2023 Best Practices in Ministry Keynote Address

What a great joy and blessing to be back at Best Practices. I am grateful for the chance to speak this evening and also to share time with my old seminary dormmate, Bill Tucker. A privilege, to be sure.

My talk tonight will be personal and firmly anchored to our conference theme, “You Are Not Alone.” I will risk being a bit vulnerable with you this evening as I reflect on what was perhaps the loneliest and most difficult time in my life. Full disclosure, I also fully recognize that the story I will tell you in a few minutes is one that you might also hear from others during this political season, so I figured you might as well hear it from me.

I really wrestled with this — wrestled with myself, wrestled with the Lord — and not for the first time. Indeed, the Lord and I have been over this time and again for about as long as the children of Israel wandered in the desert — the better part of 40 years. I also think about how Jacob wrestled with God that long, dark night at the ford of the Jabbok River. After all his clever maneuverings trying to advance his position, really from the time he was in his mother Leah’s womb, over and against his brother Esau or his Uncle Laban, it had finally come down to this moment. The derivation of the name for Jabbok, the river where this epic bout occurred, means “pouring out” or “emptying” which is what the river did in that place. Of course, it was exactly what Jacob had done, too. Everything and everyone that mattered to him was on the other side of the Jabbok River. He sent ahead his family, divided into a series of sub-groups, and all his possessions, apportioned into various segments, with hopes that his intricate plan of pacification would assuage his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob emptied it all and was there at the ford of the Jabbock River with nothing, and he was left there that long, dark all by himself, all alone. Except he was not alone. There he wrestled with God.

The “long, dark night of the soul” or "La noche oscura del alma” was the title of the poem of 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross. Jacob’s own long, dark night centuries before was more than mystical and not merely metaphorical. As visible demonstration, Jacob, now Israel — his new name alluding to his “struggle with God,” was left with this lingering limp — a glitch in his giddy up. My own scar, or to be more precise in derivation and definition, my “stigma” will never disappear. Spoiler alert — scars are not pretty, but they do show us healing has occurred. Scars are no longer open wounds when by Christ’s wounds (stigmata) we are healed. I promise we will get there.

Healing, however, often takes a while. My rather recent injury is one that now leaves me with a little limp. Last October, we were visiting our daughter, Rachel, her husband, Kyle and our baby grandson, Elliot in Milan (don’t call me Milan), a small town not in Italy but just a few miles south of Ann Arbor, Michigan. They are also here this evening. For the previous several weeks I took full advantage of some retirement free time and gorgeous late summer, early fall weather by running beaucoup miles, riding my bicycle over hill and dale, and even hiking and climbing mountains in my native state of Colorado and in Wyoming where we lived a few years. I was feeling fit as a fiddle, living the dream, maybe even getting a bit cocky about how well it was all going. Pride, they say, goes before the fall.  Early in October I fell — misjudging a single step into their basement, and I hit the hard floor with a thud. The pain was excruciating. My quad tendon was ruptured, completely torn away from my right knee, the kneecap left dangling. I screamed as I lay there writhing in pain, and Tammy (my wife) and Rachel (my daughter) rushed to my side. Before long most of Milan was there to help — fire fighters, police officers, paramedics, ambulance drivers. Not a lot going on in that small town that morning, I guess. Eventually, they stabilized my leg and numbed me with pain medication, transported me to the hospital, and a few days later I had surgery to reattach the quad to the patella. Now, four months later, I continue to rehab with a limp that may go away and a scar that never will.

At one point during a stretch of feeling sorry for myself, I texted Rachel and told her that this had been the worst few months of my life. How was it possible to have so recently climbed, hand over foot, Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming, with all kinds of treacherous steps on the way up and back down and then miss one lousy step to the basement and do so much damage? The worst days of my life, I vented, but I was not telling the truth. Not even close.

This is my third time spinning tales at Best Practices, and would you believe that I have yet one more story to share from my college years at St. John’s College? You may have heard me share about my freshmen year, playing on the worst basketball team in the history of collegiate sports. Or that at St. John’s College I was introduced to Jesus Christ by fellow students, faculty, and staff, was baptized, and became a member of His Church and of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. And not long afterward other members of my family were baptized and confirmed—my older brothers, my younger sister, and my parents. But none of you has heard this one before because this is a story that I never talk about. It is not the kind of story that I go around telling because there are not many laugh lines. Even worse, it puts lots of ugly scars on full display. I beg your pardon in advance as I limp through this one. It is uncomfortable for me.  

It was 1980, just before my senior year at St. John’s, when we were married at her home church in Wichita, Kansas — full of hopes and dreams and excited for our future together. We had dated since the beginning of my sophomore year (which, by the way, is why I usually stop the public reminiscences with my infamous but happier ending freshman year). Then, after I graduated in 1981, we stuck around Winfield for one more year so that she could finish her undergraduate degree. The college employed me as an Admissions Counselor recruiting new students, but for me, the job was temporary. Our plans were set. Once she graduated, we were off to Fort Wayne where I would go to the seminary to study to become a Lutheran pastor.

