October 19, 2016
The Rev. Elizabeth Oettinger shares the message for this Sunday’s 11 am service in the Sanctuary. She also offers her case for collaborative ministry at the 10 am Faith & Life hour in Hildebrand Hall.
“My role at Plymouth is evolving. I know more than many people know about collaborative ministry, and I hope to help the congregation learn more about it. Because of that specific experience, I was called in to work with the church. Beyond that, I have a lot of church experience, some of it with churches working to get to the other side of conflict. I also have a deep love and appreciation for Plymouth Church. I believe this current transition is a significant one for the congregation. I want to provide support to the staff, Church Council and the congregation, as you think carefully about how to navigate the path to the future. My role involves listening to as many people from as many points of view as possible, then feeding back what I learn.”
Rev. Oettinger, who currently lives in Corvalis, Oregon with her partner Sydney and their four cats, recently shared stories of her faith journey, including her five and a half years at Plymouth. “I came to Plymouth at 32 years old with one and three-year-old daughters and a whole lot of attitude! Joe Williamson and John Gibson were incredible colleagues, mentors and friends to me. The congregation was then, as now, an incredible mix of challenging, supportive people. I said “yes!” to the chance to work with the congregation during this transition because I love this church. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this community for the opportunities and the support it gave me during my years of ministry here.”
Growing up in suburban Southern California, Oettinger’s father was Jewish and her mother Christian. “I was a pretty troubled kid,” she says. “The priests of the Episcopal congregation, where my mother, sisters, and I went to church, channeled my rebellion into service and gave me safe haven.”
Oettinger’s early influences continued to inspire her path to ministry during her college years. “I was fortunate to be at Yale University when William Sloane Coffin, one of the great preachers and social activists of the 20th century, was the university chaplain. I attended church every Sunday, became a Chaplains' office groupie and one night during my senior year, we were all talking about what we would do after graduation. When it was my turn, the words that fell from my mouth were, “I'm thinking about going to Divinity School”...which was odd because I had never consciously considered this option. Once said, the words would not be unsaid. I could not get loose from them. My parents and my boyfriend disapproved.
I compromised and went back to Yale as a graduate student studying American religious history. I rationalized that I didn't have a Puritan level, knock-you-off-your-feet “call” to ministry. One night, a still, small voice asked me to consider whether my search for a dramatic call was my way to avoid taking responsibility for my decision to enter ministry. The next morning, I asked Yale Divinity School if I could transfer from graduate school. They said yes; I started a month later. I tried to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. My bishop didn't believe in women priests. I realized I didn't believe in my bishop's authority. I had been falling in love with congregationalism for six years. I transferred to the UCC, and am grateful for the home I found.
“I thought I would continue my work as an academic, get my PhD and teach religious history in a seminary. My last year at Yale Divinity School, my in-care committee insisted I do a parish internship or they would not approve me for ordination. I was furious. I had no interest in parish ministry. I took an internship expecting to hate every minute of it, and instead fell in love. I have been a parish minister for 36 years, serving wonderful – and very different – churches in Duluth, MN, Seattle and Corvallis, OR. I love all the churches I have served. Gifted clergy and lay mentors shaped my ministry, from the two Episcopal priests who saved me in high school, to the great pastors and preachers at Yale: Bill Coffin and John Vannorsdall. In my mid-20s, the Duluth congregation was filled with strong, incredible older women who founded Planned Parenthood, marched for the right to birth control and supported the ERA. They created an amazing, supportive community for each other while serving formal teas and acting (it still pains me) as deaconesses in the church, where men served communion and women washed dishes. Those women taught me so much.
Moving to Corvalis, Oregon, I never intended to spend 24 years in one congregation. It happened one year, one decision at a time. What a rare gift to officiate weddings of babies you have baptized and watched grow up into wonderful young adults or to walk alongside older church members from active retirement through the challenges of aging and death. Being a pastor is always a privilege. People allow you into the private rooms of their lives and hearts. You laugh and cry, and sometimes want to tear your hair out and then a major pipe breaks, and it's all hands on deck cleaning up the flood, with the choir director leading frantic workers in every water-based hymn he can think of while you bail and mop, and God is so fully visible there. Good times!
One of the great experiences of my Corvallis tenure was a 2005 sabbatical. I was granted a Merrill Fellowship to Harvard University and spent a semester studying Islam and Hinduism, two of the world's great religious systems that I had little understanding of when I started. Since then, I have been a regular participant in interfaith friendships and support networks, especially in these days when the Muslim community is so misunderstood and under siege. My deep appreciation of other world religious traditions, other peoples' sacred texts, is one of the remarkable learnings of the past decade.
We have so many wise and committed elders who have given huge amounts of time, money and devotion to the church they know and love. We cannot abandon them. They need to have a place in church they recognize and that is inclusive and worshipful for them. At the same time, our younger generation (my children are now 31 and 33) live in a different world, a great deal less formally structured than “traditional” church. We don’t lure them into church with lattes; they can smell ‘fake’ a mile away. They want to see us care – about the world, each other and them.
We also need to realize a lot of young people do not fit into rigid structures of traditional church, like three-year commitments to boards and committees. Younger adults want to contribute, but their networks tend to be more elastic and informal. The dance of the church has to mean validating the whole spectrum of church involvement and having a sense of humor about our successes and failures! If the church can't be the place where we can genuinely try and fail, hold each other up and try again, it's not going to work. That is not to say issues facing the church are not serious. They are.
Thriving churches develop the capacity to be “fault tolerant,” to try and fail and not believe the sky is falling. Then they learn something from the experience and try again.
I always keep a novel and a “serious” book on my nightstand. Right now the novel is Laurie R. King's A Monstrous Regiment of Women and my serious book is Barbara Brown Taylor's collection of sermons titled The Seeds of Heaven.