Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ordination Selection Process Homesick Blues

Ash Wednesday, Anno Domini 2008

Nina, at Dancing Through Doorways, has the Ordination Selection Process Blues this week; I don’t know how to deal with her grief, and that of others, except to share my own. She says sharing helps; I hope so.

On June 6, 1982, I was ordained in the reformed church tradition I grew up in, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For those of you unfamiliar with it, think “Communion-centered worship, United Church of Christ (UCC)”. When I planned to move to Connecticut at the end of 1984, I asked the UCC about the recognition of my orders, and was told to “Come on up, and we’ll take care of it when you get here.” It’s too bad I accepted this at face value, and did not get it in writing. I’ve blamed myself for naiveté since; I only rarely allow myself to be enraged at the betrayal, for I am a poor White Southern male raised in the Forties and Fifties, the child of Depression parents. If I don’t make it, I only have myself to blame.

One of the first things I did when I got to Connecticut, at my wife’s suggestion (the consequence of an off-hand callous remark about some holiday traffic fatalities), was to contact one of the Vets Centers that had begun to appear for Vietnam Veterans. I heard, for the first time, about something called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, and began to seek treatment, more from a need to fill my time than a conviction that I was “disordered” or had any intractable problems because of Vietnam—that had been sixteen years ago. If there were problems, as I came to realize, this was the way to dealing with it so as to make it “no problem.” Identify the issues, find the solutions, and apply focused effort, and the competitive vocational field will be made level.

After more than two and a half years of hardship with my new family, struggling to survive economically with odd jobs and church piece-work, I was allowed to seek jobs in the UCC, and accepted one of the first two I interviewed for, as an Interim Associate Pastor of a large, inner-suburb CT church. My predecessor left me with an empty file cabinet and the warning “watch your back”. I did my best for seven months, then, as my fifteen year old daughter waited in my office, was fired with a month’s pay. I cried when I was told, as I watched my livelihood, my career, and my vocation go down to the pit. I spent that day and the next cleaning out my office. Later, as a part of what was supposed to be a “healing process”, a sympathetic official told me the Senior Pastor had a reputation of going through Associates as if they were the 2nd Lieutenants he commanded in the Korean War; one gets killed, plug in another.

My marriage survived the next two years, through sheer determination on both our parts, and I found a job with a Non-Profit (NPO) through a local Council of Churches, providing rent subsidies and case management to homeless people in the area. I began graduate work in U S History, thinking I might revive an old dream of teaching, my second choice. But a family, a commute, and a full time job took too much time from my studies to make a success, so I took a final M.A.

We moved to be near the university, as all three of us were students by then. In doing so, I looked at the UCC church options, and decided to please myself, my career being no longer an issue, and look for an Episcopal church: love at first, and ongoing sight. Within a year I was received by a bishop. I began to wonder again “Where is Godde’s purpose in the midst of this? Is this a renewal of ministry, and, if so, in what direction?” and started discussing it with the Rector, and later, the Curate and a few lay leaders in the parish. They encouraged me to explore becoming a Priest in the Episcopal Church, as, I remembered, a colleague back in the South had done. Ironically, he had become, by that time, the Chair of the Ordination Committee in a NE diocese, and was happy to hear the news. “How is it possible to be certain about anything as squishy as the Will of Godde?”, the Rector re-assured me; “You know what it’s about, John. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine.” Formal endorsement by the Vestry followed, the Senior Warden now being the Canon to the Ordinary here.

But an interview with the Diocesan proved a slippery thing to schedule. This, I was told, was because, for the first time, Connecticut had more persons beginning the Ordination Process than positions for new Priests, which was a source of great concern to him. I wrote. I called, time and again, for almost a year, and was assured the bishop was very much aware of my position, but had to deal with other matters first now, or till October, the last of which was the Diocesan Convention which elected his Successor. But, before the last, we had met, finally. He greeted me with the remark that his old friend, my Rector, seemed to think I might walk on water; I was flattered to come with a good recommendation. He told me he would be turning my participation in the process over to his successor, one of the Suffragans, the other having been defeated for the position. To begin, I would join the other candidates for several days of vocational examinations, the official beginning of the process, contracted to a program at a nearby (Non-Episcopal) seminary.

