From the Gettysburg PO by Michael L. Cooper-White, Seminary President
September 9th marks the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a Lutheran pastor. Anticipating this milestone (which pales by comparison to colleagues whose 50th, 60th and even higher numbers we have celebrated in recent times) has caused me to go back and review some treasured mementos of the occasion held at Augustana Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. The venue was my choice, by way of having served with Augustana’s Latino outreach ministry during my senior year at seminary, and also being afforded the privilege of working there as a full-time pastoral assistant while awaiting my call to California. As a parting gift, that great and historic parish, centered in northwest Washington within a mile of the White House, bestowed upon me the rarely-conferred “Auggie the Churchmouse” award. That little glass mouse still holds a prominent place in my home study alongside such other precious treasures as a dove of peace given to Pamela and me by Bishop Medardo Gomez of El Salvador, and “Bernice’s red stone apple,” gifted by one of her beloved preschoolers to my late sister who died too young more than a dozen years ago.
If I were challenged to summarize these three and a half decades of ordained service in a short phrase (the way I often ask our students or colleagues for a succinct summary of some recent experience), I would settle on “delightfully surprised and privileged” to describe the overarching sweep of events and emotions. As I reflected with Gettysburg Seminary’s first year students at the outset of their newcomers’ orientation this fall, my expectation as a beginning seminarian in the early 1970’s was that I would spend my entire active ministry as a parish pastor, likely serving in a small town or rural setting. As things have turned out, following a first ordained chapter at an inner city congregation in the heart of teeming central Los Angeles, subsequent ministries took me to head an urban coalition in the San Francisco Bay area, serve as a synodical bishop’s assistant, direct one of the ELCA’s churchwide departments, and then land back here as the 12th president of my alma mater—the Lutheran church’s oldest, most historic (and, of course, finest!) seminary. It’s been quite a journey, with twists and turns that I could not have imagined on ordination day back in 1976.
There are literally hundreds of “ministry moments” that come to mind as I reminisce with a profound sense of both gratitude and humility. Some memorable highpoints stand out as reminders of the incredible access afforded to those of us who take up the mantle of public ministry: a wonderful and dynamic congregation in an exciting time in California; being invited while very “young” in ministry to serve on a bishop’s staff; preaching to the entire assembled ELCA Conference of Bishops and churchwide staff; working cheek-by-jowl with our episcopal leaders as we visited the White House on several occasions, and as we forged the full communion agreements with five other churches; rubbing shoulders with and being regarded as “hermano” by some of the heroic and prophetic Latin American church leaders of our generation; preaching at a New York City “9/11” commemorative service on the second anniversary, followed by a descent to Ground Zero at midnight—a privilege granted to only a few dozen citizens.
Coupled with the high points, of course, are the low moments encountered in the course of one-third-century of public ministry: funerals where I prayed I would be able to choke back the tears long enough to lead an assembly of mourners entrusting a beloved saint into the larger life of God; being caught amidst the anguished early and sometimes vicious struggles over issues of human sexuality (I was “on the scene” as the synod staff person serving San Francisco when the Berkeley Three gay graduates came out boldly, and a firestorm spread throughout the newly-formed ELCA); and receiving sharp criticisms from many quarters over some of my decisions and theological and pastoral stances. Truth be told, I’ve not always succeeded in living out Luther’s admonition regarding the 8th commandment; sometimes I have failed to put the best construction on the passions and positions of those with whom I disagree. And sometimes I have failed to stand with and for those in both church and society who were being disregarded or disparaged by the powerful and the proud.
As I pass mile marker #35, my overall feeling is that it’s been a really good ride thus far! I feel enormously blessed, privileged far beyond what any amount of hard work or effort expended might merit. As expressed in the title of a fascinating new autobiography by one of my chief mentors and our church’s first presiding bishop, Herbert W. Chilstrom, I would characterize my first 35 years of ordained service as being “A Journey of Grace.” [Minneapolis: University Lutheran Press, 2011] God willing, and the creeks don’t rise too high from the recent torrential rains, the road up ahead continues for a good distance more.