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A Day in the Ministry: Rev. Daniel Ross Jones

Rev. Daniel Ross Jones at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto
Rev. Daniel Ross Jones at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, then you grow wings.” -Wm. Sloane Coffin

I started off this morning having breakfast with a man in his 60’s. He has quite the impressive resume, holding multiple degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and executive business leadership experience with companies whose names are emblazoned on skyscrapers for their headquarters here in San Francisco. Looking ahead to retirement, he’s seeking to contribute more to his church community — the church I serve — and we had a fascinating conversation about that. But before we got down to business, which ended up being only about 15% of our total conversation, we had a great time catching up on his most recent travels to visit his daughter who is completing her doctorate field work in the midst of Middle Eastern and North African conflict zones.

After breakfast, I went to the jail for my weekly visits with inmates. One of the great joys of my week are these two hours when I get to “chat with the guys.” Today one man asked me to pray for his dog, because he likely will never see his canine friend again since his spouse has run into financial problems and may need to put the dog up for adoption. Another man wanted to know how he could forgive himself. Yet another man was talking about his childhood playing baseball as he watches our hometown San Francisco Giants in the World Series. (Beat the Royals!) Some people think I’m brave for being locked in a 5-foot-by-5-foot interview room with incarcerated men, sometimes men with little demonstrated remorse for truly violent crime. I think I learn more from these men than they do from me.

I wear my clerical collar to the jail, and I stopped for lunch at a burrito joint near the church so I was outed as a pastor. I would have been anyway, since one of the managers of this particular restaurant has become a familiar acquaintance over the last few years. She and her fiance were spiritual skeptics, and being a committed lesbian couple in one of the most religiously skeptical regions of the country, she was noticeably on edge the first few times I came in. We ran into each other randomly at Pride two summers ago, which I attended with my boyfriend at the time, and we have had numerous conversations about the intersection of Christianity, creation, and sexuality in that time. She’s still skeptical but calls me her “spiritual dude.” I check in with her; a few weeks prior she had received some concerning health news. I let her know that I was praying for her, and she thanked me before hollering at her team member to add extra cheese to my meal. (The perks of being a regular!)

When I finally get to my office, I try to work in spite of the noise of construction outside my window. Our church is in the middle of some building retrofits for earthquake safety — important and exciting, but noisy and distracting. I’m lucky enough to work on a ministry team, in a community with strong collegial bonds. I check in with others and we share the goings-on of our lives and work. I decide the noise is too much so I drive over to a nearby sister church to pop in on my friend and colleague there; she challenges me to a fooseball competition in their youth room which I miserably lose — how I’ve worked with teenagers going on four years and still have not developed skills in this game is a mystery known only to God. We hang out for a bit, releasing some of the stresses of our jobs and our lives into the air to dance with the Spirit.

Seminary is a leap of faith, certainly, but the call to ministry in and among God’s children is a daily leap. The Holy Spirit is one awesome cookie, if you let her grow your wings. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

I head back to my church, construction having ended for the day, and tackle the backlog of e-mail and voicemail. The things people want from their pastors never ceases to amaze me! A sampling from this day: an inquiry about whether we could use cast-off office chairs, unsolicited feedback regarding my new eyeglasses, a request for my input on new log forms to track items in the church refrigerator, sales pitches from various publishing houses, a complaint from one church member about another, and a question asking if I know where we obtained a particular set of items that have been at the church since (at least) my predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor.

I work on writing an article for the newsletter, polishing a conversation curriculum for a young adult theology group meeting later this week, and moving around tables and chairs in our coffeehouse hospitality space, Sacred Grounds, for the upcoming art bazaar. As Moderator of my Conference, I finish up some work on behalf of the Conference Council from our last meeting. Working on a master’s degree in public administration, emphasizing in nonprofit leadership and sustainable organizational development, at San Francisco State University, I make a couple of phone calls about a group project before I get on the road to go to my evening class in the city.

My drive takes me past some of the most compelling, innovative technology companies. Working in the middle of Silicon Valley provides no shortage of energy, vitality, or vibrancy. I hold the continual newness in tension with the ancient traditions of our Judeo-Christian faith community. Even in the midst of a severe drought, I feel the baptismal waters flowing over, through, and around me, connecting me with all that has been and will be.

Some people tell me how lucky or blessed I am to serve the particular congregation that has called me, to be in a dynamic, growing, resourced congregation standing against the narrative of decline in contemporary Western Christianity. I do love the community I serve and I’m having a great time journeying with them as we discern the goings-on of the Holy Spirit. But there are parishioners, inmates, community members, colleagues, administrative tasks, and learning communities everywhere. And they all need a pastor.

The late William Sloane Coffin, in his Credo, includes the quote: “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, then you grow wings.” It is a personal mantra of mine, one of the first thoughts I have when I awake and one of the things I recall before I sleep. Throughout the day I notice it, as it is in the signature block of my e-mail and I’ve had a design of it framed near my home desk. Seminary is a leap of faith, certainly, but the call to ministry in and among God’s children is a daily leap. The Holy Spirit is one awesome cookie, if you let her grow your wings. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

The Rev. Daniel Ross-Jones serves as Associate Minister for the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, United Church of Christ, and Moderator of the Northern California Nevada Conference, United Church of Christ. He is a 2011 graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary.