I have now completed forty years and seven days of ministry. My first official day as a United Methodist pastor was Sunday, January 3, 1982. Part of me wonders how this could possibly be. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday. The memories are precious: so much joy and so much heartache; so much fear and so much gathering up of courage to be a faithful disciple; and, above all, so much gratitude. I am especially grateful for the encouragement of the Board of Ordained Ministry representative visiting Gary at Yale Divinity School, who told this young Mennonite, “Laurie, if you and Gary come to Michigan, we have a church for you.”
I didn’t even realize I had served for forty years until Christmas break, when I was pondering my vocation as a pastor and my ministry career. The first thing I did was take a look at the places where we find the word “forty” in the Bible. Did you know that “forty” is mentioned dozens of times in the Old and New Testament? “Forty” is often used as a metaphor for a time of testing. Moses lived forty years in Egypt and forty years in the desert before being called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, which also took forty years. He spent forty days and nights on top of Mt. Sinai and received God’s laws not once but twice because he broke the first set of stone tablets. Moses also sent twelve spies to scout out the Promised Land for forty days.
Jonah warned Nineveh for forty days that their sin would lead to destruction. And, according to Ezekiel 4:6, the prophet took one for the house of Israel by lying on his left side for three hundred and ninety days to bear punishment for Israel. After that, Ezekiel did the same, only on his right side and for forty days. “When you have completed these days, lie on your right side to bear the guilt of the house of Judah.”
Here are a few things that I have learned about ministry over forty years. The first church I pastored was Ogdensburg United Methodist Church (Jan. 3, 1982-1985) on the Old Mission Peninsula Church in Traverse City, Michigan (since renamed Old Mission Peninsula UMC). In my first year as a twenty-something, half-time rookie pastor and first-time mother, I led the funeral service for a high school teenager who was tragically killed in a car accident late one night. Sitting with the family in their home, I realized that my simple presence in the face of death was more important than any words I might ever say. In those first years, I also learned that when speaking or writing about potentially controversial issues, I need to be sensitive to those who believe differently than I do and encourage all voices to be heard.
In my next appointment at the United Methodist Church of Ludington (1985-1989), I served as the half-time associate pastor in a county seat church. My primary learnings revolved around how to pastor a larger church by tapping into the gifts of laity to lead alongside the clergy. I also learned the importance of staff supervision and how to best support the senior pastor.
In 1989, I received my first full-time appointment at Hart United Methodist Church (1989-1993). I had the honor of walking with this congregation through a period of rapid growth and financial stewardship, including a major building renovation where we literally turned the sanctuary around and also built a new fellowship hall and parking lot. What joy to observe the congregation reaching out into all parts of the county and offering their renovated facility as a gift to the community. A wonderful older couple in Gary’s church took care of our three pre-school and elementary children during those years. Angels, I prefer to call them.
Gary and I were greatly surprised when we were invited by Bishop Don Ott to become the co-pastors of First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids in 1993. Serving as pastors in a large church with widely divergent theological views, we learned that amazing and transformative ministry can change lives as long as clergy and parishioners alike listen to and honor the uniqueness and faithfulness of all. During our thirteen years of co-pastoring, we saw much growth in discipleship, mission and stewardship, and membership. We were also deeply grateful for everyone who helped our three children grow and mature into faithful young adults.
From 2006-2012 I served as the District Superintendent of the Grand Rapids District in the West Michigan Conference while Gary continued as senior pastor of Grand Rapids First UMC. It was a wonderful experience to come alongside clergy and congregations to foster vital ministry. At the end of my time as a DS, The Book of Discipline 2012 changed the primary role of the district superintendent to be the chief missional strategist of the district rather than as simply the overseer of the district. This change opened the door for superintendents to become involved in creative ministry in new ways.
I like to call 2012-2013 a gap year, but it was filled with exciting ministry. I was appointed to two churches while Gary remained at Grand Rapids First. Aldersgate UMC, a medium-sized church, had experienced decline over the previous few years, and my role was to help bring that congregation back to life. I also had the privilege of coming alongside the other church, Plainfield UMC, to make the painful, yet hopeful decision to close its doors in order for a new ministry to begin. It was one of the most unique years of my ministry. At times clergy find themselves in roles they never envisioned, but I have learned that no matter where God sends us, we can make a positive difference.
In 2013 Gary and I were appointed as senior pastors of First UMC, Birmingham, a large, vibrant congregation in the greater metropolitan Detroit area. A beehive of mission and outreach, Birmingham First has a long legacy of excellence in ministry. I learned that when congregations are clear about their mission and vision, members and non-members alike are encouraged to dream big and find ways to inspire others toward vital ministry and transformed lives.
After three wonderful years in Birmingham, I was elected to be a bishop by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church in 2016 and was assigned to the Iowa Annual Conference. Overwhelmed and a bit scared, I soon learned that I was surrounded by laity and clergy who were eager to offer their gifts in ministry. And a year ago, in 2021, I was invited to also come alongside the Dakotas Annual Conference as their interim episcopal leader. Each day is an opportunity for learning and growth!
As a bishop, I have the joy of a bird’s-eye view of The United Methodist Church by hearing stories every day of lives that are changed because of the mission and innovative ministry of United Methodists in every corner of North and South Dakota and Iowa.
From January 3, 1982 to January 10, 2022. Still learning after forty years of blessing, growing, trying new things, and humbly serving. I am deeply grateful for every person who has encouraged me over these last forty years. I have made many mistakes along the way and wish I could have had a few more do-overs. Yet, still, the building of relationships and the partnership of laity and clergy in ministry has changed more lives and transformed more hearts than we will ever know.
Our inability to come to a common understanding around human sexuality has been extremely painful. At the same time, God’s grace is manifested in our struggles, as we learn how to listen to and accept as brothers and sisters in Christ those who do not think exactly like us. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. In the end, it’s all about grace and compassion, and I am still moving on to perfection. Who would have thought a little girl named Laurie Hartzel would one day answer a call to ministry? Who would have thought that God would call me to be an instrument of mercy, justice, and hope? How might God be calling you for just such a time as this?