Learning about the Real World of Ministry

Any change in one’s life has the potential to be transformative. Going to Earlham School of Religion was certainly so for me. My journey to the ESR began in the evening air by the sea. I was sitting on the rocks of Laguna Beach, California, in 1981, seeking discernment on what seminary I should attend. As I sat there, I centered down, listening to the hypnotic rhythm of the waves breaking against the rocks, and I suddenly experienced an "opening" about the decision. I was to pack up all my belongings and go to Richmond, Indiana, to attend seminary. I was at peace. I had become a Quaker in 1977 and became intrigued by their history, beliefs, and those "other" mysterious branches of the Society of Friends. I wanted to learn more.

When I got into my gold 1977 Toyota Corolla and started motoring down the highway, little did I know what was in store for me—that within a year l would be a husband, have an expectant wife, and be in a new vocation.

My first year at the seminary was largely composed of acclimating myself to my new environment, both socially and academically. At that time, Barclay Center was the center of the seminary. Downstairs were the classrooms and chapel area. Upstairs were the rooms where eight or nine students lived. I shared a small room with a roommate. Despite the fact that we were both from California, there was a vast gap between us theologically. He was an unprogrammed Friend from Pacific Yearly Meeting while I cut my spiritual teeth in California Yearly Meeting at Rose Drive Friends Church—a large Evangelical church in Yorba Linda. It was my first opportunity to meet one of those "other" Quakers. We kidded each other about our respective libraries because I had my books defending the Virgin Birth while his were on Eastern mysticism. We became good friends and learned from each other. The whole upstairs gathering was like that. We ate, studied, and socialized together and helped each other in various ways. Despite our disparate backgrounds, we were a community of faith, bonded together with a common interest of getting through seminary!

I took classes in theology, biblical exegesis, Quaker history and beliefs, spirituality, and pastoral counseling. Each of these classes helped me in the real and practical world of pastoral ministry.

The first theology class I took was one that we students called "deconstructive theology" because we had to take a hard look at our own belief systems and critically examine them. This course work caused me to reevaluate my own paradigm of faith. It was a painful exercise in that my assumed and assured ideologies lost their footing and I was left floundering. But it was a necessary step for later reformulation. Towards the end of the seminary experience, one took a class in "Constructive Theology" in which students wrote down their theology as they came to hold it then. I was never a fundamentalist; openness to other views without being too defensive or rigid was a comparative strength of mine that has helped in conversations with those who have different perspectives than I, whether they be evangelical or liberal. Certainly, one found a diversity of thought and practice at the seminary, and I learned from my fellow students and the faculty. One of the things that drew me to Quakers was the view of "continuing revelation"—that God can deepen and broaden one’s spiritual pilgrimage with new insights from one’s own spirituality but also from that of others. With my background on the evangelical side of Quakerism, these "new revelations" are not bolts out of the blue, but are based on the message and mission of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament.

The biblical exegesis class prepared me for the world of preaching. In the pastoral world of programmed Friends, preaching plays an important part in the worship service. Exegesis is part of hermeneutics: the task of reading and interpreting the text in its historical, literary, sociological, and cultural contexts, thereby making it more likely that we are correctly applying it in contemporary terms. I had taken two years of Greek in my undergraduate days, which stood me in good stead in these classes. ESR taught me to be faithful to the text. My own preaching style is what one would call expository, in that the biblical passage takes precedence in the sermon. However, as a Quaker, I do believe that one tries to get at the spiritual essence of the text rather than focus on a wooden literalness. My class on the Gospel of John under Alan Kolp was a great help in coming to this understanding. As I looked at this book, I realized that in the Gospel writer’s view, a literal reading of Jesus’ words was often the basis for a misunderstanding of what Jesus was getting at. The stories of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, even the disciples are examples of this motif. In these instances, one could fail to get at the world of meaning behind the literal words.

During that first year, I also had a fortunate conjunction of academic study and real life experience. I had an opportunity to work at Reid Memorial Hospital in Richmond as a social services liaison in the emergency room. I received this position through an internship offered through ESR. It was an opportunity I jumped at because I had worked as a student hospital chaplain in my undergraduate days. At the same time I was working at Reid, I was also taking a course in pastoral counseling under Miriam Burke. In this class we examined our own abilities and dysfunctions and how to deal with them. I also learned to listen; I mean, to really listen. To truly listen is not easy. Perhaps this is why Jesus frequently urges his hearers to "Listen!" It reinforced my view that in counseling, whether in pastoral visitation or being with people who are undergoing trauma, one’s presence is as a sacrament of God, and to have ears that truly listen is just as important— perhaps more important— than the words one uses.

Once I was called into the emergency room for an incident in which a mother had backed over her own child, resulting in the infant being pronounced dead in the ER. I went into the waiting room to be with the mother—the father would not arrive until later. Of course, as I walked into the room, I was afraid to say anything, worried that only superficial blather and dead clichés would come out of my mouth. What words I said were few. Later the father came in and, when told the news, literally pounded the walls. All I did was listen to the mother’s guilt, the father’s anger, and their overwhelming grief. However, when they were ready to go home, they turned to me, gave me hugs, shook my hand, and said, "Thanks for being here." I was mystified. I hadn’t done anything. I was just there. But it was enough. I still remember them walking through the glass double doors of the hospital, arms around each other. The lesson I learned is that being present and having a listening ear is the beginning of pastoral care. The words one speaks should come out of that context. My pastoral care class reinforced this learning.

