Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Where I started

Yesterday I celebrated my one year anniversary of ordination and ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Four days before that I heard the dreaded C-word: Cancer.


Let me back up. I first heard that C word 13 years ago, when I was an invincible and naive 15-year-old. "It's Hodgkin's Disease, which is a kind of cancer." Not what a teenager wants to hear on the brink of summer vacation! With much love and support from friends and family, and more prayers than I can comprehend, I walked the path of Fighting Cancer - first surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation. A little taste of everything, lucky me. A couple weeks from now, on Sept. 17, I would have celebrated 13 years of being cancer free. Grateful as I am for cancer-free-ness, I stand by that cancer was one of the most important and formative experiences of my life. Even beyond providing me with some killer college essay material, the blessings I received from that experience continue to bring tears to my eyes. I would not be the person today if it weren't for having cancer.

(Read this for one amazing blessing that came out of cancer.)

Unfortunately, this is true in several ways, some not as good as others. I knew that as I distanced myself from Hodgkin's, I grew closer to the dreaded "long term side effects" of my treatments. Hence, when I went in for my annual mammogram in July, something I've had to do since I was 25, they said, "There's something we need to check into." Calcifications. Irregular tissue. More suspicious tissue. Have a needle biopsy. Have another, different kind of needle biopsy. Diagnosis: atypical hyperplasia. Have an MRI. Have another ultrasound, and while you're at it, another biopsy. And then finally, "We found some mammary carcinoma in situ cells in there. It needs to come out."

Did I mention I'm the pastor of two churches? Two wonderful churches, but two very different churches, a call that is extremely demanding of my time, yes, but also all of my ministerial abilities. What works at one place doesn't work at the other; what one church loves the other doesn't; what I remember to do at one, I forget at the other. I'd like to think my coping abilities are above average for someone my age (29), but this call certainly stretches them to the max. Add a cancer diagnosis on top of that, and, well, it's a lot harder to get out of bed than it ever has been before.

So here I am faced with the question: what is a pastor to do when life so passionately confront ministry in unavoidable ways? How much do I share? With whom? When people in my congregation say they will do anything to help me, do they really mean anything? My bathroom really needs cleaning. I could use some prepared food, but could you make sure it is really healthy food? I hate processed food, and I prefer whole wheat to white. And while you're at it, a bottle of wine would be great.

One healthy (I think) result of this undesired collision is that my sermons, more than ever before, are very contextual for my own life. They say the best sermons are the ones a preacher preaches to herself, and if that's the case, then I'm on fire lately. Hence, I'll be posting my sermons on this blog. As for other posts, I hope that this blog will help me to sort out how to gracefully walk this path of ministry and unexpected life turns all at once. Meanwhile, maybe someone will stumble upon it and find it helpful.

Especially if you are a young woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, I want to hear from you. If you are a pastor who has walked the path of cancer during your ministry, I want to hear from you. If you're just really awesome and want to be friends, I want to hear from you.

For now, I have a sermon on anger I'm trying to work through...


  1. Johanna, I love your blog already. I know that I'm biased because you've been one of my best friends since the day we first started seminary together, but I really do find your ability to communicate and share inspiring.

  2. Dear Johanna,

    Blessings and courage for you as you walk through this journey. May you be filled with strength and grace beyond measure!

  3. Hello Dear Johanna,

    It is amazing to read your story and hear of your strength and courage behind each word. My name is AbbyLynn Haskell and Katelyn Macrae passed along your blog link to me. I am a pastor too and was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 36 (I'm 39 now) and chose to do the cancer walk sharing it with my congregation. I'm happy to chat more but more importantly please know you are being held close in prayer.

    Blessings of love,

    1. Abby, I would LOVE to chat more! It's hard to find young women facing this, let alone young women who are pastors facing this! Thanks for reaching out. I added you to my google circles.

  4. Love, love, love your make a wish article. What an amazing experience! It's quite a wish too.

  5. Found your blog through Wren (she and I went through ordination together). I'm a pastor and a single mom. Although I don't have cancer, your words about what it's like to go through personal hardship in the midst of a congregation ring true to me. I can't wait to read more, and I'll be praying for you from Alabama.