May I share a happy day? On this date, January 30, in 1994, I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Today begins my 22nd year as a clergyman.
The occasion of this anniversary, however, comes at a time when most of my days as a minister are past, and my future as a pastor is shaky.
I have been contending with cancer off & on for 10 years. Colon cancer was dealt with through surgery and chemotherapy over several years. I had the cancer in each of the three congregations where I have served. I could function – I did the work. Metastasizing occurred, however, and major surgery in 2013 put me on the sidelines for six months. The recovery took that long. So, I haven’t had a church for three years now.
The oncologist was amazed, however, that only half a year after major surgery, I was refereeing soccer and umpiring baseball.
I know what I can do. So, I’m still looking. I send out my resume – I get responses from Pastor Nominating Committees. An interview is set up on Sype. But imagine the awkwardness when things seem to be going swell – the search committee and I are hitting it off – and then I feel obligated to tell them that I’m being treated for cancer.
Some people have advised me NOT to tell. It’s your own personal issue, they say, just as if you had diabetes or high blood pressure. But I feel obligated to let the pastor search committee know my situation, because being treated for cancer is not like being treated for any other illness. You have to take time off during the week to get chemotherapy. You have to admit fatigue and make way for it.
So, I tell. It becomes a matter of timing – when in the interview do I drop this bomb on them?
Actually, I try to make it sound NOT like a bomb. I tell them – I can do the work – I’ve lived with the illness for ten years now – I can function – in fact, I am physically strong enough to officiate four sports in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. I’m a PIAA umpire in baseball and softball, and a referee in soccer and field hockey.
Still, I wonder how the members of the search committee have been set back by the news of my illness. I have had interviews go superbly – and received lots of expressions of interest from a search committee – only to be told after a couple of weeks of waiting to hear from them that “they’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
I’ve grown to hate that expression! “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
I know – and they know – it’s the cancer that has overwhelmed their consideration of me as their pastor.
Because I’ve got bills to pay – rent, car payments, utilities – I had to take early retirement in order to start collecting part of my pension from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
But I am doing all that I can to remain active in ministry. While searching for a full-time call as a pastor, I’m doing a lot of pinch-hitting in the pulpits of churches that either don’t have a pastor or whose pastor has to be gone for a week or so.
Preaching is the central duty of any Protestant minister, and so I at least get to keep up with that aspect of being a pastor, and I am encouraged by the results. Churches ask me to return. This summer, I covered July and August for a church near Pittsburgh. On the last Sunday, they held a reception for me. An elderly, retired man came up to me and said, “I’ve never been to church so many times in the summer. Every week I wanted to hear what you had to say.”
A compliment or two like that reaffirms that I still have something to offer. Treatment and the awful side effects of the drugs become something you willingly endure. And day by day I search the on-line listings of churches looking for a pastor.
It seems to me that illness like cancer is a prejudice that people have to live with – as much as prejudice because of age.
The question arises every time there’s a presidential campaign with candidates pushing 70. Donald Trump is 69. Bernie Sanders is 74. Ronald Reagan took office at 70.
Their age seems a problem – but only for others. Others – like in the news media – seem to be bothered by it. But the individuals themselves who are in their 60s and 70s – they know how they feel and what they can do. It always surprises me, no matter how many times I read it, that Winston Churchill, when he became prime minister during World War II, was 66 years old. And a decade after the war, he became prime minister again – at the age of 77!
There are things about individuals that may frighten off others – but the individuals themselves show the readiness and fortitude to get going.