Articles, Essays & Sermons

Hearts over heads

A Reformation Sunday ordination story

by Ken Sehested

My wife Nancy and I were jointly ordained on Reformation Sunday, 1981, at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. As you might guess, the choice of the date was intentional—not simply to align ourselves to that dissenting ecclesial movement of a half-millennium ago, but to affirm that the community of faith is always and everywhere called to reform and refine its vision and mission, to realign itself at the intersection of the abiding Word and the ever-shape-shifting words whose purpose are to confuse and deceive and vandalize the common good.

The days leading up to that Sunday were glad ones, with one misgiving. My parents made a long car trip to be present for the occasion, and we didn’t know how my traditional-minded Dad was going to take being present for a woman’s ordination.

There was no doubt that he adored Nancy—elegant, funny, generous, not to mention beautiful. In fact, Dad’s opinion of me improved significantly when we married. He would never say as much, but I imagined him thinking, “If a quality person like Nancy thinks he’s pretty good, my boy must be OK.”

But ordaining a woman, I worried, might be a stretch.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the obstacle, which I didn’t realize until that Saturday night. Just before bedding down, I briefed Dad on how the service would unfold, including the “laying on of hands” ritual that, in our congregation, involved everyone present.

“Not just the ordained people?” Dad asked with face revealing both confusion and alarm. In traditional Southern Baptist life, that’s the custom—only the ordained were permitting to lay hands on the ordinands, a jealously guarded privilege of religious authority.

“No, Dad, in our church every member is encouraged to participate in the laying on of hands. We really do believe in the priesthood of all believers.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” he said in a tone that I knew too well, and dreaded. Dad was still very worried that I didn’t get enough “Baptist doctrine” during my studies at an ecumenical seminary.

“I don’t know about that . . . “ were his parting words as he turned and walked away. I knew we would not speak of it again before the service; and I suspected he would not participate in the dedication.

My sleep that night was fitful.

I was still anxious during the next morning’s service. But, near the end, when the time came for the ritual laying on of hands, both Mom and Dad were among the first to approach as Nancy and I knelt at the altar. Dad’s face was uncharacteristically emotional, and I could tell he was well out of his comfort zone.

When the time came, his heart won out over his head.

I recall that story from time to time, trying to glean its wisdom on how relationships can be nurtured with people, across all sorts of ideological divides, in a way that allows hearts the upper hand.

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•For more background on the Protestant Reformation, see this special issue of “Signs of the Times.”

•For a Reformation Sunday prayer, see "Make us audacious."

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org