The invisible work of ministry

In a little over a week, on December 28, it will be my 17th anniversary of ordination (transitional diaconate, priest on June 28) in the Episcopal Church. That cold December night I gathered with many of my friends and family in a dark church lit with candles, flaming the hope I felt inside. I remember trying to vest, putting on a pink long sleeved clergy blouse and having no idea how to use the collar stays. I put the stays in backward, so the more pointed end was against my skin. I had so much to learn, despite four years of advance college education to acquire a dual degree, Mdiv/MSW, with an emphasis on Family Systems for Congregations. But on that night I wasn't thinking about the challenges that would come, I was only thinking about the hurdles I'd jumped so far and where I'd finally landed. I was in a church I loved surrounded by people I loved and filled with hope for the future.

The first few years were mostly good, albeit challenging to learn how to preach and preside, to lead worship, and to journey with people through life. My first call was as a Curate in a large church in Chicago. It was a fabulous community and I loved the people. I felt blessed to journey with them through illnesses and death and the complications of life. My second call came 18 months later when I became the rector of a small church. Again I loved the people and we did a lot of great work together, me and the people of that church. We faced many challenges too but navigated them with grace. Six weeks after I arrived we faced the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. That night, using a phone tree to call us together, the parish gathered to pray. These were also the days following the consecration of the first openly gay Bishop. In response we had many parish and ecumenical conversations on human sexuality, led by gifted and thoughtful people. We read and discussed books by Marcus Borg and others and opened our minds and hearts to new ideas. We held a silent auction and raised $8000.00 for a small community in Mississippi that was recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We were inspired.

The first few years of my ordained life my husband and I had money in savings, we were paying off my student loans at a healthy pace, we had no debt and we had extra money each month to spend just for fun. Those were the years before 2001. By 2003 none of that was true. A variety of hardships hit us, as they did many people in this country, leading up to the economic collapse of 2008.

In these 17 years I have been the rector at two more churches. I've faced challenges of dying churches and church conflict. I resigned from one church less than two years after moving across the country to take that call. (Suffice it to say the dynamics were complicated, but forced clergy exits always are). I've been homeless and unemployed and lived on food stamps, all while being a highly educated parish priest, a white middle class woman. I've worked harder than I ever thought possible to be better, to know myself better, to be healthy and whole although the pull toward bitterness was strong. (I am doing this work for you, God, why oh why is it so hard?).

I know that I have lived the life of many people in this country. People who probably voted for the candidate I did not vote for. I have a glimpse into why they may believe he will rescue them from their despair and challenges. I think we all long, from time to time, for someone to rescue us. I certainly have. The rescue has never come, though. My husband and I have had to do it all on our own, scraping and clawing our way through the mess of being middle class in this country today. Yes, we're white, so it has been easier, even possible, because we're white. We've found work after being unemployed. It could have been worse. It's still been pretty crappy a lot of the time, but it could have been worse.

Now we are back to living a relatively comfortable life. We still live month to month, paying off those damn student loans which take up 20% of my monthly take home. But once again we have a little discretionary money to go out to eat or have a little fun. We're preparing for our first grand baby, due in February. I'm slowly coming out of my profound despair following the election. This does not mean that I am feeling better about it. I have zero hope for us or for this country. I fear that we are headed for a deep depression, possibly even WWW III. I fear that my retirement will be delayed because I will lose Social Security and Medicare. I have absolutely no trust and no hope for the leadership of this country. America may never be great again, our time as the world leader and super power is over. History will look back at these years and shake its head. The fall of Rome, the fall of the USA. All my life I've wondered about this, knowing it was possible. I just never thought I'd see it in my life time. But I'm coming out of my despair because that's who I am. I can't reside in that place forever. I am an optimist. Even when I have no hope I hope for hope.

Now I am on the downward slope of my vocation. I could retire, according to the church pension fund, in March of 2020. I'll have my twenty years in by then. Social Security will kick in two years later, so in six years, December of 2022, when my husband turns 65, we could potentially retire. We'd live meager lives on our combined social security and my pension and some supply work, but we could probably manage, assuming there is still social security. But these days, who knows? I may have to work a lot longer. Which means pulling up my boot straps and getting ready for more years of church decline, more years of challenging church budgets, more years of vestry meetings and annual meetings and preaching and presiding and conflict and growth and learning about myself and church. It also means more years of baptisms and weddings and funerals. Of doing the ministry I felt called to do, journeying with people through their lives, looking for signs of God along the way, and nurturing the relationship between God, self, and others.

It occurs to me that the real call of my vocation has been this: striving to bring forth the good news when little seems good. Wondering where is God in all of this? Working toward hope and not succumbing to bitterness or despair or fatigue. All the while trying to be healthy and whole myself.

The night I was ordained, while the priest preached and the Bishop examined me and laid hands on my head and called forth the Holy Spirit, I could feel the pressure of those pointed collars stays pressing into my neck, my throat, as if trying to irritate me out of my joy. Or remind me that ministry would always be two edged, one side smooth and comfortable and the other side pointed and mildly irritating. As if always to keep me on my toes, aware and attentive, never able to fully slide into a place of comfort nor a place of complete dismay. As if to prepare me for the journey of what has been and what will be my life of a parish priest.

The morning after my ordination I had a bruise on my neck from the pressure of the collar stay. This small purple dot, an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible work of ministry. The dot is no longer visible, but its mark remains ever present, indented in my being, like the grace of God.


Martha Spong said…
Thanks be to God for your ministry, invisible and otherwise.

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