Life After Seminary

“Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.”
— Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (4)

Seminary students are headed back to school for a new year, both the new, eager-to-tell-you-their-call kind and the jaded, grizzled veterans who have studied John Wesley and wonder why nobody teaches this stuff in churches. Godspeed, seminarians. Been there, done that.

For those of us who followed a call into seminary and into our chosen denominational processes designed to lead to formal ministry, we heard our call in a number of ways — a persistent urging, a clear sense of purpose, being told by others what they saw in us, and/or some sort of close encounter with the divine at work in our lives. Each person hears, literally or not, some snippet of what she or he is to be and wrestles with all the big what-if questions that come along for the ride. Unfortunately, the message we hear does not contain a complete map of how to get there or if the ending will be a happy one. We are all left to figure this out on our own.

In my case, I actually heard my call — or perhaps, more correctly, I heard a validation of the call already exerting itself on me. Twice. My candidacy mentor told me to own this story, though I was always self-conscious about it. I always feared being rejected by the powers-that-be in my journey if I told it. So here goes:

The first time: Following a couple of years of persistent urging, an uncomfortably clear sense of where my path was going, being told by others where and how I should serve, and running away from God, I found myself waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night with a phrase running through my head — a phrase that was clearly spoken as if someone was right next to me talking in my ear. The phrase: “my people need you.”

The second time: I felt drawn to a prayer labyrinth at night in Western North Carolina in the Fall of 2007 during a mission trip. I needed to be there. I could not stay away. After walking the path by flashlight, I stepped into the center, stopped and listened. The rush of the breeze through the trees subsided. I was palpably not alone, even though I was the only person there, and yes, I was very apprehensive. My mind was full of the tug of war between doing ministry and continuing to bottle it up inside, and ended up saying a phrase that was not entirely true: “I don’t know what to do.” The response, which I heard in my head clearly and immediately and which manifested itself just like the first time earlier that year, was apropos: “yes, you do.” The silence that had been present faded, the breeze through the trees came back, and I felt like I was alone in the woods again.

As a science nerd and engineer, I did not previously embrace the mystery of theophany. I have grown to believe that each person has their own way in which to glimpse God at work in their journey; I figure that God knew my science-y mind needed a good, old fashioned kick in the ass (note 1) in order to respond. My candidacy mentor embraced the story; I put it into my paperwork and the district committee never asked me about it. And, I’ve not had another experience like these.

Fast forward 7 years of hard work, sacrifices both personal and imposed onto others, and 6 years of the twisty-turny path that is the United Methodist candidacy process.

I completed my M.Div. in May, but my journey to become clergy in the United Methodist Church ended, for all practical purposes, one year ago this month. Happy anniversary to me, I guess.

Here’s what I want to say to those in the process and those thinking about entering the process:

You will meet many people who want you to succeed in this adventure, but you will encounter all of the foibles of the human condition. Early on, an ordained clergy-person sneered at me for being a second-career candidate. I am a Meyers-Briggs INTJ, and I was met with disbelief by F folks that a strong T person like myself could ever do pastoral care. I was fat-shamed, with one ranking member of the committee telling me to “eat fewer Baconators” in front of the gathered body — the same person had, the year before, had a very warm conversation with me about my process. I initially said that I wanted to be ordained a Deacon and later switched to Elder (this was entirely my fault and was a product of personal fears). Switching orders, though, is seen as evidence of uncertainty in one’s call, does not win points, and the process remembers that you did this — always remembers that you did this. When I reached the point of certified candidacy, the committee spent virtually all of their response telling me how I barely made it and hardly any on affirmation. My candidacy mentor told me that he would not make it through the process as it stands today. A clergy colleague told me that it was very difficult to recommend this path to anyone. I was pulled aside by an ordained Elder and told not to work at a particular church because the powers-that-be didn’t like that church. I had clergy go around my back and talk smack to others. Ageism in the candidacy process reared its ugly head in subtle ways personally and more overtly via the experiences of my candidacy peers (yes, church leadership, we talk about you to one another and we compare notes on how you handle candidates).

In the end, I felt the drag of the above, but still held out hope that my desire to be ordained would, somehow, occur. Then, a series of open and heartfelt conversations involving mentors (official and not, most clergy but some not) showed me that this was not to be. Additionally, UM itineracy was a major stumbling point, one that was more deeply a problem than I realized. I made the decision to put on the brakes.

One would think that I would have nothing good to say about the church, but one would be wrong. I never stopped loving the church, even if we have some not-very-pastoral people doing not-very-pastoral work. A lot of good people get through the process and go on to be instruments of God’s love in our churches. You will, as I have, also meet some of the most giving, self-sacrificing people in the world on the journey. In Field Education (and CPE if you do it; I did not because it was not required and it was not possible given my F/T work, P/T student life), you will have the great honor of being witness to some of the most personal, painful, and/or beautiful times in persons’ lives. You will feel God at work in person’s lives.

I feel more fulfilled when I do church work than I ever have in my first career, and I hope that you will feel this way yourselves. I still feel called to be in ministry, and part of me hopes that one of these days a door opens to allow me to step more fully into that world. I don’t see myself ever being ordained, though. I want you to succeed, and I want the UMC to have the best candidates possible be ordained.

Know this, however: There is life after seminary if you do not go through with your denominational process, for whatever reason, leading to ordination.

I have found a place, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, doing youth (primarily) and children’s (secondarily) ministry in a multi-clergy urban congregation. It is a small, 10-15 hour gig, but it allows me to be present in person’s lives amidst the joys, hurts, and uncertainty that accompany growing up. I get to talk about Jesus (in moderation; the youth are a tough crowd) and I truly enjoy it. I am in ministry, just not in the way that I expected to be when I started.

And — I cannot say that the people with whom I was supposed to be, for this time, are not the people for whom God woke me up in the middle of the night 7 years ago and said, “my people need you.” Maybe so. Maybe not.

Call is like that. Clear yet indeterminate. One needs to be open to what-can-be even if things sometimes seem to be falling apart. My plans were not God’s plans. You may have it all figured out in your own process, but then again you may not. Know that throughout it all, you are a beloved child of God, special and sacred and meant to love and serve and cry out for justice.

There is life after seminary. I plan to blog about mine here.

Note 1: If you cannot stomach talking to folks in the vernacular, you may need to reconsider being in ministry with them.