While we are still in Women’s History Month, I want to write a note about a woman in ministry who greatly influenced my pastoral path, my pastor at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin, June Wilkins. I joined St. Martin’s a few years before June came, and left for seminary shortly before she left, but we were both there for many years together.
June taught me a lot about church, and the wonders and imperfections of community. And from her I learned about pastors and the work of leading a congregation. In my early days of being an adult church member, as I grew more involved, she taught me about how church community works. I was a little shocked to hear, for instance, that she missed us when we were not there on Sundays. That she felt that we are all part of weekly worship, and it is different if any one person is not there. This was a real insight into Christian community. From our normal societal consumer perspective, church is where we go to get our spiritual fix. We usually don’t - and I didn’t - think too much about the pastor and the musicians’ preparations, and how all of them were helping set Christ’s table, waiting for us to arrive, making things special for our communal worship time. It was a revelation to me to think about how worship happens with the whole assembly, not with a hired leader preaching for our entertainment or even edification. It made me take more responsibility for my role in worship, as a person in the pews.
When I was struggling with Martin Luther’s statements about Jewish people, and the consequences that had in Germany, June helped again. I was wondering about not only being called Lutheran in light of this history, but also being a pastor in this tradition. June said that she felt that Lutherans had the opportunity of not being able to avoid this history. We have to face it, not pretend that our part of Christianity has not been part of the history of Christian anti-semitism. We can’t ignore it. (The ELCA Declaration to the Jewish Community of 1994 has continued to be helpful to me, and has been a great discussion point with Jewish leaders and friends.)
June is a great preacher and a master liturgist - she loves worship and that is palpable when she is leading. She said that pastors should sing, and that a pastor with an imperfect voice is not a detriment, but a gift: it reminds us all that we don’t have to have perfect voices to sing in worship. She involved many people in planning worship, really giving us the opportunity to bring ideas and contribute: that was a real gift to me as a parishioner. I was part of planning the St. Martin’s Maundy Thursday Agape Meal that was so meaningful to so many - and that many of the parishioners and pastors from St. Martin’s have taken to other congregations. (This too, was an example of how to honor and not appropriate Jewish ceremony - having a meal that commemorates the story of the Last Supper rather than a Jewish seder.) Her sermon blog is here.
These are just a few specific examples and bits of wisdom; Mostly, June showed me how a pastor loves people. She opened our church to homeless people on freeze nights, and she opened her own home to people without a place to go for Thanksgiving dinner. She loved people in her flock deeply, including those who were most oppositional to her. She was hurt by some decisions and demonstrations in our parish, but her main reaction was sadness that the congregation still held old unhealed hurts. She never talked out of turn about anyone in my presence and always gave people the benefit of the doubt and presented them in the best light she could.
Pastor June taught me about how to be an authentic pastor and person. From her, I learned about pastoral love and professional integrity. This month, as I look back on women who have shaped my journey, I am so grateful to her, and so grateful that she is still my mentor and friend.
(photo: Easter Vigil 2007 at St. Martin's at the baptism of our goddaughter Sofia.)