioners. I took note of her as the one to pay special attention to during our service that day.
I raised my hands and spoke as prophetically as my 8-year-old self could speak. And with it, church had begun.
This was an all too common scene: if I wasn’t playing house, running around Mothering everything from my baby dolls and sister to our Siamese cat, then I was playing church, taking on my role as pastor. And on most days, I would combine the two roles. As Pastor, I would preach, preside over communion and sing. And my baby doll, Barbara, would sit calmly in the front row – her wild hair freshly combed, her painted smile bright and clear, and her plastic eyes wide open – watching “Pastor Mom”.
It never occurred to me that it was odd to play church. Or to dress up as a Pastor for Halloween, or to give blessings & prayers as Christmas gifts. It was less “play” to me, and more practice for the two roles I knew would one day fill my life: pastor and mother.
I saw much of my life as practice for the ministry. In parochial school, I learned all the prayers – even the Catholic ones. I didn’t listen to my teachers when they said I was excused from memorizing the Hail Mary, or studying the sacrament of reconciliation. I took pride in being the only Lutheran in my Catholic school. I felt excitement when Sister Janine told me one day that she expected me to become a pastor. I loved attending Mass during the week and Lutheran services on Sunday. Father Kinzer was captivating. I watched, wide-eyed each week as he raised his hands over the cup. I memorized the ways he bowed slightly before the elements, committing to memory not only the words but also the intonation of his voice.
I didn’t question my call to ministry. To me, it seemed as obvious as the blue sky; it was just the way things were. I know, too, that I have been blessed to have a good life. I was raised in a strong, rural community where my family has deep roots, and everyone has been supportive of my call to ministry. I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends.
I don’t mean to paint my life with rose-colored glasses; I have known the pain of sickness, death and grief. I’ve held the hands of the dying, I’ve wiped away tears as parents cried over a miscarriage, and teens struggled with their own unplanned pregnancies. And in my own life, I’ve known loneliness, depression, fear and anger.
But above all, I have always believed in three things. First, that the God who created me, loves me in ways I cannot comprehend. I believe in my family, friends, and church family who are all supportive and ever-present. And one day, I believe I will be a wife, mother and pastor.
And then, I graduated from seminary. With it, my ability to “trust the process” was crushed, my five-year plan was stalled, and my faith in God’s call on my life was wavering.
I’d rearranged my ministry plans for the man I loved. I planned to move closer to him, to find a church, and to await the arrival of an engagement ring. I was approved and awaiting call within the ELCA. Several interviews came and went, and slowly it became clear that I would not be ordained or pastor a church anytime soon. And each time a congregation chose not to call me as their pastor, choosing instead a married and male colleague, my heart sunk further. I became angry and resentful. I increasingly felt betrayed by the church, by small towns, and by God.
More often than not, I failed to see God at work in my life. Choosing instead to blame God for not yet being ordained. And questioning why God would call me into a life of ministry only to watch me denied again and again.
Memories of my 8-year-old-self presiding over communion filled my mind. I had tear-filled eyes as I watched someone else say those holy words: “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…” My heart pounded and filled with such a longing, such a desire to be that one, to speak those words, to wear that stole. Each heartbeat held within it anticipation and hope and sadness. That should be me.
That is what I have been called to do… How long, O God? During that year, I prayed for God to “take this cup from me”. That God might instead call me to anything else; that God should have created me for a vocation that would bring less pain.
Still, I tried to remain hopeful. To believe that God had, and continued to, call me into ordained ministry. That someday, I would look back at this time and see the blessing that it was; and the pain of rejection and waiting would dissipate.
But someday seemed a long way off.
And then, on a crisp fall day, my prayers were answered. A small congregation in rural Minnesota called me to be their pastor. They saw my gifts for ministry and were not dissuaded by my gender or age; but instead were excited and proud. So, on December 18th, 2011 – two years after I became approved for ordination, and a year-and-a-half after seminary graduation — I was ordained into the ministry of word and sacrament, becoming a pastor within the ELCA.
And you know what? The feelings of pain and rejection have withered away, and that time between seminary and ordination does feel more and more like a blessing. It gave me perspective on the world outside of the church and school, it gave me an experience of pain and healing, and it gave me time: to be engaged and plan a wedding, to settle into married life, and to learn to trust God without a five-year plan; all the while gaining confidence in myself as a wife and pastor, and hopefully someday still, a mother.
Rev. Bethany A Nelson serves as pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Lester Prairie, MN. She is a 2010 graduate of Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Bethany and her husband Luke, an ordained UMC elder, live in Le Sueur, Minnesota with their friendly giant, a Great Pyrenees named Caesar.
Image by: Pat Sychio
Used with permission