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
One of the first things I did when I got to
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,
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