Healing Takes Longer than 30 Seconds

There is a commercial on cable from Principal (a financial company) that strikes a chord with me every time that I see it. The main character is called into a meeting with human resources that becomes “the worst 19 minutes” of her career. She is let go, and she is forced to journey to an unexpected and a not entirely desirable place to find her new place in the work world.
On February 17, 2016, my 19 minutes occurred in my ministry setting after a prolonged time of things-are-not-as-they-should-be. I heard the 8 words that are familiar to many when the end is nigh: “I think we need to make a change.” I agreed. Within my 19 minutes, the business side of the path in front of me was executed, assurances of a smooth transition were made, and I stepped down as the youth director.
I was left with nothing to which I could cling to say that I was fulfilling my call to ministry in any way. If my ministry had been a burden, I could have found freedom in the turn of events, but given my need to be of use, to contribute to the fulfillment of the Kingdom (to use some church-speak), being without purpose — even for this introvert — was a lot more empty than I wanted.

“National statistics indicate that the average term a youth pastor stays at a church is 18 months.” (1)

The busy-ness of my life during the time in which I was privileged to serve as youth director was staggering. Often, people would tell me some variation of “I don’t know how you do it.” A seminary friend once told me that she used me as an example to persons in her classes who whined about how busy they were. I know this guy … and she would list the ways in which I was burning the candle at both ends. One can only overextend for so long, and I did it for 6 years of half-time seminary, plus an additional 2-1/2 years of church work.
By the numbers, I did pretty well. I was in the position as a seminary intern and as a staff member after graduation for a total of 42 months, when the long-held statistic is 18 months. However, I’m not going to pat myself on the back for going double-and-a-bit-more over the statistical average. It isn’t how long you do it, but whether you are effective in the relationship building/maintenance, the instructional work, and the pastoral care aspects of the work.
I wasn’t expecting to and did not want to leave the role. It hurt to accept that change was required (2), and it continued to hurt after the change was made. 2 months later, after answering “fine” each time I was asked how I was doing, when inside I wasn’t feeling “fine” at all, I’m starting to feel less adrift and less alone (4).

“Human beings are always assigning to themselves some kind of identity. There are only two places to look. Either you will be getting your identity vertically, from who you are in Christ, or you will be shopping for it horizontally in the situations, experiences, and relationships of your daily life … My faith had become a professional calling. It had become my job.” (5)

I don’t know what I want to be “when I grow up,” except that I feel the need to be in ministry in some way as strong now as I did years ago. Without a clear path forward in ministry (6) and the disappointments of ending my candidacy for ordination (2012) and the end of my youth role, I’m a little bit in identity limbo. While I can say that the core of my identity is anchored in my relationship with the Divine, not a title or a position, I still want to live out being set apart for ministry somehow, someday.
The church where I served is also the church to which I am now a member (3), and it is is full of good people doing good things. I am taking steps to find other ways to live out my call to serve God and God’s people, for my sense of call did not perish with my staff role. The trick will be to find things to do which are less impacted by the demands of full-time employment and family commitments than was my former role.
The woman in the Principal commercial moves a long distance, dragging her kids with her. They don’t like change, but it all works out in the span of a 30 second commercial.
My journey is not done, and plenty of affirmations have come my way over the past 2 months. Expressions of thanks. True care. Folks saying they look forward to what is next. I appreciate every person who reached out — especially some youth who did so. The new normal is coming. It just takes more than 30 seconds.

(1) https://emergingyouth.com/2009/11/16/long-term-youth-ministry/
(2) My career job commitments, including significant/frequent business travel, made it impossible to do everything I needed to do as well as I needed to do it — I fully admit and accept this. There were also, at the end, anonymous complaints about the program for which there was no way to engage the principals and work through.
(3) I and my family joined a few weeks after I stepped down. It is a good place.
(4) Not fishing for sympathy. This is how it feels when one is grieving the loss of purpose that comes along with job/role loss. Keep a stiff upper lip and carry on outwardly; wrestle with the feels inwardly.
(5) Tripp, Paul David (2012-10-31). Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (p. 22). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
(6) My senior pastor suggested doing something in adult education, which I would love to do, but has not gelled yet. A good lunch conversation was had on some ideas. The AV team has asked me to assist in their work on a rotating basis. We’ll see what sticks. Once I start helping, I’ll start to feel like I’m reaching my ‘new normal.’


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.