Retooling The Middle-aged Pastor

By Tripp Hudgins, Middle-aged White Dude

I first went to seminary in 1992. The SBC was fragmenting and a group of progressive Baptists (including Rev. Dr. Paul Watlington, my step-mother’s father) had formed a new seminary in Richmond, Va., Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. And even though scholars like E. Glenn Hinson and Linda Bridges continues to influence me, I lasted just into the spring semester of my first year when I decided to withdraw. I was just beginning to work out my faith and seminary was proving an inappropriate place to do that work. I had a BA in Religion, but formation for ministry was not for me. Not yet.

I was 23, a working musician, a baker, and living at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical religious community running a retreat center and working for racial reconciliation in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Va. The term “new monasticism” had not yet been coinedt. We just called it monasticism or contemplative community. I also served Church of the Holy Comforter as a musician and occasional youth minister. All the trends about religious life in the United States were just beginning to make themselves known.

I relocated to Chicago in 1997 and joined North Shore Baptist Church. It was the first congregation I ever joined. I was the bass soloist and this progressive, multi-ethnic congregation was a good fit. By 2000 I was applying to seminary again. In 2001 the Twin Towers fell and I started seminary that October, this time at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an Episcopal Seminary just north of Chicago. My focus was in Liturgy and Music. The school was struggling institutionally and it was just starting to show, but the prayer life reminded me of Richmond Hill (all our work centered around thrice-daily worship), and I craved the scholarship. It was a great experience.

Ruth Meyers, Frank Yamada, and A.K.M. Adam among others influenced me deeply. Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle were guests as was David Weinberger. We were up to our eyeballs in the new social realities and what “digital and social media” might mean for the church.

With some friends in 2002, I helped start an emergent church, The Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, in the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city. Online, in a café, ecumenical, young-adult focused, we were “cutting edge.” Reconciler was good work.

It is not often that one can stop what one is doing in mid-life and retool. The communities and institutions that make that wish a reality are hard to come by.

I was ordained a Baptist minister (ABC-USA) in 2004 at North Shore Baptist Church.

Reconciler was not financially sustainable for me and my new marriage. So, I took a call to serve a small, frustrated congregation in a nearby suburb, The Community Church of Wilmette. It seemed like a good match and the congregation was ready for a change.

I was there for almost six years. We worked with Alban, the denomination, and other groups to try to get things going again. But growth was slow or non-existent, “replacement growth” we called it. By 2011 we parted ways and my wife and I packed for California and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

A great deal has happened since then. We are now Episcopalians. I was confirmed in 2014 (a sacramental response to the baptism I was given at St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, Va. in 1970) on the 10th anniversary of my ordination. Our son was born in 2015. He was baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter in 2016. And now I am discerning a new call in this denomination; to priest or not to priest?

Much has changed since 1992. Yet, this feels a lot like coming home. Vocation is oft unremarkable and familiar as home.

Now, sociological and theological pundits don’t have to convince the Church that everything has changed. Phyllis Tickle has passed away, many of us have lost a brave mentor. The emergent church is just…church. And I’m writing a dissertation about the emergent church and wondering how the social sea change will also continue to wreck academia.

That said, teaching in a seminary while discerning my own new-familiar call is a unique opportunity.

It is a chance to retool, to add on to the tools from my earlier experiences. I admit the all-too-familiar hoops are…frustrating, sometimes to the point of distraction. Yet, ministry has changed a great deal and it’s a gift to dive in at a new beginning.

I wrote this for one of the brief autobiographical statements required for the ordination process.

Now, I understand that my call is to both the lectern and the altar. If I were to imagine the perfect scenario, it would be to serve both as a vicar in a small parish and as a professor in a seminary, college, or university. The seminary would be ideal as I have a passion to help form people for ministry in an ephemeral American religious landscape. But there are many ways to help people sort out who they are and how they are loved by God.

My hope is that, by being a priest in all of these possible contexts, I will be most able to respond to that first call to form and be formed.

It is not often that one can stop what one is doing in mid-life and retool. The communities and institutions that make that wish a reality are hard to come by.

I am grateful to have found this time and the support from friends and family to embrace it fully.

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