I had taken such an examination before my original process, and was not overly anxious about this part. It was thorough, but seemed fair, and I enjoyed my time there. We were told we would be able to review the report before it went to our diocesan officials, and make comments, or even challenge anything we thought unfair. It hardly seemed necessary, until I got the initial report. It seemed anything but fair—narrowly focused on obscure points, which were exaggerated and out of context, and overlooking most of my strengths. I protested in writing, and got all the most offensive judgments removed, or so I was told. Nonetheless, it was frightening to be so misjudged. What, I wondered, could have gone so wrong? How could the examiner have arrived at such a misleading and distorted picture from the materials provided? Congratulations: you have a scheduled retreat weekend with Committee One of the Diocesan Commission on the Ordination Process. Read this novel. Don’t worry. Bring your Spouse. And hold your liquor. I still cannot read Russell Banks, but it’s not his fault. There were six aspirants; one would be eliminated.

Here self-doubt barges back in. What if I had been more assertive, and less content to follow the questioner’s lead; “Doesn’t anyone want to ask about my last position in the UCC?” The first question I answered badly, the scenario being conflict in the Altar Guild. The others seemed to go better, despite my spouse’s anxiety after Lunch in our room. A few weeks later, I got the results; the committee thought (What obfuscation!) a Vocational Diaconate suited me, but not the Priesthood.

No one had discussed the Diaconate with me at all, except as a transition. When I asked—my Rector, the Diocese, the bishop appointed to break the news (on his way out, having lost the Diocesan election), and, finally, the Religion Professor/ Priest who was the Diocesan expert—what the Vocational Diaconate was seen to be, the answer, in every case, was “We don’t know yet; we don’t seem to have made up our minds.” So, in what direction do you see my vocation leading? What am I being offered? “Oh, that’s for you to figure out, and then we’ll tell you if you’re right.” I’d had enough.

In less than three years, I was bankrupt, divorced, and thinking about suicide. I have spent the last decade in hiding, more or less, dealing with the aftermath, with Godde’s help, revealed in, of all unlikely places, the Vets Centers, and, it must be said, my former Rector, and some members of my new parish. Later, I told one member of the committee that I had come to understand and even to accept their point; she told me they had wanted to know what happened in the UCC.

Lord, have mercy

Christ, have mercy

Lord, have mercy


Nina said...

Well, I'm furious.

One bad bounce in the UCC, something that could have happened to anyone, and then a weird selection process.

It wasn't you.

It was institutional screwing-up at its ugliest.

And it points out the question I think churches should consider: if someone is called and qualified, what are you doing to them, and to the people they are called to serve, when you turn them away?

johnieb said...

Thank you, Nina; I was afraid to post this. I hope I've been fair, to others and myself, but who knows for sure? I am inclined to scorn others' views, but I fear, in compensating, I've scorned my own experience.

Then, there's the PTSD; I was an Interrogator in Vietnam (did I mention that?), I assure you, nobody wants to go there, but it's nice to have somebody listen, isn't it?

Paul said...

I believe we have structures of systemic abuse in the ordination process, though sometimes it goes more pleasantly. Feedback is often vague or obfuscating. Congregational committees, ill-equipped to be helpful, often fail in their early task to help articulate what is going on, what issues might be addressed from the beginning, where challenges and growing points are, and so just pass folks on to the larger process. If you get a "no" response from the diocese it may well come with no feedback so you cannot possibly learn or grow from it.

My journey went more happily than Johnieb's but it still took me four tries to get into the process and I too was badly misjudged in early encounters. Throughout it all I felt I had little or no support. I have listened to the stories of others and rarely hear a happy tale. That anyone makes it through is amazing.

Just my two cents worth. (((((Nina))))), (((((Johnieb))))).

FranIAm said...

Oh Jonieb, what a story you have told here, my heart is wrenched.

Thank you for sharing this. I don't have words for you but I do have many, many prayers.

Peace to you dear brother.

Crimson Rambler said...

The term "suck" doesn't begin to cover what has happened here. Maggie Ross, in "Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity" has some very very trenchant things to say about the so-called "discernment process" for ordination -right across the denominational spectrum.

Ken said...

We have too damned much in common for me to just read and splash out a comment. That'll come later.

johnieb said...

So Jane keeps sayin', Ken; thanks for thinking it over.

Nina said...


after much thought and prayer and therapy, I came to the realization that one of the people who abused me was clearly re-traumatizing himself at the same time.

After that, I couldn't demonize him any more. Responsibility? Yes. Accountability? Yes. Another hurt human being caught in a web of horror and trying to get out? That, too.

