My Call to Ordained Ministry
Today, I’ll be taking a brief break from Fat Liberation Theology to join other United Methodist Young Adults across the country to share the story our call to ordained ministry.
It was February 2004, I was 22 years old, and I was in Taunton, a medium-sized town in the Southwest of England. I had been in a long distance relationship with a man who lived there named Darren for several years and was there visiting for 10 weeks, after having graduated in December 2003 with my B.A. in Elementary Ed. I had begun substitute teaching, was preparing to begin interviewing for full-time teaching positions, and was still deeply in the midst of grieving the death of my mother who had died one year prior. On the days when Darren was at work, I would walk listlessly around Taunton under heavy clouds with what the Brits called “spitting rain” kissing my face, and I’d stop here and there at a bakery for a chicken bake and pain au chocolat or go into a church to light a candle and pray.
One afternoon I found myself in the side chapel of St. James church, sitting on the chairs and looking up at the stained glass image, tears streaming down my face. “What do you want me to do?” I asked God. “Why am I even here?” I wrote this poem later that day:
On a Thursday afternoon
I go into St. James
It is silent—no one is there
It smells like all the Cathedrals in England
I go to the chapel
what am I doing here?
I am so lost
What am I doing with my life??
Where am I going?
God, please guide me
please lead me
give me clarity
I looked up at the stained glass
of Saint James
so I found a Bible and read James
And five days later:
I went back in to St. James on Monday
to re-read James
I had read it before
when God told me to
but had no revelation
I read it again
but still don’t know
exactly what I needed to take from it
but I think it might have something to do
with the orphans
And that was it, nothing else. I was grateful that God gave me something—the book of James—to focus on, but I was also frustrated because I didn’t know what it meant, other than feeling like it had “something to do with the orphans and widows.” So I spent another year subbing, doing administrative and clerical tasks at my dad’s real estate office, feeling listless, grieving and healing in a “two steps forward, one step backward” kind of way.
I went back to England in January 2005, and not much had changed, in fact I felt even more lost than I had the year before. A whole year of subbing had gone by. I’d half-heartedly interviewed for a few full-time teaching jobs but it was becoming more and more clear that not only was I really not emotionally prepared to do that kind of work, it wasn’t even something that excited me. Yet, what did excite me? Nothing really; I was still entrenched in a grief like a fog that would not lift. I had alienated friends, was fighting with my siblings, and generally felt completely directionless.
One day I was just kind of laying around, listening to Max Richter, reading Milan Kundera, listening to the rain fall and sipping hot green tea. And out of this melancholy, my call took shape. It came in the form of a spiritual realization building upon a previous cognitive realization I’d had several months prior. From a journal entry I wrote around that time:
I noticed that as I was teaching in classrooms full of crazy kids, I found my mind frequently wandering to the thought of sitting in a nice quiet office with a client. In other words, I found myself wishing I was a counselor. When I took a moment to really think about it, there was no question in my mind as to where I would rather be, in that classroom or in an office counseling a patient.
So my spiritual realization that quiet, rainy English afternoon built upon this: not only did I need to look into counseling, but it needed to be pastoral counseling. My faith was so much entrenched as a part of who I am that I could not go into a career that didn’t allow me to express it. This, I realized, meant full-time ministry, and while I can’t exactly put it into words, my body just knew that meant ordained ministry.
So I visited my pastor when I returned home, and he was pretty delighted to hear of my call, because he had said to me when I was 15 that he could see the gifts of ministry in me. He wasn’t the only one who’d said things like that to me over the years, and I really appreciated their support and had reacted like, “well, perhaps you’re right! I haven’t been called yet, but I am open to it.” I always understood the importance of a call coming from both within and without—I had to know it inside myself, and it had to be affirmed by others. The way God chose to do it for me was that others started speaking about 8 years before I felt it myself, but when I felt it, there was no question, I knew.
I knew in the kind of way that meant that I literally could not have done anything else but begin the process toward ordination. And my heart was filled with gratitude for that; for the meaning and purpose that I’d been so desperately trying to grasp at in the years leading up to it.
I could write many more words about what the process has been like since then. I got hooked up with a mentor who is funny and frank, supportive and challenging, honest about the common pitfalls in the process while always having a word of hope. I was able to connect with a network of non-official mentors, who to this day support and encourage and challenge me. Seminary gave me the skills, tools, and knowledge to be an effective minister in the parish, the pulpit, and the counseling office.
I spent a lot of time discerning between Deacons orders and Elders orders, because I am not called to be a pastor, I am called to pastoral care, pastoral counseling, preaching, sacrament, and teaching. But Deacons are not ordained to Sacrament, which means no authority to do communion and baptism. This is a great point of grieving for me—to have to choose between fidelity to my call as a Deacon and my call to administration of the Sacraments. I take refuge in knowing I’m not the only one struggling with this, as there were no less than six petitions brought before the last general conference regarding deacons and sacrament administration, and one of them passed. God, apparently, just will not be boxed into United Methodism’s formulation of the Orders—imagine that ;). And yet I must find a way to live out my call with integrity within them. This has not, is not, and will not be an easy process. I can only continue to trust in God to lead me, step by step, through it.
I went to seminary and found out that seminary students can be just like regular people. Really. Some of them have just as much of a tendency to be sexist, racist, classist, fatphobic, ableist, and generally dickish as anyone else. They sometimes sexually harass each other. And sometimes the administration blames the victim of that. And sometimes, they are the most supportive, spiritually mature, encouraging, and life-giving companions you will ever meet. Sometimes they cry for joy because you’ve succeeded at something. Sometimes they are strong enough to hold your tears of pain with respect. Sometimes they come in sexist, classist, racist, etc. and allow seminary to challenge them to grow in these areas. And sometimes they are so entrenched in their privilege that they refuse to be moved. My youthful idealism really took a beating in seminary, and my hope grew stronger. We are in a broken world, and church leaders can be broken too. I myself still have broken places and areas of healing, and seminary taught me that the best I can do is to seek to be a “wounded healer” who is ever open to the healing and maturing presence of the Holy Spirit, so that I can be a catalyst for healing and maturing in the lives of others.
I wish someone had told me that going to seminary wouldn’t mean I’d be safe from interpersonal harm.
I wish that someone had told me what classes and my internship would cost in terms of money, time, and emotional energy.
Someone DID tell me that seminary would be the most emotionally challenging thing I’d ever done, and I wish I’d listened.
And even if someone had told me those things, or I’d really heard them, I would have done it anyway, because as I said before, I could do no other. And while it has been challenging, it has also been life-giving and has nurtured my faith, sustained my hope, and helped me to heal and mature. I have great hope looking forward to my next step: God willing, commissioning as a probationary Deacon at the 2010 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.