It was a blur, but by all accounts I felt like that first year at the seminary went very well. I loved every minute of it. We lived in a place closer to downtown, but we had jobs on the north side of Fort Wayne near to campus. She worked in a hardware store nearly full time, and I was part-time at a pharmacy and drugstore in addition to my full load of classes. We made enough to pay the rent, buy groceries, and make ends meet the way that seminary families and graduate students often do. My basketball career was briefly revived, too, as I played on the seminary’s team with a great group of guys. It was a busy year, and the time went by fast.

As summer approached, she was invited to join the St. John’s College’s traveling musical group for their summer tour — something she had done the previous couple of summers and enjoyed very much. Why not? She was a very talented vocalist who loved to sing and play the guitar. This tour supported our beloved alma mater, and she would be paid a stipend. She was sacrificing a lot to support me and my educational goals, so this just seemed like a great idea to encourage her interests. Meanwhile, I arranged to do a summer vicarage at a church in the panhandle of Nebraska. I would get some good pastoral experience, and she would sing her praises to the Lord. Certainly, we would write letters, and she could call me when she got to a place where there was a phone. Remember how challenging it once was to communicate across the miles?  It would not be easy to be apart, but it was just for the summer, and we could make it work. Seemed like a great plan at the time.

Until the letters stopped coming and the phone quit ringing. Communication was trickier in the 80s, so initially I didn’t think too much of it. “Maybe tomorrow,” I soothed myself. Eventually, however, I wondered what in the world was going on. Something must be wrong. All alone in the panhandle of Nebraska, the first round of some real wrestling commenced. Questions were only beginning to formulate in my mind. They would become more pronounced.

How does a young man respond when his wife finally admits that there is this other guy, in this case one of the boys in the band? I didn’t know him. He had just finished his freshman year — probably just 19 years old. Sheesh, did I recruit the kid to St. John’s as an Admissions Counselor? How does a young seminarian react when his wife informs him that she will not be returning to Fort Wayne in the fall — that he can go, if he wishes, but she won’t be coming along? What does he say when she tells him that she is pretty sure that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, that she doubts whether she ever really loved him, and that there wasn’t much more to talk about? I wrote a letter to the seminary requesting a leave of absence for a year.

We both went back to Kansas. She moved home with her parents, and I needed to find a place nearby so that we could meet with her pastor and get some counseling — to which she consented. The car was hers before we married, so I had no transportation other than my bicycle at first. I still had some of my best friends in Winfield, so I hopped on my old Raleigh and rode the 35 miles or so from her parents’ home south of Wichita to get there. I would have to ask my friends to let me stay on their couch for a while, borrow their car occasionally, and help me out. What an imposition! But what choice did I have? So, I hopped on my bike.

Close to evening by the time I wheeled into town, I decided not to bother my friends until the next day.  Not yet, not that night. That night, after the long ride, I stopped at a place called Pecan Grove — a sprawling park outside of town near the Walnut River. Or maybe it was the Jabbok River because I was empty. My sleeping bag had been strapped to my backpack as I rode, and at Pecan Grove I rolled it out on the hard-as any-basement-floor ground. I writhed, this time silently, in pain — my heart, and not just my knee, wrenched, ripped, ruptured. No fire fighters, no police officers, no paramedics or first responders from that little town showed up to help. Nobody responded because nobody knew I was there. There, all alone, I laid down.  

Empty — without a thing (no more than a few dollars in my pocket), without much hope for my marriage, and without a clue about my future. Empty — right there, in that same little town where I first learned about Jesus, I poured my heart out to Him. For me, Winfield has become sort of a sacred place — holy ground. But that night the ground was just hard and unforgiving, and my heart felt hard and unforgiving as I wrestled with a God who seemed to me to be kind of hard and unforgiving, too. As I wrestled with Him, I knew that I was unevenly matched. There may have been stars in the sky that night, I don’t remember. La noche oscura del alma. This was the long, dark night of my soul, and the darkness had never been so dark. “I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” I waited for the Lord, and I waited for a new day.

Pastoral counseling could not save our marriage. Her pastor admitted that it would never work as long as there was a third person in the equation. Before too long, yet another would be added when she became pregnant with his child. Soon after she divorced me, they got married. But I was grateful for her pastor’s sensitive and earnest care. He helped wrestle through a lot of stuff. And I was blessed by the love of friends in Winfield who generously took care of me for several months. St. John’s was also really great. The college gave me back my old job, and I helped coach the basketball team. “Weeping may endure for a night,” the Psalmist says — even the long, dark night of the soul, “but joy comes in the morning.” In that little town in the middle of nowhere, that sacred place with hard but holy ground, God’s people, His Church, did what the Church does best: taking bruised and broken people and applying healing balm, taking lost and lonely people and showing them the love of the Lord. They helped send me back on my way.

