Looking the Part

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.” (Ps 26:1)

Seminary studies involve a number of transitions beyond the obvious academic challenges that can be especially difficult because they require changes from not only the student but also the community of faith that they represent. When I registered for seminary, for example, I worked as clerk of session at Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) and, as clerk, needed to work closely with the pastor on church business. Because the pastor often serves as a mentor to inquirers and candidates of ministry and they are both normally also under care of session, my different roles were suddenly in conflict. This conflict proved stressful and within a few months I resigned from the clerk’s role and from session.

The transition from clerk of session to seminary student provides insight into the larger transition in my identity as an economist to a pastoral identity. While economist are highly independent professionals who mostly work in isolation to perform their job functions, pastors primarily rely on collaboration with other staff and volunteers to perform to succeed in their professional role. While economists have often highly specialized and technically skilled professionals, the typical pastor is a jack of many trades, but not necessarily of master of them. Progress in adopting a pastoral identity therefore required that I not only make this transition in my own skin but also that I bring those around me along for the ride.

In the summer of 2009, Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) invited five former members who had been called into ordained pastoral ministry back to the church to preach a sermon series on God’s call; being a seminary student, I was also asked to preach. In view of my struggle with pastoral identity, I decided that it was time to kill off my “Dr. Hiemstra persona” at CPC during my sermon. Consequently, I enlisted the assistance of a couple of friends in performing a little skit during the introduction to the sermon. It went something like this:

Heckler 1: Is this going to be one of those boring sermons that you just read?
SWH: This? [Holding up script]
Heckler 1: Put it right in here [Holding up a trash can].
SWH: [Ripping up script and depositing in can].
Heckler 1: [Walking off a few steps…]
SWH: [Smiling and pulling out a back up script]
Heckler 1: Oh no you don’t….[Returning with the trash can]
SWH: [Ripping up second script]
[Standing there holding jacket lapels and staring…]
Heckler 2: Do you think you can be a pastor by just dressing the part?
SWH: [Pointing to self]
Heckler 2: You don’t need a suit coat—what you need is a call from God.
Here take this. [Tossing a CPC tee shirt]
SWH: [Taking off jacket and putting on the tee shirt]
Someone warned me that ministry is a team sport at CPC!

After a prayer, I then led off the sermon with a story from my youth:

As I was thinking about this mornings’ message, I kept coming back to an experience in high school as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout camps where I taught swimming, rowing, and canoeing. One of the enduring memories of this experience occurred when I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. Talk about scary moments. The picture of a lake full of drowning scouts still comes to mind.

By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts were swimming. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course. The first had perfect form in swimming the American crawl, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He became violently upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water. The second swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would swim a lap or two in his swim test. Then, a great big smile would come on his face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me get mad at a drowning scout—that is, until they saw him stop drowning and finish his swim test.

Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? Swim in deeper spiritual waters? Who me, Lord? Stop focusing on myself and step out for Christ? Who me, Lord? I think the hounds of heaven have been after me all my life. Yet, like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, I just didn’t get it.

The sermon text for the day, which I delivered without notes, was the story of Stephen in Acts 7[1]. After I was done, my mother insisted on being given the tee-shirt. The sermon itself succeeded in softening my pastoral image and made such an impression that people remind me of it to this day.

Have you ever had to tweak your identity significantly? How?


Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Read my April newsletter at: http://mailchi.mp/t2pneuma/monthly-postings-on-t2pneumanet.

[1] The sermon was given at CPC on August 23, 2009.

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