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Stepping Into the Unknown: On Being Ordained for 5 Years

The fifth anniversary of my ordination was Dec. 7.

I remember this mile marker every year because so many women have sought and fought for ordination for themselves and for generations of young Baptist women who would follow them.

Even more, I think it’s important to remember the women who are in traditions, even Baptist traditions, where ordination is still not a possibility and who cannot in their context live into their calls.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am in awe that three congregations have now called me as their pastor. Three congregations who have recognized the call I felt so strongly in a closet in Greenville, South Carolina, eight years ago.

This is a call I was so scared and terrified to express because I knew once the words left my lips, there would be no turning back.

A call that was an invitation to participate in God’s work here on earth through preaching and teaching and developing partnerships. Through singing in a homeless shelter in Columbia, South Carolina, and making crafts in summer enrichment programs. Through soliciting national companies to donate food to those who are food insecure and tiling floors. And through developing curriculum and remembering and reflecting and loving and praying and hoping and so much more.

Five years ago, I couldn’t have understood what this journey would entail. I couldn’t have understood what it would mean to walk beside God’s people bearing their joys and their griefs, their hopes and their dreams.

I couldn’t have understood the immense privilege of being invited to the sacred spaces of people’s families and stories. I couldn’t have understood the bittersweet feeling of being called to another congregation when you have walked so closely with people for years.

There’s so much I couldn’t understand, but what I did understand in that small room on Highway 378 when I sat with my ordination council was that most pastors, especially female pastors, don’t make it to the five-year anniversary of ministry.

In fact, Fuller Theological Seminary estimates the attrition rate of ministers five years after being ordained to be between 30 percent and 40 percent.

Although these numbers vary from denomination to denomination and depend on whether the minister holds the senior pastor position or an associate minister position, we know the rates of clergy burnout across the board are climbing.

The duties and responsibilities of clergy continue to increase as budgets continue to dwindle and criticism permeates through the pews.

Clergy, even young clergy, suffer at higher and higher rates from obesity, hypertension and depression.

Research continues to reveal the nature of pastoral work creates an island of isolation.

Pastors are constantly confided in but don’t often have an outlet to process the weight and burden of what they bear on behalf of their congregants.

This creates a dangerous environment leading to burnout, depression and even at times suicide at higher rates than other professions.

The struggle against burnout, depression and suicidal thoughts is even more difficult as preachers are upheld as lighthouses of hope, people who aren’t supposed to struggle with these things.

Even knowing all this about the current climate for pastors, I sat in that room looking at the people gathered for my ordination council and answered the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” by saying, “In parish ministry.”

I knew my call was to journey with God’s people. I knew my call was to preach in hope that people’s eyes would be opened to the Divine fingerprints that reveal God is with us, inviting to witness the mysterious transformations that surround us if we will but open our eyes.

My partner, Sam, delivered my ordination address five years ago and said, “I told you not to do this.” We all laughed, but he was right. Nothing about being called has been easy.

God has constantly asked me to step into the unknown, to challenge my own notions of the Divine, to introduce new possibilities to congregations and to follow that still, small voice.

Thanks be to God for the support and encouragement of a partner and a family who are with me every step of this crazy, called life.

I won’t pretend to know what the next five years hold, but I pray I will have the strength and courage to continue to live a called life.

A life that doesn’t always make sense, but always holds revelations of the Divine at work among us.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Harrelson’s website. It is used with permission.

Merianna Harrelson

Merianna Harrelson is pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, South Carolina, editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing, and an EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board member.