Brian Christopher Coulter: Reflections on a gold-fringed stole

Photo courtesy of Brian Christopher Coulter

A fifth-generation pastor reflects on the gifts he received at his ordination, which point to both the static and the evolving nature of ministry.

I am a fifth-generation pastor. You can call it a providential gene or a pastoral proclivity, but it seems to be a hereditary condition in my family.

Alexander Boyd was the first. He was ordained in 1880 to the ministry of “circuit riding and church organization,” with an annual salary of $250. Then came John Rollings, my great-grandfather, who left me his entire collection of handwritten seminary notes on yellowed index cards. Next was my great-uncle David Walker. Uncle David served the same historic downtown church for most of his ministry -- and he also served one of the best oven-browned turkeys every Thanksgiving.

My father, Greg Coulter, is the fourth in line. While having your father as your pastor comes with certain perks, it also comes with a lot of baggage. Still, this was all a blessing to me, an invaluable asset in the early exploration of my own calling.

Seven years ago, I was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament within my denomination. I became that fifth generation.

While the first two generations could participate in my ordination service only as a part of that great cloud of witnesses, my father and my great-uncle led the worship that day.

They gave the sermon and the charge at my ordination. But then they gave more.

They gave me a stole handmade by my great-aunt Shirley out of a fabric resembling the clergy tartan. It has gold fringe. I don’t like fringe -- but for Shirley, I wear fringe. They gave me a sweater on which my mother cross-stitched the denominational seal. It doesn’t fit well -- but again, I wear it. They also gave me a frame with a picture of each generation that now hangs just inside my office door. The picture of me is not my best -- but still, there it hangs.

I loved their words. I love these things. I was given all of this, but then I was again given more.

I was also given a ministry on that day. A specific ministry to preach the word and administer the sacraments. A ministry to walk with the people of God on the hilltops, through the valleys and into those thin places we encounter. I was given a tradition. A tradition that was formed long before me and will continue long after me. A tradition of some faiths well lived and some lives now lost.

That is a lot to receive in one day. I tried to receive it all graciously and properly. But in retrospect, I realize that I did not.

It’s not that I did anything wrong; it’s just that I received these gifts as if they were all the same sort, and I treated them as such.

The stole, the sweater and the frame are all fixed things. They do not change. They are constant. They are static. This is partly why I love them. Their idiosyncrasies will remain.

The rest of what I was given on that day was not fixed. Yet I waded into ministry with a technical know-how, expecting everything I encountered to fit neatly into an ordination exam scenario.

Deep down, I knew that tradition and ministry are not unchanging. They flex. They adapt. They continue. But it’s all too easy to forget.

Todd Johnson writes that faith is not a “static ‘thing’” but rather an “organic process” of participating in God’s story. This is also true for our ministries. For a ministry to be faithful, it needs to be ever changing, according to the ongoing story of God.

Similarly, our Christian tradition is not a road map with perfected routes from the past to which we must adhere. Rather, it reveals paths previously explored in the hope that we might discover the next path -- with God’s people here and now.

My great-grandfather’s ministry did not involve circuit riding as the generation before his did. It changed. My great-uncle furthered our tradition as he took part in the formation of a new denomination. He adapted. My father and I continue to speak about the evolving role of a pastor and the particular challenges of ministry in today’s world. We are trying.

My father recognized this dual nature of ministry in his charge to me that day: “Brian, the context has changed. The rules have changed. But the task has not. We are to be vehicles through which the word of God comes to God’s people.”

Some things are fixed, yet others should never be. If your ministry seems to have too much fringe or it just doesn’t fit quite right, you are called to adjust, not tolerate. A ministry can advance when a ministry can adapt.

Similarly, tradition is not there simply to decorate your walls and fill your bookshelves. Tradition is meant to be loved and lived among God’s people. Tradition is always leading us somewhere new.

The difficult discernment, of course, is determining what should remain constant even within that which is ever changing. Not all of ministry should change, nor should we strive to make our traditions unrecognizable to those who have gone before.

A few months back, we asked someone in the congregation to alter a few of our liturgical paraments. She offered to freshen up our robes and stoles as well. I thought briefly about asking her to remove the fringe from my now seven-year-old stole.

But in the midst of this malleable ministry and our evolving tradition, I think I have come to appreciate the static in a new way. That fringe remains.