Events started happening quickly after that first year at ESR. I had met my future wife and we were married within the year. She immediately became pregnant. This in itself was a big change.

Then a fellow student and pastor of a country church near Lynn, Indiana told me he was leaving that Quaker meeting, and he encouraged me to consider applying for that position. I hesitated because I really had never thought of being a pastor. I didn’t grow up in a church (I found the Quaker church when I was 30) and knew nothing about pastoral work. And I definitely knew I did not want to preach.

However, in the end, I found myself saying yes to a trial sermon and immediately began to wonder why I did so. I concluded that God was directing me.

Students at ESR had to commit to a ministry project—some venue that exposed them to different areas of ministry whether it were social justice, pastoral work, counseling, chaplaincy, or some other area. Peet Pearson was going to be a professor at the seminary, beginning in September. She would become the supervisor of the ministry projects. As I was preparing for my first sermon, I was frantically searching for preaching books at Quaker Hill bookstore. Peet happened to walk in at the same time. I told her my plight and immediately she showed me a couple of books on the shelf. This was the first time I had really engaged Peet in any conversation. From the very beginning, she was very helpful. As the time approached for the sermon, she would say to me: "Stay positive; you can do it." However, I must say I didn’t really believe her.

In July 1982, I went to preach my first sermon, and I was very anxious before the 30-40 people there. But the clerk of the meeting eased my fears by saying, "We know that Rex is nervous, but let’s just give him a warm welcome." With those words, all the shakiness left me. It was not a very good sermon, but after the rise of meeting, Ministry and Counsel met (with me pacing outside) and reached consensus that Peaceful Valley would call me. I accepted their call and thus started on a pastoral career that has lasted 28 years.

However, the vocational change altered the whole dynamic with ESR. My wife and I had to move to the Peaceful Valley parsonage, thereby leaving the ESR community. I became a commuter to the school. Finding myself in a country church in a rural area in the middle of cornfields was quite a change for a born-and-raised city person. I must say I missed the seminary community and would have felt very isolated except for the fact that I already had established friendships and still had classes there.

My new situation was difficult. Not knowing anything about being a pastor, I found the position a challenge. Peet Pearson was there for me as my mentor in the ministry project, but she couldn’t be there for me 24 hours a day. There are some things you learn only from onthe- job training. I was thankful that Peaceful Valley saw as part of their mission helping new pastors begin their ministries within the local church. They put up with some bad sermons and someone with little knowledge of the day-to-day activities of being a pastor. Thankfully, experience can be a great teacher, and I learned the good and the bad of pastoral work.

Peet met with me frequently, wanting to know when I was succeeding and when problem areas arose. She would also meet with the Ministry and Counsel to discuss any troublesome situations that had arisen.

The class that was most positive for my development as a pastor was the preaching class with Tom Mullen. I had already been preaching for a year before I took it, and I felt something was wrong. One time I had a meeting with some congregational members to discuss my ministry at Peaceful Valley. When the discussion turned to my preaching, one high school student complained about my sermons and how he could not relate to them. He said that the only sermon he remembered was one about flying eagles from Isaiah 40— but I didn’t even preach that message; it was a sermon by the Christian education director of Indiana Yearly Meeting!

So I was more than ready to take the preaching class. Under Tom, I learned how to interpret passages, organize sermons, use illustrative material, and adapt my messages to the specific congregation. One thing that Tom did not emphasize but that was evident in his own preaching style was the importance of humor. Nobody could emulate Tom in that way; he was great at looking at life and seeing its incongruities (especially his own) in a humorous way. So if I don’t have humor in a sermon, I believe something is missing. And then there are times I will see something I think is humorous and the congregation does not!

We had to give four or five sermons during the course, one of which we preached before our fellow students. This exercise was perhaps the most daunting of all—after all, peers can be the most critical. When I preached my sermon before them, this was confirmed. They went over every weak point. But at the end, Tom said, "Well, all those criticisms may be valid, but I thought I heard the gospel preached today." Although I was not the only student he said this to, these words reassured me that perhaps God had given me a gift of preaching.

After two years at Peaceful Valley, I resigned and took a position for my last year at Centerville Friends Meeting near Richmond. My family and I relocated to an apartment on the Earlham College grounds, and I was now able to involve myself more in the ESR. community. The final year was wonderful. Centerville called me for one purpose: to help them lay down the meeting and in the process help individuals and families in relocating to other churches and meetings. Centerville was truly a Quaker meeting at its best. After that, I graduated in May of 1985 and took a pastoral position at Bloomingdale (Ind.) Meeting, followed by pastoral positions in North Carolina and California. Now I am back in Indiana.

Going to Earlham School of Religion was transitional for me in so many ways. The experience was full of challenges: the hard work of academic study, learning how to live in community, and dealing with family and vocational changes. Yet, how can one grow spiritually without facing challenges? ESR equipped me to do so.