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This message was given on Sunday, April 10, 2016 at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. This is a compilation/consolidation of a correspondence spanning a three-year period and dozens (if not at least a hundred or more) emails as I sorted out my sense of “call”.
“I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.” He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.”
― Hermann Hesse,
“Theology that defines virtue as obedience to God suppresses the virtue of revolt. A woman being battered by her husband will be counseled to be obedient, as Jesus was to God. After all, Eve brought sin into the world by her disobedience. A good woman submits to her husband as he submits to God…
But obedience is not a virtue. It is an evasion of our responsibility. Religion must engage us in the exercise of our responsibilities, not teach us to deny the power that is ours…
A God who punishes disobedience will teach us to obey and endure when it would be holy to protest and righteous to refuse to cooperate.”
― Rebecca Ann Parker,
In the fall of 2012, not long after I left my first pastorate of five years as an associate, I reached out via Facebook to a classmate from High School I hadn’t connected with since…well, High School. In the message, I shared with Jay that I had remembered him saying, rather off-handedly during our US History class one day, that his father “used to be a minister.” “Used to be?” I remembered thinking. “Who leaves the ministry?” I asked Jay if I remembered this correctly, and if so…would his father be up for a correspondence with a young pastor contemplating the same. Jay kindly and swiftly replied that he would check. Not a week later, I sent my first email to his father, David. I had just accepted a new position to serve a 50-member congregation that was on its last legs, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making a mistake.
David is now retired from education. After two quite awful experiences with church politics and a shift in his personal theology, he found himself out of a job in his early 30’s. Eventually he made his way back to school, obtaining a degree in early education. As he put it, “My ministry changed focus. The congregation was small (20-30 children). They listened to me…most of the time. They left after 180 days to go to another minister. It was good.”
So I thought, perhaps, it might be a worthwhile expedition to take a rather privileged peak into a few exchanges that highlight the turmoil of what can only be called the dark night of the soul.
Church was my salvation, really and truly. It was where I felt safe and heard during a tumultuous childhood. It was where things made sense. As my work and marriage began to unravel somewhat simultaneously, I became extremely depressed. I stopped eating. My drinking increased. I contemplated suicide.
I felt so abandoned by God. I remember thinking, “After everything before, and still I dedicate my life to you, and this is my reward?”
In any event, I’ve realized how much I had relied on church and my ordination to save me. And instead I realize that they have ended up enslaving me.
But I’m terrified of failing. What on earth did I miss in Seminary that was supposed to prepare me for the larger, unanswered questions? I don’t ever remember sitting with the validity of my indoctrination: the divinity of Jesus, the necessity of baptism, the regurgitation of dead, European, male theologians and the copious amounts of blood spilled to preserve tradition. And I’m a little annoyed because I feel so late in the game for such considerations.
The self-examined life isn’t an easy one, is it? And ignorance truly is bliss.
The thing that Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan and others have in common is that they succeeded so much because they failed so often. However, they never lost sight of the vision that something other than now was possible.
I have almost always, trusted the ambiguous person of faith more than those for whom ambiguity and mystery are for the weak and unfaithful. It is in the ambiguity that, for me, is where the work is done. The others have given up the struggle and retreated into the bunkers of self-righteousness and judgmental proclamations.
The very real test is not so much what one believes but how one loves and lives their life in a world with many shades of grey.
The reason I wanted to be in conversation with you is because I have so many questions. I’ve never known anyone who has ‘left the ministry’ (so to speak), and I want to know what ramifications you experienced?
I’ve started to prepare my mom and dad, but it hasn’t been easy. My mother – who didn’t want me to go into ministry in the first place – is quite angry about my leaving. My father – who loves Jesus dearly and trusts those promises – seems a little skeptical about my newfound thinking. Maybe he thinks it’s just a phase.
On Sunday I woke and read the news about the latest ISIS beheading. What horror. What unspeakable evil. And I wanted to sit in a pew and listen to somebody try to explain it to me, to show me how god – IF there is a god – is going to use this evil for good.
I just don’t know anymore. I can’t stand the idea of a Greater Purpose, because it seems awfully cruel if there is one and this is how we are supposed to get from A to B. But I hate things NOT having Purpose-with-a-capital-P either. But maybe this is it – one life and no purpose save the purpose we create for ourselves. At least, this is what I think this morning.
You’ve referred to GUS (Greater Universal Something) before. Is GUS logical or rational or even all that helpful? What do you attribute to Gus, if anything? Is GUS the originator of life? And if so, what the heck has she been up to lately since she seems to be blowing off her responsibilities around here?
I have been listening to a series of lectures on Greek mythology. As you know, they were pantheists and were able to accept other people’s understanding of God as in, “Oh that is a god I did not know about. How interesting”. They did not suffer from “My god is better than your God and ergo, so am I better than you.”
I don’t mind being tested by life and experience and pain and suffering because that makes me stronger. And, I fear, greatly, the thought of giving up a part of my soul, spirit, whatever to a mystery. It is a mystery to me and I can live with that. I do believe that there is something that “calls” us to be better than we are. That dips in the well of “at the very least, do no harm”.
