Rachel Hackenberg, contributor in the January/February 2013 issue, “Civility,” shares thoughts about Ash Wednesday and pastoral ministry. Her article, “Choosing Covenant,” appears on page 34. To get a copy of this issue or to order a subscription to Alive Now, call 1.800.972.0433 or order online.
As I write this, Ash Wednesday resources are spread in piles around my desk. A Bible props open a hymnal. Colorful Post-It notes peep from amidst the Bible’s pages. Which text, which music, shall I use to say again this year, “Remember that you are dust”?
I recently heard a colleague remark that Ash Wednesday is his favorite holy day for being a pastor; it’s mine too. Ash Wednesday is like a congregation-wide experience of hospice: a focused moment where death is uncomfortably close to life. And the pastor’s role is to pray and to love and to say gently, “This too is part of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” What moves me in that moment of ministry is not the proximity of death but the exposed tenderness of life. In the space of Ash Wednesday as in the space of hospice, companionship and touch and the promise that God is greater than our dust mean everything; in fact, they are the only things.
To me, the most satisfying aspect of pastoral ministry is the privilege of witnessing this breadth of life: the dust and death, the birth and the hope. It is also the most challenging aspect of pastoral ministry. Pastoring congregants across the breadth of their lives (and across the breadth of the congregation’s life) requires a breadth of gifts and skills – all of the spiritual, emotional, logistical, theological, intellectual skills that I have and aspire to. “How best might a new education program be started that generates energy without draining its volunteers?” “How can outdated modes of being church be respectfully put to rest and its devotees encouraged to new habits of participation?” “How best can I transition my own spirit when visiting a hospice care facility immediately after visiting a hospital’s maternity wing?”
Those discerning a call into ministry – and those of us already in ministry – do well to start in the same place that Lent begins: Ash Wednesday and its stark reminder that we each are dust. With all of the gifts that God bestows on us for breadth of ministry, we are still but dust. And in this dust of ministry, the most important things are companionship and touch and the promise that God is greater.
Rachel G. Hackenberg is ordained in the UCC and mother of two children. She is the author of Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen and Writing to God for Kids. Rachel Blogs at faithandwater.com and also writes for HuffPost Religion.