Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

Dear friends, can you believe it? Today marks six full months of ministry for me. While I am tempted to make a humorous list of the more bizarre things that have happened to me or bigger mistakes I’ve made, I thought instead six months deserved a bit more.  So I went back to the drawing board, or the writing journal, as it were, and I hope you will indulge me a reflective post.  I’ll offer you something humorous later in the week, I promise!

***

There are a great number of things about ministry for which I was very well-prepared: preaching, liturgy, hospital visitations, nursing homes, funerals, Bible studies, Sunday school, and charge conferences.  Seminary, as well as field and personal experiences, taught me just about everything I’ve needed to know so far about the typical weekly and occasional events of the Church and her life.  I know what Point A and Point B are, and I know how to get from one to the other and back.

What I was not prepared for was everything in between.

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

I was not prepared, for example, for the hum and drum of working life.

I was not prepared for the particular, abiding fear that comes with a job like ministry where you are constantly discerning and articulating your ever-changing “call,” and trying to either build a job description around that or muscle it into fitting the job description your ministry setting provides and/or needs.

I was not prepared for the constant self-evaluation and doubting that comes with a job in which personal relationships are 98% of what you do.  Though I am not the type to have social anxiety, I find myself panicking over every small interaction:

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

“Did I say ‘no’ with too much negative emphasis when they offered me wine at that Sunday School Christmas party?”

“Was I insensitive when that mother was telling me about her daughter’s disease and related bowel issues?”

“Did I laugh out loud when that man in Trader Joe’s looked at my clerical collar and said, ‘So you’re a nun, then?'”

I was not prepared for the elderly woman who told me in a matter-of-fact, almost chipper voice that she was ready to die and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.

I was not prepared for the battering loneliness– the daily barrage of never quite being a part of anything, because I consented, by pursuing ordination, to be set apart.

I find myself envious, many times, of those worker bees whose jobs are quantifiable, tangible, visible.  I envy my friend Claire who creates the bulletins for all our worship services– every week she knows what her tasks are and ever week there is something that she created that she can hold in her hands and be proud of. I was not prepared to feel so positively unmoored by not receiving constant feedback, syllabi, tasks, and results.

I was not prepared to enjoy the spotlight as much as I do. I have struggled mightily to recover any semblance of humility I may have once had– no one told me how hard that would be.

I was not prepared for the disappointment I felt when a baby was too sick to be baptized to be more disappointment that was not getting to do a baptism than disappointment that the baby was ill.  In short, here, I wasn’t prepared to have to fight so strongly against being a total, self-absorbed, emotional, envious, discontented jerk.

I was prepared for what I would be doing, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional,  psychological, relational, and physical effects of the HOW of doing it.

***

I wonder if my unmoored, bewildered, emotional feeling is kin at all to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  His prayers were so earnest, so devastatingly honest and terrible. He said to those whom He called friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He went back and forth, up and down– not this, Father. Your will, Father. Please no, Father.  Yes, Father.

He Qi, "Praying at Gethsemane."Source: http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/jesus_gethsemane-qi.jpg (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings... quite beautiful!)

He Qi, “Praying at Gethsemane”
Source: The Jesus Question (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings… quite beautiful!)

Answering the call, as I’ve said before, is the easy part.  Then you actually have to go and wander in the desert, or be nailed to a cross, or sit in an office and wonder if you’re doing this “adult” thing, or this “ministry” thing, or this “life” thing right at all.

***

So here’s what’s working for me to survive, even (hopefully) to flourish in all this.  If you’re feeling at all like I am, new clergy out there, or if you seminarians are feeling terrified by my honest account, follow these simple rules and you’ll be alright:

1. Read. Not just Scripture, although read a lot of that. Read memoirs, read blogs, read biographies and books of ancient letters.  These types of texts will allow you to inhabit the mind and soul of another person, which gives you perspective, and companionship, and camaraderie, and empathy.
My suggestions: Follow the hours or the daily office to get your fill of Scripture. Books: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Still, all three of Anne Lamott’s books of musings on life and faith, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (not her best work at all, but an honest and perspective-giving account of the pitfalls that haunt clergy) and above all else Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

2. Listen to music. New music. Old music. Listen to it in the office even if you have to put headphones on. Listen to the stuff you listened to in high school. Listen to the stuff the current high schoolers are listening to. Listen to Mumford and Sons, Bob Dylan, Esperanza Spalding, and Sinatra. Music lights the soul in a way nothing else can.

