Called from Purpose to Presence: A Reflection on Ministry and Meaning in a Pandemic

I am a planner and a producer and project-oriented person. No one else needs to give me a goal and tell me how to get there, because I automatically create these for myself. In fact, I thrive on tackling new projects and challenges. Every personality test I have taken affirms this: I am at my best and feel most fulfilled when I am productive. 

You might imagine, then, that a global pandemic requiring me to embrace a Stay Home/Stay Healthy mandate presents something of a challenge to the way I understand my purpose in the world. 

And maybe you’re there with me. Or maybe not. Maybe you came into this world wired and ready for such a time as this. For days whose contours create space for nothing but possibility. For days that don’t begin and end on schedule. For new ways of imagining life and new ways of pondering death. 

But I am not there. Although I am working remotely and making a transition has proven both challenging and fulfilling, I find that I am itchy. Not in an “itchy because I picked blackberries and have the chigger bites to prove it” kind of way, but itchy in the most frustrating of ways. In a way that means I can’t exactly identify the itch or determine how to scratch it. 

I am a parish pastor and everything I do is based on an incarnational way of being in the world. All that I am is based on an enfleshed grace that stalked the earth and staked a presence of love and mercy in the midst of all of Creation. My entire purpose is found in sharing this very presence-centric faith through a very presence-centric ministry. 

Faith communities, like people, have different personalities. Some spin out the love of God (however they understand God) in a deep and mystical spirituality. Some have an expansive menu of programs designed to meet every possible desire of their people. 

The faith community I serve is a bit messier than this. We are something of a hybrid of old school Lutheran congregation meets urban church. We try, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding. When we fail, we try again. Some people have stalked away from the community because they were angry with how we were doing things and very few of them have returned. But we have also provided 59 units of permanent, supportive housing on our property for families experiencing or at risk of housing instability. Every day we provide sack lunches for the hungry around us. We worship together with a music program that sounds like it belongs in the grandest of cathedrals. And just now, we’ve been imagining together: What’s Next?

I cannot make a to do list to get us to the answer to that question. Isolated myself, I don’t know how to dream together at a distance. Grafted into a faith community, I am seemingly unable to find ways to live into our shared identity while we are so far apart. 

And when the news becomes even more awful, I struggle to find ways to come together around that with the people I am called to serve. How do we cry out against the racism and injustice and white supremacy that murdered George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and countless others? How do we, a congregation of mostly white faces, repent from the many ways we benefit from the very system that claimed these beloveds? Without gathered community, how can we mourn for these who are victims of the centuries old plague of racism?

I am, it seems, struggling. Struggling to find a purpose, or just purpose, in the midst of these days. 

So it is that I turn to presence, which seems an odd turn to make if I am talking about my presence or our presence one to another. Instead I am turning, daily, to the presence of the holy in the midst of what seems entirely unholy. What seems, in fact, profane. I am turning from my linear way of being in a day to a circular way of being in the world. In so doing, I resist the urge to form this new way of being into a program. If it becomes something that is scheduled and managed and promoted, it is no longer about the presence of the holy. 

There is no shortage of writers and thinkers and probably pastors, finding themselves with a sudden glut of time, putting out article upon article telling us HOW we can get through this. We are advised to be more productive and less productive; we are encouraged to take better care of ourselves and to just not worry about it. In my vocation, we are offered a plethora of new ways to be the church and we wonder when we signed up for that. 

The truth is, I don’t know how we’ll get through this, any of it, only that we will. 

And what I am learning is that my capacity to produce and program and preach and preside and prepare and practice is not what is needed just now. What is sustaining us now, those of us who love and care for communities of faith, is what formed us in the beginning. The wide love and mercies of God, new to us and for us with each new day. The promise that death in any form will never have the final word. The abundant grace that permeates each tender and terrible fear. The presence of the divine poet and author and artist and shepherd and healer. 

God’s very self, present in our midst. 

What does it look like for you to live in a circular in the world rather than a linear one? Come up with at least three examples.

What are some creative ideas for establishing and deepening community during COVID-19 that you’ve used or seen?  

Rev. Julie Hutson

Rev. Julie Hutson is Senior pastor of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Seattle, WA. A graduate of Trinity Lutheran Seminary and the University of Alabama, she finds joy and purpose in her extended work with those experiencing housing instability and homelessness. She serves on the Compass Housing Alliance Board of Directors and the Alumni Council of Trinity Lutheran Seminary. While practicing Stay Home/Stay Safe she’s catching up on her reading, making Sunday brunch (who knew?), and visiting with friends and family on ZOOM.