Endorsement Essay

‘Tis the season…for endorsement essay writing! (Okay, so it’s not as festive as Christmas, but I tried.) Today, a couple of fellow seminary students asked for some advice in writing their essays, and so I offer my own endorsement essay as an example. I offer this to my colleagues who follow me in the ELCA candidacy process because it was so incredibly helpful for me to see the sample essay of another colleague ahead of me last year. But I also offer my essay as a (small but vulnerable) sliver into my own call to and understanding of ministry. And so without further ado, the essay. Enjoy!

I. Call to Ministry

I doubt any of us who were baptized as infants can remember that day, but I am certain we have witnessed enough of them to know the great joy that accompanies it. The first Sunday I worshipped at my current congregation we had five baptisms, and five times we sang, “You belong to Christ; in him you have been baptized! Alleluia, alleluia!” As our liturgy proclaims the newly baptized to be “marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we boldly declare whose we are and to whom we belong and that sin, death, and the forces of evil do not have the final word. The best part is that baptism is a gift by which God reveals God’s new reality for God’s people. Baptism is also a beginning that “inaugurates a life of discipleship.”[1] It gives us our identity as children of God and grounds our vocation in that identity, to love and serve all people. Being claimed by God’s grace, we, like Jesus, are immediately driven out into our wildernesses and are compelled to proclaim God’s message of reconciliation by word and deed (Mark 1.9-15).

The life of justice-seeking discipleship that flows from baptism is also intertwined with call, and my own experience reflects this. For as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a pastor, but it is not until recently that the Spirit’s call has become louder. In 2011 when I graduated from college with a pre-seminary concentration, I had just begun the process of coming out as gay. While that is a difficult matter by itself, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience pursue a life of ministry in the denomination of which I was then a part. In my search for a more welcoming church home, I visited Urban Village, a still-young church plant in Chicago. In my first conversation with the pastor, I told my story and was fully welcomed, affirmed, and invited into the community of Urban Village. He recognized my gifts and passion for ministry, and for the following two years I felt more involved in the life of the church than in twenty years of growing up within her walls. From marching alongside reconciling churches in Chicago’s Pride Parade to distributing “ashes to go” on Ash Wednesday to engaging with newcomers and serving them communion, I was doing in those moments what I have since come to know as the model of “public church” that my seminary is committed to—witnessing openly to God’s love in acts of reconciliation and works of service and justice. I knew that is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, and I simply cannot imagine doing anything else.

I have found myself called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament because I desire to be a public leader in the church, specifically in the context of the local parish. That is where I feel most at home. The world is a broken and terrifying place, in need of the message of God’s love more than ever, and I believe that it is by preaching the Gospel that liberates and by sharing the Meal that unites that we are refreshed and empowered to go forth and stir up people from complacency from the world as it is in order to begin to recreate the world as God intends. I believe that my experiences of the joys and challenges of church planting with Urban Village and Holy Trinity, participating in the radical hospitality of service with campus ministry, and engaging in social justice with community organizations have given me a strong foundation to stand on as I grow as a public leader and help to shape the church and the congregations I hope to serve. Most exciting about my call is what I have said many times before: More than anything, I want to in some small way be for others what that pastor at Urban Village was for me—that is, an instrument of affirmation and reconciliation.

I think the most challenging part about this call is also the most beautiful. One weekend when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat at Urban Village, we were given some time for quiet contemplation. I have never been great at sitting still in silence, and so in need of something to do, I opened a pew Bible to Exodus and started reading Moses’s call story. He says to God, “Who am I that I should go?” Exactly, I thought. In the midst of hearing and experiencing all sorts of external affirmations that I should go to seminary, still I doubted that I really had what it takes to pull off being a pastor, especially compared to all the seminarians, interns, and other leaders who surrounded me at Urban Village and who (I thought) were so much better at it than me. But God’s answer: “I will be with you.” As surely as God was speaking to Moses, God was speaking to me. In that moment of internal affirmation of call, I knew that despite all my perceived shortcomings, God had something in mind for me. Much later, during my summer spent doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, I was reminded again of the uniqueness of my gifts. In dialogue with my fellow interns and supervisor, CPE upended my self-expectations and allowed me to be authentically me. Through preaching and pastoral care, I gained more confidence in my own pastoral identity and authority and even calling myself “chaplain.” As one CPE colleague said, “I don’t have to be [this expectation of me]. I can just be me.”

I am also reminded of the great cloud of witnesses God has given me, as God gave Moses his brother Aaron. I am reminded of that reality looking at a Polaroid from my baptism day, surrounded by my parents, sponsors, and pastor, and I am still reminded of it when I look around at my fellow seminarians in class and in chapel or the people sitting next to me at church every week. Thanks be to God that none of us does ministry alone! My understanding of the priesthood of all believers means that the work of reconciliation and justice to which each of us is called is a communal effort. Some, like me, have been called to preach and preside, but God gives gifts to all “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4.12). Indeed, as I was reminded this summer, we all have different but equally valuable gifts to bring, and we also have the privilege to bear one another’s burdens and the gift of being invited into their stories. We don’t have to fix, but we do get to listen—to wonder, to follow, to hold.

