20 February 2013

Sent to Nineveh

Today is a big day for ELCA seminarians.  It's the day regional assignments are released and students find out where they've been "drafted."  It's a day of high anxiety and fear.  Some students will find that fear alleviated by receiving the regional and synodical assignments they requested.  Some students will find that fear confirmed by being sent to a part of the country with which they have no experience and for which they feel ill-equipped.  A lucky few are able to go wherever they are needed and simply hope to find a good place to begin their ministry, but the overwhelming majority have a general place in mind where they hope they are called to serve, for whatever reasons may seem best to them.

I love my church, and I know its leaders love it also.  But this day is always a hard day for me, because I know that some seminarians are going to be absolutely crushed to receive word of where they've been sent.  It's a modern-day version of the call to Jonah:  not only are these folks asked to sacrifice much for the sake of the call, they are sent away from people and places they love into a "foreign" land.  They are being sent to Nineveh, when all they want to do is hop a boat for the coast of Spain.

I had something of a similar experience when I received my regional assignment.  Being a good Nebraska boy, with family ties there and an awareness of the great need for pastors in my home synod, I requested only that synod when I filled out my paperwork.  I figured it was a mortal lock; as much as I love my home state, it's not for everyone, though as with most places the stereotypes are often much worse than the reality.  In addition, I'd known the bishop there for years and had done well making connections in the candidacy process and as a church camp counselor and campus ministry student.  Plus, really, who requests Nebraska?  So, I filled out my paperwork, sent it in and waited to be called back home.

When I was a senior seminarian, we received our regional assignments all at once, in the Board Room at Luther Seminary with our classmates on hand to watch us open our envelopes.  When my turn at the head of the line came, I took my envelope, opened it up and got a shock:  I was assigned to Region 3.  Minnesota and the Dakotas.  Not home.  Not Nebraska.  Not quite Nineveh, but certainly not what I'd hoped for.

I got off easy, though - I was going to be a day's drive at most from my family in northeastern Nebraska.  One friend who hailed from the Pacific Northwest was also assigned to Region 3, which guaranteed he and his wife would be halfway across the country from their families.  Another friend who had indicated he was open to going anywhere was sent back to his home synod.  In the midst of much celebrating, some tears and a room full of emotion, we three were more than a little baffled at how the system had "worked."  And, frankly, I continue to be baffled.

Before I finish, let me say this:  God has given me some wonderful ministry to do in places I never imagined I'd call home.  A wonderful church in Minnesota where we were warmly welcomed, blessed with much joy and laughter, baby showers, lots of good food (and some lutefisk to balance it out), friends, a cozy little cottage by the lake and the best little community theater in the state, not to mention colleagues who still keep in touch five years after I left.  An incredible four years of campus ministry at Iowa State, where I had the opportunity to pass on some of what I learned from Larry Meyer and a few things I've picked up by myself along the way, with wonderful students and never a single boring minute.  Now a great call to lead a very active congregation and discover what it means to help a church discover its mission and move forward into the future.  I am in no way disappointed to have served where I've served - it has always been an honor and a privilege.  But I have the benefit of hindsight - today's shocked seminarians don't have that benefit when they open that envelope and see they've been sent to Nineveh.  Or Tarshish.  Or wherever that place is where they don't feel equipped to serve.

The Holy Spirit has been at work in this, and I also know that the people who make our regional assignments work very hard to consider the desires and callings of each student in the assignment process.  It is not some draconian system whereby malignant church bureaucrats find the worst possible assignment for each candidate to teach them a lesson about serving the church.  But it certainly can feel that way for those who have good reasons for feeling a call to serve in a particular part of the country but aren't sent there in the process.  Church, pray for your leaders.  Pray for the bishops, seminary staff and other folks who work so hard to send new leaders out where they are needed.  Pray for the congregations who will receive those leaders and will do more to shape their ministry in the first five years than any other community of faith.  But most of all, pray for your seminarians.  Whether they're sent to Nineveh or sent back home, they will need your love and support, for not every strange land is hostile, and not every home is as welcoming as we hope it will be.  Today, our seminarians take the first step in putting real flesh and bone on the work they've been called to undertake:  be with them, loving God, and may they know we are with them, too.

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