Endorsement Essay

I posted my entrance essay what seems like decades ago on this blog, but never got around to posting my endorsement essay.  It’s a lot better than I remembered it being. :^p

Endorsement Essay
September 1, 2015

1. Call to Ministry
Reflect theologically on your vocation as it is grounded in baptism, in contexts such as family, confirmation, friendships, work settings, school, and community. State your understanding of the church’s leadership needs and the contribution of the form of ministry in which you seek to serve: ordained, consecrated, or commissioned. What gifts will enable you to serve in this particular ministry? What challenges or excites you about your sense of call? God gives the gift of ministry to the whole church. What does that mean to you? What is your relationship with others in the church?

In baptism, God claims us as God’s own. In those waters, by the Spirit, God gives us identity and purpose, belonging and meaning. Vocation, in many ways, is an affirmation of the promises God makes to us in baptism. Baptism is about God’s action in drawing us closer to Godself. Vocation is about God’s action in sending us out into the world to accomplish God’s work. I began to experience a call to ministry in the context of a community of the baptized, while simultaneously being in the midst of my own search for purpose in life. I was several years and a Bachelor’s degree into the earnest pursuit of a career in ethnomusicology before I realized that God might be calling me to something else. I realized that neither my intended career nor even the non-profit work I was doing with refugees and immigrants gave me life or fed my hungering soul the way serving in the church did.

My congregation, Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln, NE, enthusiastically affirmed this sense of call; indeed, my pastor was the first one to suggest I think about seminary. They invited me to teach confirmation and to help lead the youth group, to serve on the church council, to preach and help lead worship, and to engage in creative new ministries throughout the congregation’s redevelopment process. One of the most surprising and gratifying affirmations of my vocation came through the unqualified support expressed by numerous friends of mine who are non-religious. Far from being turned off by my enthusiasm in sharing about my faith, they were excited about my call to leadership in the church, happy that I had found a place where I felt I belonged, and glad that the church would call leaders willing to engage in conversation with people who do not embrace organized religion.

These relationships with folks outside the church – with people who identified as atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc. – have deeply influenced the way I experience the church and its leadership needs. I think the church needs leaders who are gifted in building relationships not only with those in their congregations, but with those who do not belong to any congregation. It needs leaders deeply rooted in Word and Sacrament who are capable of opening these riches to others in fresh and creative ways, across cultural and generational boundaries. Most urgently of all, the church needs leaders who will watch for the signs of God at work in the world, leaders who are willing to let go of the fear and the need to be in control and to live into the uncertainty that comes from following a God who delights in the wondrous and the unexpected.

As an ordained minister, I will strive to live out my calling as this kind of leader. I am an extroverted, creative person with a deep love for people that enables me to form meaningful relationships with people of all different backgrounds. I am eager to share my faith with others because of the experiences of grace I have had in difficult times of my life. I am continually renewed and refreshed by God’s Word of hope and creation and by the grace and power of the sacraments – gifts I delight in sharing with others. I also bring a great deal of experience in speaking across cultural boundaries. I believe that this cross-cultural proficiency will be of increasing importance to the church as the concept of organized religion becomes more and more foreign to those struggling with the realities of 21st century life.

In fact, in continuing to discern my vocation, I have begun to feel a strong call to a more literally cross-cultural ministry, specifically, within the Spanish-speaking community. I’ve had the chance to explore what religious life looks like for many members of the Mexican and Puerto Rican diasporas in Chicago, both through classes that I have taken and through the relationships I’ve been forming with members of Latin@ communities in Chicago. Much of what I’ve encountered reveals a disconnect from religion that is surprisingly similar to what my friends back in Nebraska experienced – people are finding that the traditional religiosity they have known simply doesn’t make sense in their contexts and they struggle to connect meaningfully with their faith. The church needs leaders who are capable of breaking the gospel message free of its cultural wrappings in order that the people may be free to plant them in the soil and toil of their everyday lives. However, this ministry also brings the challenge of ministering with rather than to the Spanish-speaking population, entering into ministerial relationships that avoid the proselytism and colonialism that have so strongly marked the church’s history of reaching out across cultural boundaries in the past.

