Here is my Entrance Essay for the process of ordination in the ELCA.
September 29, 1997
It is often only upon reflection that one can see that the strands of action, conviction, and circumstance in one’s life form a coherent whole. If my life is a journey marked by detours, it nevertheless has a worthy end, a rough roadmap, and plenty of guides and companions—and the detours are usually worthwhile. I have had a lifelong interest in the Christian life of faith. Exploring the faith, struggling to actualize it in my life, and communicating it to others through loving action and words are at the core of what I do and who I am.
I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. My father is a dermatologist in private practice, a church organist, and a semi-professional singer. He has always been a busy, self-sacrificing man. My father has always worked hard at spending time with his sons, but he is a quietly reflective man, and does not talk much about himself. It is only in my young adulthood that I have really begun to know him. We now talk for about an hour each week. My mother raised my two brothers and me, and is also the bookkeeper and secretary for my father’s practice. At work, she takes care of my father, whose life would undoubtedly be poorer if she was not there to take care of the business and make sure he takes time off each day to be with her! My brother Kevin is two years my elder; we have always gotten along well, even though we are very different. He is a chemical engineer. I am closer to my brother Bryan, who is eight years younger than I am. We shared a room from he was a baby. He is interested in music, photography, and literature, and just started college.
I was a fifth generation member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a small denomination that split off from the Swedish Lutheran Church in the 1880s. My extended family is almost all Covenant; my paternal grandfather sends me Covenant literature and information monthly (and I send him copies of sermons and papers I write). The church I grew up in, First Covenant Church of Duluth, was a positive church environment. The two senior pastors and various associate pastors at the church in the 1970s and 1980s were good preachers, theologically moderate, and grounded in the wider Lutheran and ecumenical Christian traditions. Theological diversity was tolerated; what mattered more was the life together—Sunday worship and classes, Wednesday night potlucks and Bible study.
When I was nine years old, I received Christ in a Spirit-filled experience at Covenant Park Bible Camp in Mahtowa, Minnesota. That experience decisively changed the course of my life. My conversion experience was a genuine step in a young life of faith. I returned to that camp for at least twelve consecutive summers, the last five as a counselor (as it is a small camp, I was a senior counselor from age fifteen). I slowly began to read the Bible and pray, and I was active at my home church, eventually taking on leadership roles in the youth group from junior high through high school. In ninth grade, I became a member of First Covenant Church in Duluth. Throughout this time, I struggled to live my faith. I taught Vacation Bible School from age twelve, and I was active in a Christian fellowship at school.
During high school, I also became a part of a solid group of friends of mixed religious backgrounds, with whom I am still close. In that group, I was challenged to question and justify what I believed, and my interest in the Bible, theology, and philosophy grew. These friends demonstrated to me for the first time the diversity of spirituality, from thoughtful agnosticism, to Judaism, to Catholicism. We are not often together anymore; that is an emptiness in my life, although we are still fairly intimate friends, sharing our selves, our struggles, our questions of faith, love, and work
At North Park College in Chicago, the college of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I pursued first of all a major in Biblical and Theological Studies, focussing on the New Testament. With one-on-one attention from Dr. Calvin Katter, I was fortunate to be allowed to steer my own course studying Matthew through Acts in Greek. Interest in the philosophy of religion and in hermeneutics caused me to pursue philosophy as a second major, where my specific area of interest was in the rationality of religious beliefs. During my college days, I was fairly active in Urban Outreach programs, and for two years at North Park, I also wrote a weekly article in the school paper entitled A Question of Faith, in which I engaged the college and seminary community in dialogue about faith issues. During the summers, I worked for two years as an intern youth minister at my home church under two mentoring pastors.
It was at North Park College that I became fully conscious of my roots in the Lutheran pietistic tradition of the Covenant Church. The best of this tradition seeks to combine an evangelical, biblical foundation with a non-dogmatic openness. The Covenant community at North Park challenged me to live out the Christian faith in my daily existence. Intellectual study, though important, is not a substitute for an active faith, based on the Scriptures, practiced in fellowship with other Christians, and lived out in the world.
My philosophy mentor at North Park is a Reformed theologian and philosopher, Dr. Stephen Bouma-Prediger. Through him, the Reformed Calvinist tradition helped me to look beyond my pietistic origins. To effectively minister to and transform this world, Christians need to understand the intellectual, religious, psychological, socio-cultural, political, and economic forces at work in the world. To properly respond to our situations, we must also study the Bible and the classics of the Christian tradition. We need to understand the various traditions that inform our perspective, and, in dialogue with people of other faiths, other traditions, we must seek God’s truth in all its forms.
The Reformed traditions has inspired me not only to ground my intellectual life in a life of faith, but also to allow concerns for God’s justice, righteousness, and peace to guide the direction of my studies. I want to strive for God’s shalom by helping others hear the Christian message anew.
Following graduation from North Park, I worked in the Rio Grande Valley with a Covenant outreach group called Merge Ministries. During that time, I served as an intern youth minister in several Spanish speaking Covenant churches, helped develop a tutoring/youth center in San Juan, Texas, began and led a college/career Bible study, and guided building projects at Covenant churches in Reynosa, Mexico. It was a challenging time. I was stretched between about five different ministries.
After seven months, I returned from the Rio Grande Valley to Duluth, and got a job as a vocational trainer with profoundly developmentally disabled adults. My job was to care for their basic needs, teach basic life skills, and intervene to minimize violent or self-injurious behavior. It was not an easy job, but it was good to gain experience in a non-church related field. Working with special adults also taught me patience, and the importance of caring for and about all people. In addition, I served for four months as the interim youth director of my home church that year, a job that included teaching confirmation.
