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A few weeks ago, my Roman collar turned 25.
My ordination happened in 1998 at the UCC in Branford, CT, just outside of New Haven–the church that had borne the brunt of my embryonic minister idealism through a couple of years of field education.
It was a hot sweaty August day. VERY hot. I had not yet tamed my impulse to do All The Things in worship, and my time management/time optimism was even worse then than it is now. Which means my ordination was…2.5 hours long. In an un-air-conditioned 300 year old meeting house. But the scores of people who showed up to support me were cheerful, and jubilant, and PRESENT through the whole thing.
I was sitting in the front pew, and was so focused on everything going on in front of me (stage manager and mystic-swooning-with-the-power-of-the-Holy-Spirit at the same time) that I didn’t get a chance to crane my neck much and see who was behind me, fanning themselves and cursing the onset of menopause.
That’s why I was gobsmacked in the receiving line after when the crowd parted and saw Mrs. Jahne, my second-grade Sunday school teacher. I hadn’t seen her in years. Since the age of 13, when I preached at my rite of confirmation at Broadview Community Church in Hartford (thank you, Rev. Mason Ellison, gone to glory, for seeing my potential even then!) and then promptly moved to my dad’s in Boston for high school.
Though it had been 15 years, I recognized her immediately. We both promptly burst into tears. While Rev. Ellison and other people along the way gave me good kicks in the pants toward seminary and the life of parish ministry, Mrs. Jahne was an early angel, a port in the storm of my turbulent home life. Kind, warm, and predictable, with her beehive hairdo and coloring sheets. Her understanding laughter when we raced out of Sunday school as soon as we heard grownup feet on the move upstairs, to be first to the kids’ table at coffee hour and the peanut butter kiss cookies that always seemed to grace it. Another reliable ritual that kept the ship of my life from listing too badly on those swells.
Maybe I’m a minister because I’m called by the Lord. Maybe I’m a minister because I want to help people. Maybe I’m a minister because I wanted to help my family, and couldn’t that much, as it turns out, so I found spaces to work in where my gifts are (largely) appreciated and taken advantage of. Maybe I’m a minister because I really wanted to be a witch but they won’t give you a salary and benefits to do that.
All of the above is probably true. And I’m a minister because Mrs. Jahne modeled a gentle, enduring love for me when I needed it most. I wanted that–to offer and receive it–for the rest of my life.
All in all, it’s been a glorious gig. There are the Look-At-Them-Now transformations of people I’ve walked with: from closed to open, from broken to healing, from addicted to sober, from bound to free. And all the garden-variety miracles that happen every day: the deep conversations at coffee hour, more profound than any I have pretty much anywhere else in life, with 7 year olds and 87 year olds. The hands at work, every second Tuesday, baking cookies and making PB&J for sack lunches for our homeless neighbors. Group awe. The role I have in helping somewhat organized people parlay a little bit of money and time and will into enormous, beautiful, lifesaving things.
And there’s the fact that I can walk into pretty much anyplace, from a queer wedding in a West Oakland warehouse to a state prison to an ER to a mass protest, and wearing that Roman collar, can get respect (or at least: grudging curiosity and maybe some kid gloves).
But among all these starry moments, there’s the drudgery of ministry (time to write the church newsletter articles!). The monotony of ministry (3 hours of email a day?!?). And the getting-the-shit-kicked-out-of-you of ministry. That same Roman collar, to quote a colleague, is the perfect blank screen for parishioner to project their home movies onto. And ministers make excellent scapegoats for any anxiety and distress afoot in the family system of the church.
And that, my friends, is why so many people are leaving the ministry. It was bad even before the pandemic: according to an Alban Institute study in the early oughts, 50% of seminary grads dropped out of ministry in the first five years. A Duke University study just a few years later (2007) reported that a whopping 85% dropped out in the first five years. They both agree that 90% of ministers don’t make it past the 20-year mark.
It’s why that blog post about ‘pastoring being weird’ by Joshua Reyes went viral among my friends last week (see my FB feed for a read). It’s why this Twitter thread by a kind and sensible minister trying to pastor people lost to the MAGA cult is so completely heartbreaking. I’ve been very lucky and blessed (and *picky*! I had some choices) to mostly serve churches where I didn’t have to torch my conscience to preach and teach honestly.
This gig has grown my heart 3 sizes, and it’s also broken it. The pettiness, the bullying, the obstructionism, the low-key sexism (and high-key sexism, for that matter). The relentlessness of the cultural forces leaching folks from Christianity. About 5 years into my gig in Somerville I remember walking up College Ave crying and saying “God, if I had worked on ANYTHING ELSE this hard for this long, I’d be sitting pretty right now! I’m gonna quit and go sell insurance!” God just chuckled. “You know the only thing you believe in enough to ‘sell’ is Me.”