This concept of ministering with others is also crucial in understanding a pastor’s role in the church. The ELCA lifts up the priesthood of all believers, acknowledging that God’s gift of ministry is to all people in the church. This means that no one is ever simply a passive participant in the church, rather, that all are called to witness to the kingdom of God and freed to begin the work of bringing that kingdom now. It is not the pastor’s duty alone, nor should the pastor have the ultimate control of ministry. My understanding of my call to ordained ministry is of myself as a partner in ministry with the congregation, as someone who can share the means of grace, be a guide and a resource for the congregation, build relationships in and outside the church, and lift up and empower leaders within the congregation.

2. Faithfulness to the Church’s Confession
Give a clear statement of faith that reflects your understanding of the Lutheran confessional witness. You will be asked to serve in accordance with the Scriptures, the creeds, and the confessions of the ELCA. In light of doctrinal traditions, what characteristics or functions will reflect your role as a “diligent and faithful” rostered minister in this church? What is your understanding of the mission of the church?

In his book Principles of Lutheran Theology, Carl Braaten describes the Lutheran Confessions as a sort of roadmap for the journey of faith. I find this description really helpful. Subscription to the Confessions isn’t meant to add some sort of dogmatic burden to the Lutheran Christian’s life, but rather, the Confessions serve as a useful lens and a vetted guide to interpreting the Scriptures. At the heart of these Confessions – indeed, the “compass,” to continue the map analogy – is the doctrine of justification by grace. I have personally experienced the depth of this grace in my own life, called out of wandering and brokenness into renewed relationship with God and into a vocation in God’s church. Alone, we are not able to overcome our own brokenness and tendency to sin, let alone aid a world divided and scarred by systemic evil. Rather, Christ saves us from the condemnation we have justly earned under the law and frees us to live into a relationship with God that is marked by love and not by fear. It’s a free gift – one we could never earn for ourselves – a gift for people of every time and place. Christ died once for all. We are now freed to live into our vocation as baptized children of God, given fresh opportunities each day to join in the redemptive work of Christ in the world to which the church is called.

The most central element of that redemptive work is to live out the love of God, by spreading the good news of the just and grace-filled kingdom of Christ, and by extending the welcome all will find in it. As an ordained pastor, I will do these things primarily through the richness of word and sacrament. Through proclamation of God’s Word, I will do my best to bring the people of my congregation to deeper understanding of the stories of redemption and resurrection found in scripture, as well as into deeper relationship with the living Word still acting in our world and in our lives. In the bread and wine and the waters of baptism, I will remind God’s people time and again of the love and the sacrifice that is for them, and of the death and the life into which they have been baptized forever, the cross with which they have been indelibly marked. I will remind them of our call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in service to all, most especially to those who have been marginalized in our society. These are the means of grace, through which we are reminded of our identity as children of God and of the sacrifice that brought us out from death to life. As the confessors themselves emphasized, God is the one acting through these means, and not us; it is God who claims us, who nourishes us, and who sends us out into the world for service.

This aspect of Lutheran sacramental theology – that God is the one who acts, God is the one always drawing closer to us – became very important to me over my CPE experience this past summer. Numerous encounters with patients and their families struggling with grief and loss left me feeling ineffective and even helpless, powerless to do or say anything in the face of such suffering. But the Spirit moved through those moments. God drew closer, and hospital rooms suddenly became sacred spaces. It was comforting to remember that God acts even through me, though I am as ordinary as a loaf of bread or a cup of wine or a bowl of water. Even when I had no idea what to say, I could stand as a silent witness to the presence of God, who is mindful of the suffering of God’s people, and who has not, nor will ever, abandon them.