3. Limit your consumption of garbage.

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Source: United Methodist Memes

By this I mean junk: junk food, junk television, junk internet content, junk movies, junk phone calls with junk, gossipy friends.  Toss it out as much as you can.  I think it’s pretty true that you are what you eat, or watch, or say. So try to eat, watch, and say true and good things. (This, I’m still not good at. I just love pizza. And twitter. And the dang Sister Wives.)

***

So, at the end of 6 months, I’m coming around to the realization that being totally and completely uprooted, unmoored, and bewildered is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s not even the end of the world.  It’s an invitation to engage with a deeper kind of reality, the kind where Merton is more soul-soothing than a good Duck Dynasty marathon.

It’s an invitation to live.

***

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

2 thoughts on “Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

  1. Dear Erin,
    This is an amazing blog entry.
    So for what it’s worth, here’s my comment, 18 years into ministry.
    to you 1, 2, 3 (brilliant) I would add, exercise. Any kind. Just move the body.For me, it’s harder to get bogged down when I’ve gone running, or taken a long walk. It’s the whole mind-body-spirit balance. In your 1, 2, 3, you have the mind and spirit. I’ve learned that I have to pay attention to my body, or my mind and spirit start to sink, and I don’t usually realize it until I’m pretty far down into despair and no one wants to go there – because like our earliest Christian family said, despair is hell on earth.

    I deeply resonate with your reflection on loneliness. Here is what I’ve realized about loneliness.
    Everyone wants to be friends with the pastor, but no one wants to be the pastors friends. Maybe this is one reason why clergy are friends with clergy? But shortly after I entered the parish, I started to limit clergy friendships. Sadly, a lot of clergy conversations entered the “garbage” category – clergy gossip (did you hear who is going to xxx church?), clergy boasting (well I had 7,890 on Christmas Eve, 1,000 more than last year…), and clergy martyrdom (I haven’t taken a day off in 8 weeks! I never use all my vacation time! I always work 80 hours…) and I have a really low tolerance for garbage. So, I stopped going to those meetings. Or I started to arrive late (after “coffee conversation”) and leave early (before the parking lot meeting). And, when clergy started to gossip, or boast, or declare their own martyrdom, I excused myself, and usually left. Because I am too weak – I can gossip, complain, exaggerate, and glorify myself with the best of them, and I always end up feeling like garbage. Yuck. I have enough of my own sin and muck to deal with – I don’t need to add on anymore. The beautiful thing is that by moving away from these clergy, I have some really lovely friendships with a few clergy – they are my rock. They really understand this life. They give me amazing advice, usually silence, and prayer, and they laugh at my ridiculous stories.
    Don’t worry about going to rehearsal dinners or wedding receptions – leave after you give the prayer – really, people (unless the wedding is family or dear friends) people will be relieved the pastor left.
    Women (clergy and laity, all ages) can be really mean to women pastors. I was really shocked the first several times this happened. Many times, it’s the women that are the meanest to women clergy, and for me, this has added to the lonely. So here is what I have to say to women clergy – there are plenty of churches to go around, and there are more than enough churches for clergy who are good at what she does. Here is what I have to say to women laity – we are on the same team. Please pass me the ball, and I will pass it back to you. I don’t care if you make the jump shot or the goal – just please do not trip me or shove me when I’m not looking.
    I’ve also learned that I’m not very good at being a friend. (more on this, some day.)

    Finally, this fall, my counselor insisted I make some friends. At least 2. So I started to try, and do you know, God is providing. I am becoming real friends with a few women in our neighborhood – and since they are Catholic, they really see me as a friend. It’s so freeing. And lovely. Like a drink of water after a run.

    thank you, Erin, for becoming a friend.
    See you soon – LLC

    • If I were to rename your blog post I would call it “Permission to be Human.” I found myself connecting in a strong emotional way to your post via the avenue of my own loneliness in Columbus. On top of the feeling of loneliness (and wanting desperately for it to fade into the horizon) the ambiguity of my own job makes me wonder what in the world am I doing and why?

      I guess I would call it permission to be human because that is what I got from your post. We are humans, in ministry, trying our best to inhabit the space of a wounded healer. I acutely feel pang of longing for the not yet, while face to face with the reality of my already humanity.

      Thanks for post Erin. You Rock. And thanks for the heads up about keeping our bodies healthy to pastor ;) You’re the best pastor ever.

      C.J.

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