Once the year passed, I left Winfield yet again for Fort Wayne. Early in the first days of the fall quarter I was asked to meet with the Certification and Placement Committee. These men held my future and career in their collective hands. They alone would determine whether I was fit for consideration for pastoral ministry, or if I would be no longer allowed to be enrolled in the seminary. Quite honestly, I was not sure myself — unsure of myself. More and more questions confronted me with which I was forced to grapple. What would people think of me — a pastor who could not hold his marriage together? What sort of credibility would I have with pre-marriage or marriage counseling, talking about the sanctity of holy matrimony and the lifelong commitment made between a husband and wife? My scars would always be an unsightly distraction, would they not? I could not blame the committee if they rejected me. Rejection by now was something very familiar to me. I would trust their judgment. What choice did I have?

So, I was invited to their meeting with these scholars and theologians, these pastors and professors. I don’t remember everyone who sat across the table from me to ask me questions and listen to my story. Unforgettably, however, President Robert Preus was there. Professor Kurt Marquart was there. Dr. Jim Voelz was there, too. Jim asked a question that I had already asked myself over and over and would continue to ask myself again and again. It was a question that bore a hole in my soul. Was there anything that I could have done differently, or anything that I did that contributed to this failure?

Where did I go wrong? How did I manage to mess things up? What was wrong with me? Guilt — imagined or real — never easily relinquishes its grip. Guilt isolates you, corners you, and when it manages to get you all by yourself and alone does its worst. Guilt always threatens to expose your scars — especially a stigma that never really goes away. I did not have a good answer to his question. What could I have done? What could I do?

Courteously asked to leave the meeting so that the committee could confer in private, I took the short walk back to what we called Dorm D. Inside my room, just a floor below Bill Tucker who was no doubt upstairs studiously pouring over his books, I just closed the door and sat down all alone, all by myself. I’m not sure that I ever felt quite so alone as in that moment. Waiting on the decision of others, the resolution was entirely out of my empty hands.

Adultery, malicious desertion … the committee could take its pick of offenses, I supposed, and let me off the hook. But they could not ever take away the scars. Readmission would not remove the “scarlet letter” of being a divorced person, or worse, a divorced pastor. Allowing me to continue would not erase the guilt that I felt but could not explain for having failed to be a good enough husband to prevent my wife from rushing into the arms of another. Maybe it would be best, I considered, if they decided I might now be better suited for something else, some other career, some other calling. The whispers kept on haunting me — damaged, perhaps irreparably.

The Church cannot have a blind eye toward sin. The Church cannot simply turn its head and pretend that sin doesn’t matter. Divorce is sin, and as much as I felt justified in deflecting the blame, I could not change the fact that I was divorced, and there surely must have been something that I had done wrong or might have done differently along the way. In that moment, alone in my Dorm D room, I felt the weight of sin, the pain of sin, the guilt of sin intensely. At its discretion, the Church, and those who represented it, could simply have turned me out and left me alone.

That is not what happened. Instead, the Church did what it does best, did what it was meant to do, called to do and what it has always done for beaten, broken, bruised people. The same Church that welcomed a homesick and evidently not-so-good freshman basketball player, and who welcomed him again years later when he had no place to go did what Esau did the day after his brother Jacob spent all night wrestling with God. He welcomed and embraced his brother. My brothers did not turn me away.  To the contrary, I was welcomed back. It was the same thing Joseph did when his brothers wrestled with their sin and guilt. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph said to them, “but God used it for good.” He is the God who works all things — all things — together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. God can take even bad things and use them to accomplish incredible good. The cross of Christ comes immediately to my mind. “He who spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not together with Him freely give u all things.” All things ….

All things for good … some of you know my wife, Tammy. She is really good. I first met her my freshman year at St. John’s College (of course). She was a senior at Winfield High. Her father, John Saleska, was one of my professors. I worked up the courage to ask her on a date in the spring of that year, and she accepted. I borrowed Reed Lessing’s orange VW Beetle, and we went to Wichita to a movie, “The Goodbye Girl.” Afterward we went to Godfather’s for pizza. Embarrassingly, I was about 50 cents short. Fortunately, Tammy had placed a $1 bill in her pocket before we left, and she bailed me out. Clearly, I did not make a very good impression because when school started up again in the fall, and Tammy was now a freshman at St. John’s, she showed no interest whatsoever. Goodbye, girl! Too bad! I might have been spared a lot of grief and a few scars.

