This Friday night, when I am on a convention center stage being ordained by The United Methodist Church, two special people will be up there with me. They each represent significant benchmarks in my spiritual journey, and it is fitting that they will be a part of what I hope will be a sacred moment.
Phil Roughton and Terri Hill are both UMC pastors in Florida, and have been so for more than 25 years each. I met Phil first, in 1993, when I was newly married and began attending his church in Ormond Beach, Fla., the city where I spent most of my childhood. Phil was the first "preacher" with whom I had ever connected; his calm, deep, intellectual style and spirit drew me in and unleashed a hunger to grow toward the things of God. Some key conversations with Phil would later cement my decision to attend seminary for my Master of Divinity degree. In a sense Phil is still very much my personal pastor, even though our chats and visits together are few and far between due to the busy nature of life. But on Friday, 15 years after our relationship began, he will be there.
I met Terri five summers ago when I was the newly-appointed senior pastor of a downtown UMC in Fort Pierce, Fla., and she was the co-pastor of a large congregation in Melbourne, Fla. She was assigned as my mentor to help me in the ordination process, especially concerning leadership issues. I would drive the hour to Terri's church several times per month and engage in deep, challenging discussions with Terri. She knew just when to push and when to affirm.
When I decided later that year to take a leave of absence from the denomination and move back into the business world, my family and I ended up moving to Melbourne and becoming a part of Terri's church. My decision had been made quite privately and with no small amount of distress, and I had not let Terri know ahead of time that I was contemplating such a big change. But she welcomed me into her congregation, and sat with me time and time again as I wrestled with trying to understand the shift in how I was perceiving God's direction for my life. She did not judge me but helped guide me in a healing process, and the four years I spent in Melbourne were a tremendous time of growth. I became active in the congregation and in the marketplace, learning I could still make significant contributions even if I was no longer wearing the "preacher" hat. Terri (who also baptized one of my children) was there for me when it counted the most, and I am thrilled that she will be there on Friday night as well.
The setting for my ordination is now how I would have imagined it years ago. When I first became eligible to apply, I was in my final year of a three-year stint as an associate pastor at a church in West Palm Beach, Fla. I dreamed that dozens of members from my church there, and from Phil's church in Ormond Beach, would be on stage in 2003 to celebrate this milestone in my journey. But the denomination did not feel I was ready that first year, and it turned out that I didn't think I was ready either. Stepping away from the process--and, in some senses, from the institution--five years ago prepared me to find my more authentic path and come full circle five years later.
So my ordination feels like a much more quiet affair than I might have envisioned, almost anticlimactic after so many years. I say this before the fact, of course. I am trying to approach Friday night with open expectations. You never know what can happen when so much spiritual energy is concentrated in one place.