Another key element of the Confessions that has assumed great significance for me is that they are profoundly ecumenical documents – affirmed by the inclusion of the creeds in the Book of Concord. The reformers never intended to start a new sect or denomination, but rather, they were simply attempting to reform the church they knew and loved. This is still the aim of the church, to become one unified body of Christ on earth. It’s one of the things that I love (and sometimes hate) most about the ELCA: not only do we have numerous ecumenical partnerships, but somehow, we manage to hold many different iterations of the Christian faith in tension within our own church body – from my deeply conservative small town Nebraska congregation to the liberal, social-justice oriented congregations I’ve encountered in Chicago. Whereas I want to throw open the doors of the church and shout out a rainbow-colored welcome to the whole world, I am reminded that truly radical hospitality also means making space for those who are not yet comfortable welcoming in the wild and wonderful diversity this world has to offer. The most admirable thing about this commitment to inclusivity is that the ELCA hasn’t pursued it simply by being wishy-washy and noncommittal about essential matters of faith. Rather, like Luther and the original reformers, I think modern Lutheran Christians have a good grasp of what is central and what is adiaphora – we know where we stand and what cannot be compromised, and yet we are able to bend and accommodate others on matters that are not as central. This is what makes the Confessions such a valuable guide; it shows us where we stand together.

3. Faithful Living
Reflect on your personal, vocational, and spiritual development since beginning the candidacy process. How have you been challenged, strengthened, or delighted? What contributes to the nourshment of your faith, health, and well-being? You are expected to make a “commitment to lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ and in so doing to be an example in faithful service and holy living.” How do you understand your responsibility as a public minister “whose life and conduct are above reproach”?

Since beginning the candidacy process just over two years ago, I have had lots of opportunities to grow into this sense of call: as a lay leader at Grace Lutheran in Lincoln, as a staff member at the Nebraska Synod office, and now as a seminarian at LSTC. I have been delighted by the many wonderfully creative ministries happening both in Nebraska and here in Chicago; whether it be food co-ops or disaster response or prayer with undocumented immigrants or any number of other ministries, I have found the work of my Lutheran brothers and sisters to be inspiring and heartwarming, strong evidence that the Holy Spirit is, indeed, still at work in the world. I’ve also been inspired by the people I have met so far in seminary. The astonishingly wide variety of gifts and interests that they bring to the table makes me very excited for and curious about the work that God is up to in the world and the plans that God has for these leaders in the church.

I have found the scholarly side of seminary challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Life in the academic sphere is very different from the life I was living back in Nebraska, thoroughly immersed in the work of the church both on a local and synod-wide level. Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in the stress of making good grades and keeping up with all the homework, and lose contact with the deep experience of grace that brought me here in the first place. However, even as early as my J-term class, I found myself continuing to use and process the things I learned during my first semester of seminary, and all along the way, there have been points of connection with my own experience in the church that have made seminary studies all the more enriching for me. One thing I am really looking forward to is my upcoming field experience in a Ministry in Context site at St. Andrews Lutheran – a bilingual congregation in West Chicago. I’m excited to connect with a new congregation and to encounter the Spirit at work anew, and for the opportunity to bring what I learn in seminary into a congregational context (and vice versa).

Despite the differences in lifestyle and expectations, being at LSTC does offer a multitude of opportunities for growth. For me, as an extroverted person, the best and most nourishing of these opportunities has been engaging in dialogue with my peers about what we are learning and about what their experiences have been. I have also had opportunities to participate in ministries in the greater Chicago area. One of the most meaningful ministries in which I’ve gotten involved is a monthly interfaith immigration vigil held outside a detention center in Broadview, IL, where I have had the opportunity to engage in prayer and pastoral care with undocumented immigrants and their families. Such ministries have been a means of growing in faith and in relationship to the broader church. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of expressions of the Christian faith happening right here in Chicago by attending chapel throughout the week and worshiping at various congregations throughout the city. All of these experiences, together with what I’ve been studying in class, have helped strengthen and clarify my sense of vocation, giving me a clearer idea of what gifts and growing edges I bring to the table and of how these might fit into the work of the whole church.