II. Faithfulness to the Church’s Confession

I have been Lutheran all my life. I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church and educated in Lutheran schools from preschool through college. To this day I could still answer, “What does this mean?” And yet, during all that time, I could not tell you what made me different from other Christians. It was not until being separated from the church of my upbringing that I began to experience Christianity in all its diversity, and my experience in seminary so far has taught me what it means to be distinctly Lutheran.

For me, the heart of the Lutheran confessional witness begins with my saint-and-sinner identity. I am at once a good creation of God but also corrupt by sin and utterly unable to save myself, yet I also believe that I am saved by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake. Lutheranism is a movement that takes sin seriously but grace even more seriously. That is to say, we are realistic about the human condition revealed to us by God’s Law, and when we brought to despair on account of it, the immediate proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is made all the more joyous, liberating us from sin and rescuing us from despair. The Confessions emphasize that we are declared righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness, and this grace is wholly a gift, not dependent on anything I say or do (thank God!). Even my faith in this grace is not my doing, as Luther writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”[2]

This doctrine of justification also informs my pastoral care. Because of its honesty about the human condition, it also creates space for lament. And lament is not hopeless ranting but faith in God despite all evidence to the contrary. Amy, one of patients this summer, taught me this in the course of an hour visit where she related loss upon loss in her life. For perhaps the only time in her life, she had space to process openly and freely, and I had the privilege of standing with her in Good Friday and holding Easter for her when she could not.

Speaking of Good Friday and Easter, paradox is also one of the treasures of Lutheranism that I cherish. As in my pastoral care, it also influences my preaching. As Barth famously quipped, a minister ought to preach with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To preach Law is to tell the truth about the human condition and everything that is wrong with the world, and to preach Gospel is tell the truth about God’s grace and proclaim that God’s relationship with all of creation is wholly restored. The two must be simultaneously affirmed because one without the other is meaningless. The Gospel is all about restoring broken relationships. As God in Christ has reconciled the world to God’s self, God has also given us this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-19).

Therefore, when I am asked to serve in accordance with the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the Confessions of the ELCA, I am really being asked to be faithful to the Gospel and to let its message of liberation and reconciliation permeate all that I am and do. My role as a “diligent and faithful” rostered minister in this church will be grounded in Word and Sacrament, as the confessors write, “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”[3] In addition to our confessional and scriptural emphases, Lutherans are also a sacramental people. Our proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments highlight the importance we ascribe to the means of grace. While God is certainly not limited to revealing God’s grace in Word and Sacrament alone, God has indeed promised that such grace is found in bread and wine and water. The ordained minister is, in a phrase, the means of the means of grace.

Grounded in Word and Sacrament, the mission of the church always needs to extend outward. As our vocations are grounded in baptism, the font in our worship spaces reminds us that the Sunday assembly is only the starting point and that how we live our Monday-through-Saturday lives matters. Put differently, the church does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Empowered by the Gospel and fed by Christ’s body and blood, active engagement in the work of justice and peace begins in the local congregation.

Our faith compels us to follow the example of Jesus, who regularly associated with “tax collectors and sinners” and healed many who were considered “unclean” and the marginalized whom we would prefer to ignore. To say our attention is directed to the fringes is to focus on meeting people where they are and as they are. I am reminded of Stephen’s final words before his death: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7.48). He reminds us that God is not present only in our houses of worship but is in fact found among “the least of these.” For me this summer, the least of these were found in dark hospital rooms, like Mr. Lacey, one of my patients who was recovering from a stroke. He had severely limited mobility and spoke with considerable difficulty, and we shared maybe ten minutes of conversation in the course of a two-hour visit. When the nurse came in to move him from his wheelchair to his bed, I told him I would leave to let him rest unless he wanted me to stay. He did, and he said to me, “It’s good that you’re here… I feel better having your blessing.” And so I stayed until he fell asleep. In those quiet moments, I began to feel his loneliness, but I realized that, while I got to leave at 4:30, that feeling was his every day. If I weren’t there, he truly would have been alone, but I was there when no one else was and to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

I could tell endless stories about my clinical experience as a chaplain this summer, but for me, it keeps going back to the doctrine of justification, which implies not only that we are freed from our sin but freed for good works to the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbor. As redeemed creatures, we have a faith active in love ethic, as Luther writes:

Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him. This he should do freely.[4]

Faith active in love for the sake of the world enables us to be theologians of the cross and call a thing what it is—and so we acknowledge systemic evil and injustice. But our response is always one of love because the church is not in the business of condemnation. If we are going to err, then we ought to err on the side of inclusivity. Our task is to proclaim the Gospel message of liberation and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. God’s grace is for everyone, and it is not our place to decide who gets it. Amy’s story, Mr. Lacey’s story, and stories like theirs put flesh on the bones of my intellectual framework and inspire me in this odd and wondrous calling.