During that time, my wife Mindy and I started dating. We have been friends since junior high, had attended the same schools since then (including North Park College), and worked at the same summer camp, but we did not date until my return to Duluth in 1994, when she asked me out (I was pleasantly surprised!). Our relationship progressed rapidly, and we were married in the summer of 1995, just before we moved to Princeton. Mindy is my soul mate. She is a gracious, beautiful person, an experienced canoe trip guide, and a great teacher. She is now teaching third grade in Ewing, NJ, and she loves it. We enjoy camping, cooking, hiking, and living together.
When I arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of 1995, I got a part-time job working at The Hub, a drop-in center for developmentally disabled and mentally ill adults. For the past year, Mindy has worked there with me every other Saturday night. For my summer field education placement in 1996, I was the co-director of a summer children’s program at an inner city Presbyterian church. It was an intense, invigorating summer. We trained fifteen teens to work with sixty-five children for four weeks. I love working with children. I had time to get to know the children and counselors, and assist the adult leaders when necessary. I also gained some experience in leading worship and preaching.
During the 1996-7 school year, I worked as the Recreation Director for Citizens for Independent Living, a parent-run organization that works to help developmentally disabled adults live somewhat independently, as part of my seminary field education. I coordinated my efforts with the social worker of C.I.L. This year, I am continuing to volunteer with C.I.L. to lead the monthly Men’s Nights, activities in which the men get together and talk about issues that concern them (C.I.L. also has Women’s Nights, which are led by an R.N.).
Finally, this past summer (1997), I spent eleven weeks at JFK Medical Center in Edison, NJ, doing Clinical Pastoral Education. C.P.E. was a challenging, enriching experience for me. I was privileged to work with a diverse, talented group of students and our supervisor. I ministered to patients, family, and staff all over the hospital, but my daily focus was on the Rehabilitation units: cardiac, respiratory, and orthopedic rehabilitation, as well as the Brain Trauma Unit. Through the ministry time and the group work this summer, I learned both who I am and how I relate to others as a minister.
The first two years at Princeton Theological Seminary have been challenging and enriching. I enjoy reading, writing, and discussing about issues of faith. This has also been a good place for Mindy and I to start our married life together. When we were looking at seminaries, we looked for an open, ecumenical school, on the East Coast (since neither of us had ever lived out here), which would be in a good place for Mindy to find a teaching job. I was also attracted by Princeton’s Presbyterian heritage, since it is a fresh perspective for me to learn. While Princeton Theological Seminary is not perfect, it is a large and diverse enough institution that one can fashion one’s own curriculum. In addition to the required courses, I have focused especially on Pastoral Care, studying under Dr. Donald Capps. I am attracted to the practical application of biblical studies, theology, and psychology in individual lives.
It has also been at Princeton that Mindy and I have become Lutherans. As I decided to come to Princeton, I knew that my future in the Covenant Church was limited, because most Covenanters consider P.T.S. to be much too liberal (along with any other non-conservative evangelical school). Most Covenant churches, as I understand, would not hire a Princeton graduate, and the Covenant is such a small church, about 300 congregations in the USA. I had hoped to stick it out in the Covenant, and struggle to open the church up to the wider church and world. But in our first year here, we began to attend Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Princeton Junction, which has become our church home. It is an open and accepting church, with a real concern for issues of social justice. I began to explore my roots in the Lutheran tradition. We love the liturgy, the theology, and the life of the church. I volunteer in Prince of Peace’s Cherry Tree Club, a pre-school for children who live in poverty in the motels on Route One, and I also serve on the Social Ministries Committee.
Transferring from the Covenant Church to the Lutheran Church, ELCA, seems to have been a good decision. Mindy and I will always be a part of the Covenant tradition. We have many friends and family in the Covenant. I am a part of the Covnet, an e-mail discussion group, and I also preach regularly at Pilgrim Covenant Church in South Plainfield, NJ. But we are at home in the Lutheran Church. I am thankful to be a part of a church that is open to other denominations, and that combines evangelism with a passion for social justice. The good news needs to be spread by our actions as well as our words.
Our current life situation is stable. Mindy is enjoying teaching in Ewing. She likes her students and co-workers, and is receiving valuable training and experience. At this point, Mindy hopes to stay at her school at least two or three more years. We hope to return to Minnesota eventually. We are both healthy, physically and emotionally. At the end of this summer, we have both begun to exercise regularly. I look forward to a good senior year here at P.T.S., with good courses, conversation, and hard work. Among other courses, I am taking “Lutheran Polity” this year, as well as a course on Luther’s theology.
I am prayerfully seeking God’s will for my life. I feel called to be a minister of word and sacrament. In this regard, I look forward to exploring this call with my brothers and sisters in the New Jersey Synod. I understand the pastoral ministry to consist mainly of three elements (as I have heard it said at P.T.S.): preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Perhaps it is more helpful, however, to see preaching and teaching as two important forms of pastoral care. In all they do, ministers must be caring pastorally for the laity. While all Christians are called to ministry, pastors are called to minister to the other ministers, encouraging, teaching, correcting, counseling, and equipping them in their Christian walk.
Daily prayer and Bible study form the foundation of a successful ministry. Ministry must be grounded in Scripture, the creeds, and the confessions of our church. I see ministry as a holistic discipline: we proclaim and practice the good news of Jesus Christ in our words and deeds. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we share in the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. In baptism, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace. We love others as God loves us. We are Christ’s body in the world.