It is true that this call can be corrupted, abridged and perverted to justify many reason for behavior that circumvents behavior to be done “for the common good”. I think this mystery is revealed more in the silence and stillness than in the proclamation and condemnation. GUS has no plan, no end game. GUS is. I think the most spiritual and significant passage in the Bible is when God says to (somebody) “I Am what I Am”, or something like that.
Today I preached about change and mentioned my departure for the first time. I sat in my car and cried afterward. I’ve been wondering if I am right to leave. But every Sunday my desire to be there is less than the Sunday before. This faith thing has turned out nothing like I thought it would, and I’m fearful I’m getting it wrong.
I’m pretty irritated about it all, to be honest. Between my first pastorate going awry by way of sabotage, my relationship with colleagues damaged by some key people, and the lack of support from the presbytery in supporting this tiny congregation that is practically on life-support – this pastorate gig has been pretty disappointing.
I have a colleague in ministry who finally became open about his homosexuality. And a leader in my denomination told him it was fine for him to interview with congregations, but he would be wise to keep quiet about his orientation. I got so angry. Here he finally came to full acceptance of his whole self, and granted the world the privilege to know his whole self, and this leader has suggested he step back in the closet.
Not to mention that ridiculous proposal for $300,000 on a new church development project that is identical to three others just like it within a half-mile radius – AND a Presbyterian church two blocks away. We can’t think of something better to do with $300K?!
I don’t think I can stand much more any longer. I’m tired of standing up and demanding change. I think my reward has become isolation. And I’m thinking that the church has a knack of doing more harm than good, creating more division that unity, and being not just incredibly unloving to our neighbors, but unloving to our very own.
Hello also my theologically solid, denominationally challenged good friend,
You have learned so many things about yourself this past year. It has been a privilege to be witness to the becoming of you. Perhaps, as you gain more insight, you will become more open to moving beyond the six month “Here comes da PROPHET with words you don’t want to hear” stage.
I was serious in my salutation, I think you have a good solid theological understanding of parish ministry. I wonder if you are in the right denomination or in the right denomination but the wrong cultural geography. There is much to be said about the history of the cultural region that seriously impacts the present many generations later. I know that you are probably stuck there for the long term and that it may continually be a struggle blending West Coast “whatever individualism” with “plantation/clan history”. You and the congregation may always be at odds, theologically, but you can earn a lot of currency by ministering to and pastoring with the “flock”.
This is beginning to sound like one of those value clarification exercises we use to do. Sorry.
I’m reminded of something that Dr. Murray Bowen of Family Systems Theory postulated when it comes to change. He said that when an individual is working toward a healthier differentiation of self, that the typical response from the people around them are three-fold: 1) You’re wrong; 2) Change Back; and 3) Change Back or Else.
One of my best friends is pretty mad at me right now. She’s angry about my considering leaving church. Nevermind the fact that she herself hasn’t gone in nearly 3 years now – the church NEEDS me, or so she says. I’m one of the “good ones.” And I know that I’m one of the good ones; I get that. THAT’S what makes ME so angry.
Sometimes I wish life came with a set of directions.
I saw that the Presbyterians were meeting as a national body. I was surprised and disappointed to see that you were left off of the list for “Presbyterian of Year” award. You must be devastated! I will pray for them and their stupidity and you and your courage.
As we have carried on these musings these past months, I have become aware of shifts in your emotional tectonic plates. I am not sure that leaving the church means actually leaving as much as it means a deeper understanding and appreciation of who you are as a person, woman, and minister. Your friend may be right, probably is right, that the church needs people like you and me. The bigger, more wholistic question is, whether we need the church to fulfill God’s charge to us…to be a bit of light in otherwise dark spaces.
Very few of us make a difference in the world’s life. We must instead be at peace with making a very small difference in a person’s life every once in awhile. That is the call to ministry: en Tenebrae ex lucit – and a light shines in the darkness.
I did it. I mailed my letter last week. I submitted my request to be released from ministry. No more Rev. Maillie or Pastor Colleen. No more baptisms and communions and weddings.
Back in Seminary, we were surrounded by the statistic of the newly ordained leaving ministry within their first five years – it hovers well over 50%. At that time, I was certain I would prove myself to be worthy of longevity as a minister. Just as I thought I would never get divorced, I suppose.
Yesterday I confirmed my decision with my General Presbyter on the phone. I reminded him that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results – like the fly that battles the living room window. If I didn’t leave, death would come – by way of crucifixion or loss of self. So I choose life. I think Jesus would want it that way, whoever and whatever he is.
There is a stillness within you around which calm and chaos circumnavigate in endless patterns. In this stillness the world rests, like clasped hands, holding the Center with promises made and kept. Sitting in silence, breaking bread, holding on to Alex, laying quietly with Daniel as he fights against needing and wanting to go to sleep, putting on your running shoes – here is where the center holds and stillness keeps chaos in an outer orbit around that who you truly are – braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. Thus said Christopher Robin to Pooh. Thus I say to you.
It all works out in the end. And if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.