The Lutheran confessional heritage has given me a framework and way of seeing the world that makes sense to me. The heritage in which I stand has given me many gifts, not least of which is our fondness for paradox. I believe in the continual cycle of death and resurrection that ultimately ends with resurrection, and above all, I believe when all else fails I can dwell in the mystery, knowing God’s grace is sufficient.

III. Faithful Living

When I reflect on my first year of seminary and my journey of discernment so far, many joys and challenges come to mind. Personally, after three years of not being in school full-time, it was a challenge to become re-acclimated to the demands of an academic environment. The semester before I started as an M.Div. I took one class as a “special student,” which not only made the transition back to school easier but also introduced me to the seminary community. Prior to starting seminary, I had also been working nearly full-time; fortunately, my job was flexible enough for me to reduce my hours, first to three and then to two days a week to allow for adequate time to devote to my coursework.

My vocational and spiritual development since starting seminary go hand-in-hand. Last semester, daily chapel was a priority for me since my work schedule in the fall did not permit this. It was wonderful to have those worship opportunities, to be immersed in the rhythm of the church year, and to be surrounded by colleagues who daily reminded me of our common identity as beloved children of God. This year, I also have the privilege to serve as sacristan on chapel staff and look forward to being a more intimate part of communal worship life.

Being entranced during my first year at seminary was also a big milestone, and as a gay man, I am thrilled that I now have the support of Proclaim, the professional network of LGBTQ seminarians and rostered leaders in the Lutheran church. I trust it will be a tremendous resource for me throughout candidacy, internship, first call, and beyond.

This year I have also come to grow significantly in my passion for justice issues. I wrote in my entrance essay that I did not see the role of pastor as that of community organizer, yet I have come to appreciate that their functions are more similar that I had previously realized. At the core, both are about building relationships with people around shared interests for the sake of the local and global communities. Last fall, shortly after the Ferguson grand jury decision, I had the opportunity to join LSTC and other Hyde Park seminarians in a “walk-out” to protest the injustice of the verdict and to make a public witness of our church’s commitment to confronting racism and advocating for racial justice.[5] That was a powerful day for me. I also had the opportunity to contribute an article to our seminary’s blog about the experience as it relates to our new curriculum’s emphasis on being and doing public church.[6] Moreover, while I still feel deeply called to Word and Sacrament, my CPE colleagues recognized my gifts for chaplaincy too, and to be sure, the tools of chaplaincy are not unlike those of pastoral care in the parish.

I have already mentioned that daily chapel at LSTC contributes greatly to my spiritual nourishment, but I am also fortunate to have a local home congregation. The Holy Trinity community has been fully supportive of my call and my studies, and I am happy that I will be able to continue to worship there on Saturday nights for another year before I go on internship. While I certainly have no shortage of opportunities to nourish my faith, this year I have begun to focus more on practicing self-care. In January I joined the University of Chicago gym and have made a concerted effort to exercise regularly, and I have also been more mindful of my eating habits. Overall, I have found that balancing responsibilities and recreation contributes positively to my whole wellbeing, but it will also require deliberate attention to keep it in practice. I am also in the process of seeking a therapist and spiritual director to continue the self-learning of CPE and to follow the recommendation of my entrance panel.

As an example in faithful service and holy living, I will also be expected to make a commitment to lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Such a standard is intimidating, to say the least, especially since my first reaction is that no one is “worthy” of the Gospel. That phrase from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (1.27), however, conveys an idea much richer in meaning than it seems. The verb Paul uses in this passage has a basic meaning rooted in exercising one’s rights and duties as a political citizen. Paul’s meaning, therefore, carries the connotation of living a life that reflects one’s “citizenship” in the Christian church, with an emphasis on the communal nature of that church. In other words, leading a life worthy of the Gospel has less to do with securing individual salvation but everything to do with living together in response it.

The pastor, like everyone else, is first and foremost a baptized Christian and part of the priesthood of all believers. (S)he is not set apart as one having “moral or spiritual perfection” but rather as “one sent by the church to lead the community of faith through the ministry of word and sacrament.”[7] Therefore, as the appointed leader of a congregation, my words and actions will not only reflect on my local community but also my synod and the whole church. My responsibility is to all of these entities, and it is ultimately to the Gospel.

My responsibility as a public minister “whose life and conduct are above reproach” includes both faithful service and holy living. Faithful service means regularly participating in the means of grace and making them available to others, always being available as a pastoral caregiver, and being grounded and encouraging others in spiritual practices. It also means cherishing and respecting the mutual accountability of my ministerial colleagues and learning from each other. Lifelong learning and study of Scripture, theology, and the arts of ministry are also vital to be the best possible leader I can be. Similarly, holy living means integrity and trustworthiness, particularly in relationships, and it means consistency in all aspects of one’s life.

All things considered, living a life above reproach ultimately has to do with fostering the witness of the Gospel and my ability to carry out public ministry. The expression of that Gospel is nothing less than compassion and acts of radical hospitality, care of creation, and striving for peace and justice in all the earth.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 20.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.

[3] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 42.

[4] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 75.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,” September 1993.

[6] http://bit.ly/1NRcyTL

[7] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” April 2010, 7.

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