It didn't fix me, it didn't justify anything, but it gave me a perspective that made it even more urgent to work for peace at every level--because the damage never just goes one way.

Joan K said...

My sympathies. I experienced problems akin to yours while in the novitiate of a Roman religious order. The process was flawed and many of the parties involved were odd at best and psychologically flawed at worst. It was my decision to leave. The trauma was horrible.

It is amazing what pain and trauma can be caused to a person who is discerning a religious vocation.

People and groups claim to be following the will of God but they are flawed and limited in their ability to discern.

It is such a painful process. My sympathies.

Jane R said...

Oh, JohnieB. And Nina. As you (Johnie)know, I can't talk about this in the blogosphere at this point, but let me say that I sympathize more than I can say. And Paul, thank you. I am so glad you are a priest. Or rather, that you have been "made a priest in God's church." (Lo those many years ago.) You were already a priest, of course.

Holy hugs, all y'all.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Johnieb, what a sad, sad, story. It makes one wonder that anyone chooses to be clergy and that, if they do, that anyone makes it through. It is pretty generally an unhappy tale, whether one makes it through or not.

I was on a discernment committee once. In the beginning, I thought that none of us knew what the hell we were doing, but we took our responsibilities seriously and prayerfully. In the end, I believe that we did a good job. Our candidate's story had a happier ending, in that the young man is now ordained and serving two small churches.

Johnieb, my heart goes out to you, sweetie. I hurt for you.

BooCat said...

johnieb, It goes on in every diocese. A friend of mine had our bishop tap dance on her head in the process. I believe it was a personal thing with him, no matter how he tried to justify it. If she had been a person who was less caring about the feelings of other individuals who were involved, she could have sued this diocese for all that it is worth, but chose not to do so. I have never felt the same about the bishop since then. If there was ever a person who would have made a wonderful, caring priest, it would have been she.
At least one person in this diocese who felt called, paid his own way to seminary and found a bishop in another diocese who ordained him. He is now a priest in another state.

May God bless you, johnieb. Maybe when others, such as you, speak up, the church will finally wakeup to what they are doing to those who feel called to the priesthood.

pj said...

Ah Johnieb. I was off-blog(s) for the last few days, or I would surely have read this before I tagged you for a silly meme (see up top somewhere.)

Well, coming from outside of everything, all I can say is that the Church (any church) is made up of human beings, and consequently stuff is bound to be confused and unfair. Still, it does seem particularly awful to go through a lousy interview process in a church. I mean, if you're turned down for an accounting job, well, whatever. But this soul-stuff ought to have a better outcome.


Ken said...

I have by now met several priests of the Episcopal Church, and to a man or woman, none of them will talk about their experience in The Process. It's as though their lips are sealed or it's so traumatic that they can't talk about it, even years later. All they will do is hint that it was one of the darkest periods of their lives. Now, excuse me, but what is gained by this? I know...we want to stop the sex abusers and loony-toons (like a psychological exam ever helped), but some of this reminds me of how residents are trained after medical school: they do the 80-hour a week rotation because everyone did it before them. In other words, torture makes you part of the old boy/girl network. It's sick.

jerseyjo said...

Dear, dear Johnie--

I've been away (Germany) and offline for the past few weeks, and just now catching up.

Reading your story takes my breath away. We are such survivors all. You are so very brave, my friend.

God's peace be with you,

Anonymous said...


It's hard in any denomination.

The worst thing seems to be the imputation of stigma. It does seem unwarranted (ridiculous, actually) to think that unselected people have something "wrong" with them - do the congregants really do this? "Wait a bit" or "let's check out a few things first(ie, in your case, find out about the UCC bit, something which might take a bit of time and work)" or "what you do now is a valuable ministry and you are needed there - are you sure you need to switch?" All humans involved in the process are highly fallible re is this a true calling from God.

What I don't get is why the diocese doesn't see that licensure could lead to other positions - hospital chaplaincy, for instance. Not every Episcopal priest has to be a rector or associate.


Missy said...

I'm speechless.

I really don't know what to say except thank you for writing about this.

Peace to you, johnieb.

Mary Clara said...

JohnieB, my heart aches for you and I am glad you posted this. I have seen several people go through this process in the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church, and it ain't pretty.

Gerald Donnelly said...


I empathize with you in your struggle in the church's ordination/discernment process. I share my own misadventures in the Episcopal process here:

Keep the faith!

Blessings, Gerald