This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
Costume or Calling?
I was 25 years old when I did my first church internship in seminary, still feeling very much like a person pretending to be a minister. The first time I donned a black clerical robe to conduct a funeral, I felt as though I might as well be traveling door-to-door through the neighborhood, calling out “Trick or Treat!” and collecting candy. It was difficult to own the role, to put it mildly. Surely Peter Parker must have felt this way, I thought to myself, the first time he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror in that skintight red suit. Ridiculous.
Despite a lifetime in the church, I felt that I knew very little about being a professional religious person. I was only in my second week of the internship, still learning people’s names, when the pastor left for vacation. Despite my prayers for a boring, uneventful week, a member of the congregation had a major depressive episode and attempted suicide. He was transferred to a locked psychiatric hospital where he recovered indefinitely without friends or family to care for him. His name was Tom.
I had been at the church for three weeks, and I had never been in a psychiatric hospital. I was not, I decided, going to visit Tom. Who did I think I was? I didn’t have any training or counseling experience. No, I wasn’t going. And then I got a phone call. It was from an older man in the congregation – not a church elder, just an elder from the church. “You’ve got to go visit Tom,” he said matter-of-factly. “Surely someone who knows him better…” I started. “No,” he said. “No one is going to go – he’s miserable to be around. You’ve got to go,” he said. “It’s your job.” He was right.
So I took the subway to the hospital, wondering what on earth was waiting for me behind those locked doors. A nurse took me to Tom’s room. He saw me, and he came forward, wrapping his arms around me, weeping until there were big wet spots on my shirt. “Thank you so much for coming,” he said.
Then, he led me up and down the shiny hallways of that hospital unit. He stopped at every door, leaning in to say, “Hey guess what, my pastor is paying me a visit. I want to introduce you to my pastor.”
This was 2005. Gay ordination would be illegal for five more years and I was planning to be a social worker. But Tom saw me in ways that I didn’t yet dare see myself. It was an epiphany – a glimpse of the Holy.
Pastoral identity can be a great and mysterious calling, a flash of lighting and thunder on the Damascus Road. But sometimes being a pastor is no more complicated than showing up and marveling that God shows up too.
I hold that memory like a gift on those days when the clerical collar feels more like a costume than a calling. I look into the mirror, thinking of Tom and 2 Corinthians 3:18. “All of us,” Paul writes, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Tim Hughes serves as Associate Pastor at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Social Work from Rutgers University. Tim loves city living, urban ministry, community organizing, and improv comedy. You can find him on Twitter: @TimRyanHughes.