“I want to be baptized”

Frantisek's church photo

After morning worship last Sunday, standing outside in the early Spring sunshine, an 18 year old man I did not know very well approached me and said, “I want to be baptized.”

This was no April Fool’s joke, I quickly realized, and not a prank, as I half-expected, this was the real thing. It was written all over his face – the fear and joy of saying those words aloud. Plus, there was a small group of people – family members? – standing maybe five or 10 feet behind him, watching the whole conversation.

I think my first words were, “So, you’ve never been baptized,” as though this were an administrative or scheduling problem that needed my full attention.

The young man and I talked for quite a long time and then agreed to meet in a couple of days so that I could hear more about this decision, but I still think about what happened there that day and what the situation reveals about me and my training and where I find myself at this point in my ministry.

Frankly, what the situation reveals is not good.

I was ordained on September 20, 1980 – as some of you know, since I insist on observing the anniversary each year – and the ordination occurred after lengthy training and evaluation and psychological testing and even the learning of biblical languages. No one was better trained and equipped for a life of service to the church than I was. That’s not bragging. That’s a statement about how people like me have been prepared for the work of ministry over the last generation or two. And now, thanks be to God, I have been doing this work – without interruption – for more than 36 years.

So, what exactly is the problem?

I’ll tell you. A young man approached me after worship, asked to be baptized, and I forgot for a moment that that is the purpose of my life’s work – to lead people like him to just that moment in their lives and then to nurture and grow their new faith. Over the years I have forgotten (or neglected) this calling. In most of the churches I served over the years I was expected to be the executive director or chief executive officer of a legal entity known as the church. I supervised staff, raised money, built endowments, maintained buildings (and parking lots), managed a board, and responded to customer complaints. I came to think of all of that as ministry.

Coming to this particular church at this particular point in my life has had the transforming effect of reminding me of the call that brought me to this work a long, long time ago. I think it’s been the greatest gift I could have received.

Here’s my job description in its entirety: “The Senior Pastor is in charge of the spiritual welfare [my emphasis] of the congregation, including, but not limited to, conducting worship and preaching the gospel, pastoral counseling and visits, education of adults, youth and children, and the administration of the Sacraments (Ordinances) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do!

(Photo: That’s a photo of my church by František Janák who suggests that we call him “Frank.”)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


15 Responses to “I want to be baptized”

  1. Jeffrey Edwards April 7, 2016 at 8:29 am #

    Beautiful photo, have we ever seen a complete view of the place you now call home?

    • Doug April 8, 2016 at 11:11 am #

      It’s a difficult church to photograph, I think, because it’s in an urban area, and it’s very nearly impossible to back up far enough. I’ll try to post when some become available. Thanks for asking!

  2. Robin Crawford April 7, 2016 at 8:40 am #

    I’m glad you are blogging again. I appreciate your insights…So, did the young man return to meet and was he baptized? Robin at Ladue Chapel StL

    • Doug April 7, 2016 at 9:01 am #

      Hi, Robin. I made the mistake of suggesting that we go to Lake Zurich after worship one Sunday, and he liked that idea more than I expected. So, I think we’ll need wait until the water warms a bit!

  3. blairblog1 April 7, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    thanks for this, Doug… I reflect on this as I, ( or my position as Pastor here) has been described as Chief Operating Officer of the Church…

    • Doug April 8, 2016 at 11:12 am #

      Oy, how did we ever allow ourselves to be defined in that way?

  4. Fred Anderson April 7, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    Exactly! Helping people become disciples is the work of more than the Spirit. Every seminary faculty, administrator and trustee needs to read this. And think more about how we prepare (“train” is still a good word!) people for church ministry. Thanks, as always, for being you, and thanks for your ministry.

    • Doug April 8, 2016 at 11:15 am #

      Seminaries always seem like convenient targets. I’m not sure they’re to blame – or not solely to blame. As I think back on the years we served together, I think you were somehow able to blend the administrative needs of the church with your pastoral role. It was a good role model for me to follow. Whether I was successful or not is on me. (Good to hear from you, Fred. Let me know when your blog is up and running.)

  5. Mark Clousson April 7, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    So happy for you to be able to peel away all of the world’s unimportant “stuff” to find the true meaning of your calling to God’s work.

  6. Andrew Gifford April 7, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder for those of us in ministry. I think too much time is spent in the social polarizing issues of the day, and often forget that those issues are a side note to the great need to bring people into relationship with our risen Lord.

  7. MikeH April 7, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    This is one of my favorite places to visit – I always feel good after the stopping by. Used to be that way with a visit to my doctor and accountant….but, increasingly, I prefer coming here. Stating the obvious – I like that post.

  8. Betty Strunk April 8, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    I think I was 13 when I was baptized in Lake Michigan by my pastor. A group of fellow worshipers from my church were there supporting my decision. To be instructed and with heart and mind engaged, it was and is a most memorable spiritual signpost on my pilgrimage of faith. Your story was a wonderful reminder of that day/experience.

    • Doug April 8, 2016 at 11:16 am #

      I did not know that part of your story, Betty. You made a big leap when you came to a Presbyterian church!

  9. Larry Jones April 10, 2016 at 8:52 am #

    Humility is a wonderful thing! I agree with Fred: every seminary professor and staff member needs to read this, every pastor, too. Remember Al, our custodian in Alex? He knew it, and we were the better for his ministry to us in the normal rounds of his daily affairs. Thanks for a great, and humbling, post.

  10. Charles Scouten April 14, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

    It’s good to have a reminer every now and then that evangelism is what Great Commission is all about. Back in February, Karen & I attended NEXT Church at First Pres in Atlanta. What inspiration for both of us. Imagine – 600 Presbyterian gathered together to celebrate evangelism! What an oxymoron. But it happened and with amazing enthusiasm as we heard success stories from churches all over. We returned reinvigorated, and with lots of solid ideas for becoming and being better witnesses and spreaders of the Gospel. Of course, thanks to you, Doug, we had a good background – just needed the reminder.