And: I’ve made it, I guess. Past the 20 year mark. My church threw me the sweetest celebration for my 25th anniversary this past Sunday. I knew they were going to do *something* but I wasn’t sure what. I told them to keep it chill. Even though I’m a Leo and an Enneagram 3, weirdly, I don’t like to be the focus of attention. “Just have a few folks write letters telling me how my efforts have made a difference in their life,” I said.
They did that. And also: cake, because church. And Mylar balloons, including a DISCO BALL BALLOON.
And my colleague Rev. Kelly preached the most beautiful sermon about good mentoring in which she affirmed all of my favorite positive qualities about myself (some of them might even be true!). I felt like I’d died and was listening to my eulogy.
And then she called up the children, and they all intertwined their hands with mine (I never, ever take for granted the trust of a child I am not related to! Children are great bellwethers), and invited anyone who had ever benefited from my pastoring to join the web of hands. I got a second laying on of hands, 25 years after that beautiful, sweaty Sunday.
As I read through the cards, a few each day this week, I had a weird mix of feelings. Joy, of course. Gratitude, that I get to work in a healthyish church with a lot of really wonderful people, and stellar colleagues.
But mixed in there, a weird kind of, not altogether seemly, pride? That I “made it”? That I am among the 10% who stick it out through all the exhaustion and nonsense and incessant obstructionism, the gentle ghosting and the noisy threatening from people I did my best to love and tend. Giving up nights and weekends for 25 years being more or less on call, on alert, for most of that time. Taking time away from my family, from myself, from friends as well as those who might have become friends if I’d had more to give.
I do feel like I have a lot to “show” for these 25 years, if that’s even the point. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally think about who actively did harm to me and to the churches I’ve been a part of, and rued the good and kind people who didn’t know how to be upstanders at critical moments. I think Yeats was talking about mainline churches when he said “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I think about my friends who have quit over the past few years. Every time I hear about another one, I go through a kind of arc:
Mild jealousy: why can’t I do that?
Irritation: why didn’t they try harder? If they had just gotten more help, worked through the burnout or the trauma, they might not be leaving too soon, and bitterly. And they, and their church, and all the churches they might serve in the future, would be better for it
The weird aforementioned pride: that I did stick it out
It’s really not for me to say who should quit and who should stick it out. Churches do devour people whole, and that is definitely NOT Jesus’ intention for any disciple. But I think there’s something to the “forgive 7 times 70.” Not to take abuse. But to stand strong, to stay with, to keep growing.
To listen to criticism for what it has to teach you but also hold on to a bulletproof God-esteem.
To outlast the bullies by working with them, the non-anxious presence and the self-defining leader with a good sense of humor (who has plenty of good friends outside the church to dump out to) until God turns them into allies. Or if they can’t come on board, are at least defanged by the healthy community members setting limits for them. Or blessing them into another church when they realize they can’t infect the church with their viral anxiety/anger/need to have their own way. So the church can live and thrive for those who really need it and understand it’s not about them.
Again with the unseemly pride: I am stubborn by nature, and that has worked to my advantage in contributing to the “you’re not gonna get rid of me! If I go, it’s in my own time and on my own terms” vibe. Also: I have kids. I was 9 months pregnant the first time a group of people coming at me with torches tried to fire me (and kick me out of the house we were living in, at Christmas). The second time it happened, I had 2 kids who were clinically depressed because I’d uprooted them, and I wasn’t going to mess with the fragile root system that was just taking hold beneath them. I do think God was a bit of a showoff in that–She knew my back was up against the wall, and I had to work through the conflict instead of escalating it by leaving.
I want to end on a happy note, but instead I’ll end on an honest note. It’s been a good, even an excellent, 25 years. Rife with transcendence and love. I’ve grown so much, and am still growing and learning so much. That’s better than a vanilla kind of ease. But while I’m still very fulfilled in my work–and in some ways feel I’m just getting to the best part in my current church in Berkeley–no way do I have 25 more years in me. It’s OK. I’ll always be a pastor. But someday, I want to do it in a way that is a little free-er of the weights that cling so close, the relentless pressure to fill the pews, to perform, to keep all the plates spinning. To simplify, and just: shepherd.
Ps I wrote this thing for Working Preacher! About when the pastor gets sick. Exhibit A of church being amazing.