James “Jay” Ayers, the new pastor to Presbyterians in Louisiana and Bowling Green, did not expect to lead a life of religious vocation.
“I was not a religious kid growing up. My parents were not churchgoers, so I wasn’t a churchgoer. The kids in the Presbyterian youth fellowship decided to invite me to their
program, so I went. I met Jesus there, much to my surprise,” Ayers said about the beginning of his religious journey, when he was 16 years old.
Ayers was formally installed as the pastor at the two churches at a service this weekend. Ayers has served in the position since the start of the year.
In the years following, Ayers began to engage with religion seriously — and to consider whether he might be called to ministry.
He remembers driving back to college about a year later with a friend
when the pair saw a railroad bridge painted with the slogan: “I am God, I can do anything.”
It was impressive, because you’d want to have scaffolding, and there was no place to
put scaffolding. But some guy managed to figure out how to do that,” Ayers said. “And I said something like, God is like a railroad bridge, there’s kind of a parable there. If you stay on the track, you can go anywhere, but if you get off the track you’re in the Chemung River.”
“[My friend] was driving, and he looked over at me, and he looked at the road, and he looked over at me, and he said ‘you should become a preacher.’ And I thought, ‘maybe so.’”
It’s one of many incidents, Ayers said, in which he saw a lesson or parable in life as it played out around him — a pattern that toward his eventual career.
“Year by year, it felt more and more confirmed that this was my vocation…. I knew I was on this road by the time I was 18, and I turned 64 yesterday,” Ayers said in an interview Friday. “Its been pretty solid along the way.”
One lesson Ayers has picked up along that road is a sense of the limits, and possibilities, of pastoral work with people in the most extreme of situations.
During his time in seminary, for instance, Ayers took a course that had him work at Tewksbury State Hospital in Massachusetts, a facility whose patients usually had a more or less hopeless prognosis.
“Here we all are, young, energetic pastor wanna-bes, and there’s no ‘this is gonna turn out okay’ in these situations. This is grim, and the best case scenario is that it is going to stay this grim rather than getting grimmer.”
“It was difficult for me, just like it was difficult for everybody, but I found it invitational. That being a pastor isn’t just occasions that are sweet and cheery, but that being a pastor includes ministry with people who are in devastatingly difficult situations, and you can’t fix it.”
At his first parish, Ayers remembers a woman named Anne, who he ministered to as she was dying of cancer.
“It was difficult to go and visit her, because her situation was so grim. I would stand outside her door at the hospital with my shoulder blades pressed against the wall, thinking ‘I don’t want to go in there, I don’t want to go in there.’”
“She would look up and see me and her face would light up,” Ayers said. “It was painful to go and visit her, but what I learned was that if I’m willing to step into that pain, and allow myself to feel that pain as richly as I can, I can mediate the presence of God to her in a moment like that.”
“If I’m willing to let my heart bleed a little bit, and step into difficult conversations like that, I can’t make it all better, but I can make it a little better, and
that’s been an important lesson for me,” Ayers added.
Ayers came to Louisiana from a small church in Wichita, Kan., after it decided to close its doors.
He had been talking to churches across the country when he decided on the pair of Pike County parishes.
“My heart was drawn here. You never really know why,” Ayers said.
The small parishes, who pooled resources to make up his salary, seemed to offer an attractive pastoral project.
“It just looked like, this would be a challenge, but a really fun challenge. I’m at an age where there are positions I could take where I could kind of coast into retirement, and this isn’t one of them. I’ve decided I don’t want to coast into retirement. I want to push hard and run across the finish line doing my best.”
Part of that challenge, Ayers said, would be to explore ways to grow those congregations in the conditions they grew out of.
“In a small town, where high school kids grow up and go off to college and never really come back again, where industry is moving out rather than moving in, can you have a growing congregation there? I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
Ayers understanding of that process comes out of his own experience.
“Let’s see what we can do to welcome people who haven’t found the church helpful, or who have been part of the church and found it unhelpful and stepped away. Can we share the message of Jesus in a way that touches their hearts, and enables them to say, I want to be part of that.”
“I didn’t expect that would ever happen for me. I expected I would be an irreligious person all my life, and discovered that my heart was much more ready than I knew to respond to a religious invitation. I suspect there are people like that in Louisiana and Bowling Green, and I want to find some of them.”
Service of Installation
Ayers was officially installed at a service Sunday afternoon at the First Presbyterian Church of Louisiana.
“May we be people of faithfulness, may we be people of good courage and may we be people who bless the Lord, and bless the communities where we find ourselves, and bless one another,” Ayers said during the charge and benediction that ended the service.
Ayers participated in his prayer of installation on his knees, surrounded by the clergy and elders in attendance.
The writer of several books and articles for the denominational magazine Presbyterian Today, Ayers turned toward a new genre — hymn-writing — during a difficult period during his time in graduate school. The installation service featured two hymns with words written by Ayers: “Almighty God Has Blessed Us” and “Your Voice Called Out a People.”
Earlier in the service, Ayers demonstrated another one of his skills as a minister: puppetry.
Ayers used a black dog puppet to tell a parable of forgiveness, in a part of the service titled, “Dogmatic Theology.”
Reverend Dick Reynolds, a friend of Ayers who is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in McPherson, Kan., took responsibility for giving Ayers his charge as a pastor.
In providing his second charge to Ayers, Reynolds referred to Elisha’s words to Elijah in Kings — and to the scope of Ayers’s new responsibilities: “Ask God for a double portion of his spirit. With two churches, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”