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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Swimming in the deep

By Ingrid C.A. Rasmussen

During the 2011-12 year, Ingrid Rasmussen served her internship at Augustana in West St. Paul, Minn. Following the end of the internship she attended a writing workshop at St. John’s University and during that workshop she wrote the following reflection on internship:

Eleven months, two weeks, and six days ago, I parked my car, checked my fly, folded my alb over my arm, strolled into the building, greeted the caretaker, inquired about the secretary's weekend, prepared a cup of tea, checked my mailbox, walked down the hallway, paused at the nameplate that read “Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen,” flipped on the lights, eased into my chair, attempted to look professional, and wondered where on earth I was. That's when I heard my professor's voice clearly proclaiming: “You interns are finally going to experience the deep end of the pool.”

Seminary staff who say such things are simultaneously warning students about what is to come and bragging about the responsibilities that come with being a parish pastor, albeit sans stole. Once upon a time, they too were forced to dive headlong into ministry in exotic places like rural Dakota and inner-city Chicago. They remember responding to an unexpected death and cradling a long-awaited newborn. They remember the first Council meeting where someone looked to them for answers and the first worship committee meeting where they realized that theological education did not equal ecclesial seniority. They would rather not remember the time when they called the deceased by the wrong name and the time when they failed to authenticate if the Addison over the font was a boy before worship began. They haven't forgotten how it felt to spring off the blocks, sometimes more successfully than others.

Internship ensures that church leaders jump in and learn a variety of ministry strokes. My internship congregation valued a strong forward crawl, so I learned to do one. It served me well this year—enabling me to learn the over one thousand worshipers, keeping my head above water during busy liturgical seasons, and allowing me to accompany folks experiencing crises. When I threatened to give up on names, a new visitor introduced herself and her story stuck. When my colleague went on sick leave, I maintained a steady pace as my workload grew. When a congregant sought me out after Maundy Thursday services and disclosed that his job was in trouble, his marriage was on the rocks, his kids were addicted, and he was emotionally spent, the forward crawl allowed me to bear the weight of his experience without being dragged below the surface.

The forward crawl was never meant to be used in all circumstances. When your car won't start and you're late for a meeting with the bishop, all you can do is doggie-paddle and pray. When you have been focused on the bottom line for too long, the backstroke opens you to the possibilities that exist above you and around you. When the winter sun emerges and reminds you that God is in control, nothing less than the butterfly will suffice. When the poor are being drowned by institutions designed to protect them, the gospel calls you to kick and flail until someone pays attention. And when you have twenty minutes to finish a sermon and hear the same congregant's voice heading toward your office for the fourth consecutive day, you need to be ready to sidestroke—fast. The build of our body and our training cause us to favor one of these over the others; however we are certain to sink without the ability to transition from one to another when necessary.

Please don't misunderstand me; I am no Michael Phelps. I floundered—missing the pitch for the liturgy, failing to express my appreciation for support staff, making assumptions about the gender of the baptized, forgetting the name of the deceased, asking too much of too few, saying ridiculous things to the grief-stricken, disrespecting the wisdom of elders, projecting my fears on the sick, attempting to fix peoples' marriages, and being stingy with Jesus when I thought people were less deserving of the good news that he brings. There is no escaping it: when you cannot touch the bottom, your weaknesses and shortcomings are exposed. That is why you need an attentive supervisor, who will compassionately toss a life preserver in your direction or, better yet, jump in and tread water with you until you can breathe again.

On Monday, after eleven months, two weeks, and six days, I stood from my chair, turned off the lights, paused at the nameplate that read “Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen,” walked down the hallway, checked my mailbox, hugged the secretary, left a note for the caretaker, strolled out of the building, hung my alb in the car, and drove away from a congregation that I deeply loved. With me went hundreds of thoughtful thank you notes that detailed a specific interaction, recalled a favorite sermon, or articulated my gifts for ministry. Perhaps none of them was as poignant, however, as the last card that I opened, which simply said: “Thank you for swimming in the deep with us.”

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