This day, seventeen years ago, I was ordained to the transitional diaconate in the Episcopal Church. That year the church had transferred the Feast of St. John, which in my estimation was better than a feast day of martyrs.
I had graduated from Seabury Western Theological Seminary AND Loyola's Graduate School of Social Work with a dual degree M.Div/MSW. This seemed to me to be no small feat because my undergraduate degree was not "academic," whereas the M.Div was sophisticated education in true Episcopal style and the MSW was gridlocked in accreditation requirements. I was naive entering into this dual degree program and faced a huge learning curve to rise to the challenge of writing at the level required to earn these degrees. To say that my professors were generous in their understanding of each student's life experience and grading accordingly, is to be grateful that these institutions appreciated diversity on many levels.
My BA was in dance, a special major, Technical Theater for Dance, which I designed with my advisors at Columbia College in Chicago, so I could design lights and run shows for dance. It was interesting work and landed me a job right out of college. However, there was nothing academic about my BA nor about the work I did in those early years. Four hard years of climbing ladders to hang heavy lights, dirty nails and a wrench in my back pocket, lighting and running shows was followed by a year off working retail at Eddie Bauer, and then four years of working in Interior Design. I left the "working world" when my daughter was born and took nine years off to be a stay at home mom. In those nine years I earned a certificate in massage therapy and started a small private practice including volunteering in the hospital to give massages to parents of sick children. All of that eventually led me to discern a call to hospital ministry and to enter into the dual degree program. I envisioned a holistic ministry, working in hospitals to offer parents, or patients, a mind/body/spirit approach to their care and wellbeing. My last year in the dual degree program I ended up having two internships, one working for Jewish Family and Social Services doing individual and group therapy and one working for a church overseeing the children's ministries and working as a team with the rector and associate. I found that I didn't really love being a therapist but I was drawn to parish ministry, the day to day, in and out, years and years of being with people through the cycles of life from birth to marriage to death. I ended up in parish ministry, the one area I had refused to consider. Now, seventeen years later, I think back on these years and what I've learned.
1.) I've enjoyed working with couples preparing to marry. I've developed my own approach to premarital counseling and have found most, not all, but most couples readily engage in learning how to communicate in more effective ways. Our work has been to build a toolbox of resources for the couple to utilize when their communication breaks down and to recognize in each other where their challenges are and how to be supportive of one another while staying solid in one's self. The two do not become one flesh, they remain two people who are creating a marriage.
2.) Baptisms are great fun for me. I love to work with the families and godparents as we prepare for the baptism. Using the baptismal covenant we talk through the three renunciations and three affirmations and clarify for each person what they believe and what they are agreeing to. I don't enforce a particular view from the Church, although I do give examples that may broaden and deepen the beliefs around sin, evil, and satan.
3.) Funerals are always hard. Thank goodness the Episcopal liturgy is fabulous and gives me, over and over, words to lean into and an order of worship that gives me a solid foundation to support the emotions, mine and the family. Funerals can bring out the most chaotic natures in families but more often they just bring out the love.
4.) I am always clear about what I will and will not do, grounding myself in the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy. I rarely have issues with baptisms, weddings, or funerals. I do have odd requests from time to time but even those we manage to figure out.
5.) Weekly liturgy is now in my bones and my muscles. I have a memory of all the years I've proclaimed particular Gospel readings and the sermons I've preached on the texts. I've created new liturgy and repeated the same liturgies year after year. It's not that I go on automatic pilot but when I have a brain freeze or am distracted by something I've just heard or some other distraction, the muscle memory pulls me through.
6.) Most Sundays I still come home exhausted after leading and preaching at two worship services. I'm an introvert and need to go home and regroup after being public and leading worship. It's also why I take Monday as a day off. It can take me a full 24 hours to recover, longer on the once a month when Sunday includes a Vestry meeting.
Mostly I have learned that ministry is nothing like what I thought it would be. And, it's everything I thought it would be. It's been a lot more about conflict and testing boundaries and questioning who has power and authority to do what. It's been a lot less about shaping spiritual lives, often with very little real interest in personal transformation or in congregational change. It's been about navigating politics and human sexuality. It's been about how much energy the congregation has, or more often how tired everyone is and how little energy they have. It's been about trying on mission-focused ministries and hoping something catches and energizes people while also addressing a need in the wider community. It's been knowing when to step in and lead and when to step back and let others lead. It's been about taking risks. It's been about doing my own work to be healthy, to not over identify with the congregation but to stay clear on who I am and what I value and believe in. It's been about learning how to not work and finding balance. It's been about learning how to not personalize what is said and done or not done. It's been about working on my own holistic health in mind, body, and spirit, not always doing it well. It's been about failing over and over and rising up again. It's been about learning to love people who have pissed me off, people I have to work with and pastor too. It's been about being able to say I'm sorry with integrity even though no one ever says it back. It's been about learning to not say I'm sorry, to not always do the expected good girl thing, just because it will make others "feel better" but will leave me feeling compromised. It's been about learning how to negotiate my feelings when I am subjected to misogyny, often "unintended" and always "unrecognized" in people who think they are not sexist. It's been about mentoring other clergy and always checking myself to ensure I am doing so with integrity, working to help new clergy grow their strengths and their growing edges stronger.
Seventeen years ordained. I came to this call because of my deep faith in God, a presence of love and hope that sustained me through many of life's challenges. Now, I don't always believe in God and I wrestle with that. I do, however, always believe in hope and love, and through them I usually find my way back to God, incarnate in human flesh, calling me to do the hard work of ministry, to be the best version of myself that I can be.