It was a good Friday when Sean Ramsey was tapped to preach to a Lutheran audience. Actually, it was Good Friday. Yehiel Curry, now bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, had asked Ramsey to preach on one of the Seven Last Words when Curry was serving Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale, Ill.
Ramsey, who grew up in the Beverly neighborhood attending the New Faith Missionary Baptist Church, says he was shocked by the warm reception his preaching received at Shekinah. A couple of members from Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago Heights came up to him after and asked if he would consider preaching once a month at their small church without a pastor.
“They were hungry for the word,” Ramsey recalled.
After checking with his own Baptist church, he said yes. And after dutifully showing up at Bethany once a month for more than a year, Curry asked if he would be open to discuss being Bethany’s pastor (synodically authorized minister) while being part of the ELCA’s TEEM (Theological Education for Emerging Leaders) program. The accelerated program enables students already in a congregation to pursue their theological education.
“I told him it would take a lot for me to do that,” Ramsey said.
“We [he and Bethany] were in agreement on the Word. But I told them I’m not so sure about the Lutheran practices as I didn’t fully understand everything,” Ramsey said. He knew he could preach to them— he’d been doing it a year—but he also knew it wasn’t enough. They needed vision and leadership.
“They needed someone to shepherd their souls,” he said. He told them to go home and pray about it. They came back with their answer: they wanted to interview him and move forward. And so they did, calling him to serve as their part-time pastor.
Ramsey’s full-time job is at Grainger Industrial Supply. He has a solid history in secular work. In fact, it was after losing his lucrative job at Motorola in 2009 that he first received his call to preach. Worried about the future without employment, he spent three days locked away in the bedroom, crying and praying for God to open another door. He wasn’t sure that door had been opened until his wife called him on that plea he’d made to God and encouraged him to be open to more involvement at church. He preached his first sermon in November of that year (at age 40) and has served ever since.
But preaching to the Baptists was considerably different than preaching to the Lutherans. At Bethany, he said he wasn’t finding a lot of room for the spirit to move. And he wasn’t used to what he calls a “scripted” service: lectionary readings and creeds.
“I made every mistake a young pastor makes,” he says, shaking his head and smiling, grateful that a wise woman of the congregation patiently counseled him about the changes both the congregation and pastor needed to navigate.
Then came COVID
He hadn’t been this small, faithful congregation’s pastor long before COVID-19 hit. Bethany was starting to grow when he had the difficult task of shutting in-person worship down and preaching on Zoom. Still, the congregation stayed with him—and even more joined.
“The table was physically smaller, but actually got bigger,” he said. “People were tuning in… [a church that] once sat alone on a block was now many [worshipers] online. Donations you’d assume would decline grew.”
COVID allowed him to show members he had their best interests at heart. In turn, the congregation showed him they could also help. They said, “Hey pastor, we’re OK with you using your computer [for worship], but we think we can do better.” They stepped up their technology game for online worship and started online giving.
“Bethany and I are in a bit of a marriage,” Ramsey said, adding a sense of excitement about what “God has in store for me,” and crediting Curry as the influencer who made this happen.
During the pandemic, Ramsey has been able to show the congregation his leadership and pastoral care abilities. It has also allowed the church in a middle class, primarily African American, neighborhood a chance to serve beyond their walls in new ways—providing Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and hams and partnering with others to serve as a site for both COVID tests and vaccinations.
He says he’s trying to navigate how to make it “not Lutheran, not Baptist, not ‘whatever’…but the best of both worlds. I want to make God relevant to them. I want to look past titles and meet them on their own terms.”
Ramsey drives from Frankfort, Ill., to work at church—“bringing back to life a church that was nearly deceased… I’m trying to be a vessel. Trying to get the patient off the table and the heart beating again.”
He’s juggling a lot: his ministry, family, a full-time secular job, and classes at LSTC. He has been part of the TEEM program that involves a cohort of five students, all of whom will eventually graduate.
Seminary has helped him understand why Lutherans do what they do in worship, such as saying a creed every week. “Now I understand,” he said. With good humor he says he’s still not on board with the multiple scripture readings, and realizes his sermons need to be shorter than a Baptist might preach. “For one thing, no one wants to be online for an hour and a half,” he admits.
He’s quick to credit worship class with Ben Stewart and the Genesis to Revelation Bible class with Barbara Rossing. Before Rossing’s class, what he knew about scripture came from what he had learned in Sunday school. When Rossing told him, “Sean, this is not enough,” he readily agreed, saying what he has is a foundation he hopes to build on. The TEEM program has students on an accelerated learning pace—evening classes, workshops, J-term classes and abbreviated clinical pastoral education. And the candidacy process. (All of this happening without even setting foot on campus during the pandemic.) He’s grateful for his classmates and for Scott Chalmers, dean of student services, coordinator of the TEEM program.
“It’s a hard walk but it’s been a good walk,” he said. “The benefit will far outweigh the sacrifice. I have a ton of fondness and admiration for the professors who gave up their time so we could go through this program and for the cohort because they, too, were making a similar sacrifice. We were in it together.”
Original article published in the Winter/Spring 2022 Epistle Magazine; written by Julie SevigView all stories