Tammy, however, was part of our close circle of friends. In fact, she was in my wedding. She was in both of my weddings! We have now been married for almost 38 years. God has blessed us with a beautiful family — five awesome kids and five amazing grandkids with a sixth on the way. All good, just like her. All good, just like God who is good and whose mercy endures forever.

Our life journey has included parish ministry in Colorado while I was a graduate student in Boulder, and campus ministry at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. From there we moved to Wisconsin where I spent six years on the faculty teaching history before I was elected President of Concordia. I retired as President of Concordia Wisconsin and Ann Arbor after 24 years in that role. Tammy, who also is a PhD and has served Concordia in various administrative capacities, will retire at the end of June. It has been all good. All things.

I would not have imagined any of this during my long, dark night of the soul. In fact, at nearly every juncture along the course of this journey the whispers returned — the gnawing doubts, the lingering questions. “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again!” Why should I even be considered for this call — pastor, professor, college president? Wouldn’t it be best if I just step to the side? Damaged goods, maybe not unqualified but disqualified. This dark scar. This dark stigma. The wound, of course, was inflicted 40 years ago, but there is no statute of limitations on sin and guilt. Time does not heal all wounds.

Time does not, but Jesus heals our wounds … by His wounds (stigmata) we are healed. There have been moments where I felt what seemed to be the weight of the world. It was merely the weight of my own sin and guilt, but it was more than I could bear. Which is true, it was more than I can bear. I was most definitely right about that. Jesus, however, did bear the weight of the world’s sin — alone — at Calvary. “He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Forsaken by His Father so that we might be forgiven, Jesus was left alone to die so that we might live with Him in His resurrected and ascended presence forever.

It won’t come as a surprise to any of us, I guess, if the whispers now intensify, or even if a spotlight is shown on my dark scars — the ones I have described from 40 years ago, and whatever others — real or imagined — might make for good political fodder. In fact, I got this email earlier this morning, “Hello, Doctor. I seem to be getting a lot of push back for my church’s nomination of you … I was told that you are divorced. What do you say to people, especially in our Synod, who say that we really should not elect a man who is divorced?” Questions about qualification and disqualification — fair questions, and ones I ask myself repeatedly. I still wonder sometimes “how will my brothers and sisters receive me?” By now maybe I should know better. Maybe I do know better. Still, I wonder. And as I empty myself before you here at this Jabbock-y sort of place, standing all alone on this stage, you can be sure that I am wrestling with the Lord every single day with all my vulnerability always fully on display before Him. “Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me.”

Wrestling with the Lord, at least I am not alone.  He is in the ring with me — not against me. Luther says, “God’s caress leaves wounds.” Just ask Jacob or St. John of the Cross or anybody with much life experience. Yes, there are scars, and I may be left with a limp, but I am not alone. God is part of the struggle. He is with me, beside me, for me. Moreover, and as if that were not enough, I am not alone because I am with you — in the same place where I — beaten, broken, bruised as I may be — am nevertheless welcomed once again. Welcomed by God’s people who do what the Church does when the Church is at its best: helping the hurting, loving the lost, forgiving the failed. Here, and wherever God’s people gather, is a place of refuge for the rejected, of sanctuary for the stigmatized, of haven for the hopeless.

No doubt many of you have also had your own dark night of the soul. Or maybe this current season of ministry has left you feeling beaten, bruised, or beleaguered. Friends, engage the fight. Wrestle with God. Embrace whatever limp you might receive. For it is in our weaknesses that God’s strength is made perfect. It is in our wounds that we experience Christ’s healing. It is in our suffering that we join Jesus at the cross where He heals us once and for all, declaring victory over every darkness we suffer. His grace is sufficient. His grace is enough.

And I also encourage you to look around — to your right and your left. To the people you came here with and to the friends you’ve encountered here — both new and old. What is so beautiful about the body of Christ is that it pulls us from the 1-on-1 wrestling match with God. It places us into community, family, that like Esau, despite differences, can embrace us as brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead of silently wrestling in a way that maybe no one even knows about — alone — perhaps now is the time to invite others in to help cover this hard ground with you. Tag team!

No, I don’t tell this story very often. Unlike the story of my freshman basketball team, this one is not very funny (although that line about Tammy being in both of my weddings is kind of funny, in a twisted sort of way). No, this story is actually sort of sad … not unlike some sad stories in your lives, too, I’m sure. This one just happens to be mine, and I felt it best for you to hear it from me. Or, maybe not so sad after all. Not as long as all things work together for good, right? In any event, I knew that I could tell you because here at Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix you are all Christ’s Church, and the Church — when push finally comes to shove — does what it does best. We don’t leave each other alone. We don’t leave anybody alone. We give each other Jesus. By His wounds we are healed. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world. Give me Jesus!


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Patrick Ferry in his officePatrick Ferry in his office