A summer of CPE really helped to clarify some of these gifts and growing edges. Over the course of 11 weeks interning as a chaplain in the NorthShore University HealthSystem in the north suburbs of Chicago, I found myself both affirmed and challenged in a variety of ways. I loved working as a chaplain, and thrived in the hospital environment where I was called on to accompany a wide variety of people through a broad range of difficult and uncomfortable situations. At the same time, I was challenged by the intentional conversations with my peer group, unpacking our respective experiences and digging deeper into ourselves. I struggled particularly with the grief history assignment that we were asked to do, and realized in loving conversation with my supervisor and peers that there are deep and significant griefs in my life that I have not processed, some of them twenty years old or more – like my mother’s death or the bullying I experienced growing up. These are things that I need to more fully integrate into myself in order to be a more whole person and a better pastoral leader, and my supervisor suggested that I seek counseling in order to do so. Less than a week after I presented my grief history, I had what my supervisor would call a “divine appointment” with a cancer patient and her daughter during which I saw, miraculously, how God could use my deep pain to bring healing to others. Experiencing that moment of grace has emboldened me to take my supervisor’s advice to seek counseling so that I may be a more fully integrated and more fully present person.

Another growing edge for me is figuring out how to best balance my time between school work, socializing, and self-care – and keep it balanced. As part of this, I have been working to set some healthy boundaries in drawing up my schedule. I made a commitment last semester to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night and have mostly stuck to it. I’ve found that it makes an enormous difference in my energy level and productivity. I’ve never been an outstandingly organized or on-top-of-it kind of person, so I’ve been trying to work on smaller, more achievable goals to develop healthy habits. Punctuality is next on the list. I’ve also been trying to be more intentional about setting aside time to spend with friends and to do things I enjoy doing, like crafting. I do not doubt that these time management and organizational skills will be very useful in ministry.

Part of “leading a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ” and being “an example in faithful service and holy living” surely includes leading a good and balanced life and being whole and integrated people. I think pastors can and should be role models in their communities of this kind of living. This doesn’t mean, however, that pastors are superhuman people. Rather, they are perfectly ordinary people whose lives have been transformed by grace. The example they set is that of regular, fallible people who trust that brokenness is not the last word, and that even when they fail, they are forgiven, and that God’s grace is enough to renew them every time. On the other hand, while pastors are not perfect people, they are public people and, as such, are held to a higher standard. As leaders in the church and stewards of Word and Sacrament, pastors are also symbolic figures whose actions have consequences for the church’s reputation as well as their own; pastoral misconduct can “impair” the church’s “witness of the gospel” and negatively impact its public ministry.

Pragmatically, from my own experience of the relationships between pastors and their congregations, I find it difficult to imagine a public minister “whose life and conduct” are completely “above reproach,” because as public people, pastors are held to everyone’s standards, and those standards are often subjective and contradictory. However, the Vision and Expectations document gives good insight into what the greater church body of the ELCA expects from its rostered leaders. Visions and Expectations talks about the kind of balance I wrote about above between work and self-care and setting healthy boundaries. It also urges ordained leaders to continually work toward growth in faith through study, prayer, and cultivation of spiritual practices, and to maintain integrity in their stewardship of both resources and information. The Visions and Expectations document particularly emphasizes the importance of maintaining healthy relationships, highlighting the power relationships have in our lives. Human relationships are a beautiful gift, but because they can open us up to great vulnerability with one another, rostered leaders should take great care to maintain healthy boundaries in trust, respect, and love. All of these guidelines are intended not just for the safety and wellbeing of the congregation, but also for the safety and wellbeing of its rostered leaders. As an ordained minister, I will do my best to live up to these guidelines and expectations and, overall, to live a life worthy of the calling I have received.

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About Day Hefner

Day Hefner is a seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC), going through the candidacy process to become an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Before moving to Chicago for seminary, she worked teaching English and job skills to refugees and immigrants in her native state of Nebraska, and also spent a year on staff at the Nebraska Synod office. Prior to that, she served for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Currently, she works part-time as an itinerant preacher. Her interests include Latinx ministry and immigration activism, as well as interfaith and development/redevelopment ministry. She also has a degree in music, loves cats, and is an avid crafter.
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