Where does your authority reside?

Two nights before I got married, my parents, husband-to-be, and I went to dinner in the restaurant adjoining the wedding venue. The hostess – a fellow young adult – placed menus with fancy fonts in front of everyone…except for me. I got a coloring sheet and crayons.

At first, I was stunned. After I got my wits about me, though, I was boiling. I marched the kiddie menu back to the hostess stand and asked, through gritted teeth, to exchange it for a grown-up one.

I’d like to say this incident was out of the norm, but it wasn’t. (It was, however, the most embarrassing in a long line of ego-shrinking moments!) Until I had a high-energy child who quickly and visibly aged me, strangers often underestimated my age. The mismatch between my perceived and actual age ballooned into a bigger issue when I became a minister. Not only was I female, I looked like a 14-year-old. Not a great combination for being taken seriously in the pulpit, in hospital rooms, and at the funeral home. I spent a lot of time justifying my presence to others…and to myself.

All of my insecurities came to a head during my first unit of CPE. Some doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers were more open to the idea of chaplaincy than others. Once I was mid-prayer with a patient in ICU – at the request of said patient and family – when a nurse burst in and told me to go so she could perform a routine blood pressure check. I acquiesced. When I brought my frustrations to my CPE cohort, my supervisors challenged me: “Do you believe you had a right to be there? Why did you leave?” That situation was in sharp contrast with the all-night vigil I kept with a family whose patriarch was dying. They – and the doctors and nurses – welcomed my ministry. In fact, the deceased’s wife called the hospital later that week to thank me for my prayers and my presence.

Those two encounters worked on me mightily. I realized I had been waiting for others to grant me pastoral authority rather than locating it in my call and my sense of self. God has pulled me into ministry. God has equipped me and continues to do so. I won’t get it right all the time, but that’s ok. Sometimes my humanity opens opportunities for connection that perfection in pastoring would not.

There’s a certain amount of authority we gain by virtue of our education, ordination, and job title. We also earn some of it by being with our people at points of pain and celebration. But these sources cannot be the primary means of understanding ourselves as ministers. Otherwise, when we are between positions, when we don’t have our ordination certificate handy, when we are at the center of conflict, when others don’t yet know us well enough to let us in, when someone tells us to get out, we won’t have much to keep us rooted in our pastoral identity.

Instead, we must continually (because it’s not a one-and-done exercise) develop the ability to ask, “Do I deserve to be here? What are the gifts I have to offer? What is God prompting me to do here and now?” Not so that we overstep our authority, but so that we live fully into it.

I found that once I stopped questioning myself so much, so did other people. Or, at least, those moments prompted more of a willingness to educate (and, let’s be honest, some mental eye-rolling) than a vocational crisis.

Are you called by God into ministry? Are you called by God to be in ministry at this time, in this place? Has God equipped you, or is God currently equipping you to serve? Then go forth to use your gifts, embracing your identity as pastor and person.

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