I Had No Idea: The Third In A Series of Reflections on Ordination

This is my “serious” post written on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my ordination. I am writing it on Wednesday night since I will be in Boston extremely early tomorrow morning to rally for marriage equality, and will be in the city all day.

When I was ordained, I had no idea what to expect of parish ministry. I had done my field education and my internship, taken however many classes one takes in order to earn a master of divinity degree from Harvard University, and endured the CPE and MFC and career assessment drill that we all go through in our journey to becoming a Reverend in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I had even sweated my way through a master’s thesis on the myth Persephone as a resurrection narrative for women.

And I had no idea.

When I went to divinity school, I had these various ideas for my future, presented in the chronological order in which they occurred to me:
1. I would be a mediator of some sort.
2. I would be a minister of religious education.
3. I would be a campus chaplain.

I was 100% clueless about how ministry works in the world and was, to put it kindly, grasping at straws. I had gone to divinity school as though shot from a cannon, arriving full of manic energy but absolutely no vision. I had been flitting in and out of UU congregations for many years and had never felt grounded or particularly welcome in any of them; I felt like a total fraud. My personal motto in those seminary years was, “The bush burned but was not consumed.” This helped me keep faith that God knew what God was doing with me, although sometimes the fire of unfocused commitment burned so hot I would wake in the morning looking as though I’d been “rid hard and put away wet.”

There was tremendous drama in this, and a lot of erotic energy. I feel very fortunate that I had an active romantic life in those years because once I had a “Rev.” before my name, men ceased to regard me as a big, wild playground of a woman and saw me as a Church Lady. Hence the end of my real romantic life. In the past ten years I have had the odd boyfriend here and there, and I do mean the odd boyfriend.

I had no idea when I began working in the parish that the church can be a dead serious place where it is very difficult to keep perspective.

I had no idea that smart, loving congregational leaders would sometimes allow three or four absolutely toxic individuals to abuse and well nigh destroy the morale of a minister. It happened to me in one of my earlier congregations, and I have since learned that it happens a lot. I had no idea that congregations could commonly tolerate vile, destructive behavior in the name of “community” or “inclusiveness.”

I had no idea that parish ministers did so much work in the community. I actually thought that my days would be full of preparing worship, visiting with and counseling congregants, marrying and burying folks, and working with lay leaders on church matters. It never occurred to me that so much of my time would be spent responding to a fascinating array of requests from outside the church. To name just a few: writing articles and editorials, speaking at events ranging from pro-choice rallies to vigils for peace, addressing college students on the subject of sexuality, serving on denominational and non-profit boards, planning and leading workshops at conferences, teaching seminarians, mentoring ministers in final fellowing, counseling friends or extended family of parishioners, guest lecturing, calling into radio shows to represent a social justice action group, lobbying legislators, participating in ordinations and installations, shopping/cooking for/hosting various receptions and special events, attending collegial meetings and retreats, providing references for all manner of congregants and friends, driving homeless men to shelters on winter nights, and giving opinions to reporters. When I bought a set of luggage soon after graduation from Div School, I stupidly thought I could buy the cheap stuff, because I was a pastor and wouldn’t be traveling much!!

Since I’ve been ordained I have traveled to Phoenix, St. Lake City, Harrisburg, PA, Rochester, NY, Nashville, Washington, DC, Cleveland, St. Louis, New York City, West Point, NY, Quebec City, Berkeley, CA, and God knows where else to attend meetings, conferences, classes, retreats or trainings.

I had no idea that so many people would trust me with their sexual secrets. Alfred Kinsey’s got nothing on me.

I had no idea that the most frightening part of the job would be feeling obligated to come up with something meaningful to say in the face of tragedy and inexplicable loss.

I had no idea that so many lay people choose to devote a huge portion of their time and energy to the church. I had no idea how many impressive leaders the church produces, and what an elegant and largely unrecognized work of art their service to our congregations truly is.

I had always heard that ministers have to earn trust and “cred,” and therefore had no idea that every congregation I served would instantly welcome me into their churches with trust and respect.

I had no idea that there would be so much anxiety about youth programming in practically every congregation I’ve ever known — (not just the ones I’ve ministered to).

I had no idea that I would worry so much about every single sheep of my flock, compulsively flipping through the pages of the directory and fretting about the condition of their hearts, minds, families, marriages, bodies and souls. I had no idea how often I would stay up late making lists of non-attendees, infrequent attendees, potentially disaffected absentees and trying to figure out how to reach out to them in a way that might get them back to church for good, even though every previous effort had failed.

I had no idea how invested I would become in the idea that membership in a church is a serious and important commitment. I had joined congregations in the past myself and disappeared without a word; I had no idea anyone would care!

I had no idea that grief could live in my body long past the death of a parishioner, and that I would henceforth spend a portion of my summer vacation weeping over losses suffered during the church year but never properly mourned.

I had no idea how protective I would feel of all my congregations, and that any threat to them, whether from inside or without, would fill me with a steady, venomous rage and cold clarity about how to strategize against the threat.

I had no idea that most threats to my congregations were actually very little of my business, and that I couldn’t much protect anyone from anything in the end.

I had no idea that conflict between my babies would tear my heart to bits.

I had no idea that I would feel deeply in my heart that all of my parishioners, whatever their chronological ages, were my “babies,” to love unconditionally even when circumstances or personal boundaries prevented my having a close relationship with them. I had no idea how much my upbringing would influence me to believe in the power of “tough love.”

I had no idea how much a casual, misinformed criticism from a peripherally- involved church member could cut me to the quick, but how much I craved honest feedback from those who genuinely shared the work of the church with me, and whose opinion I respect.

I had no idea that board meetings could be a lot of fun, and that there is no need to hold monthly committee or staff meetings just for the sake of it when you have extremely competent people in leadership roles.

I had no idea that the responsibility of preaching and leading worship most Sundays from September through June would feel like the most draining and intimidating professional responsibility imaginable, yet also the most exhilirating, thrilling challenge and honor.

I had no idea that it would be so ultimately healthy for me that my family would steadfastly refuse to make a big deal of my going into the ministry and would remain, for a decade, the strongest voice of reason, humor and love in my life.

I had no idea that life in the parish could be at once so intimate, affirming and relational and yet so painfully lonely and isolating.

I had no idea that my brothers and sisters in the parish ministry and religious leadership would become, truly, brothers and sisters and that I would rely on their wisdom, support and comaraderie so entirely through all the ups and downs of this work.

I had no idea that I would start publishing my random thoughts on the internet in a forum known as a “blog” and therefore become a kind of religious writer with an interactive, international fellowship of readers.

I had no idea that the Bible would become absolutely central to my religious thought and vision.

I had no idea that my daily experience of the living God would make it impossible to consider a world without the church in it. I had no idea that it would get easier, not harder, to love the Lord God with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul and all my strength. The l”oving neighbor as self” is still a growing edge!

As I explain to everyone, God doesn’t call perfect people to ministry. S/He calls the ones foolish enough to respond.

(PB a few years after ordination)

15 Replies to “I Had No Idea: The Third In A Series of Reflections on Ordination”

  1. Thank you, PB. Thank you.

    As someone right in the middle of writing my application to a UU seminary, this means a great deal.

    I’m going to hang on to this and read it when needed!

    I’m glad you’re blogging, and I’m glad to be one of your
    (mostly silent) readers.

    And congratulations on your milestone.

  2. WOW. What a gift to share this. Thank you.

    And excuse me, as I run screaming from the room to rip up any seminary applications I can find. 😉

  3. Thanks be to God.


    P.S. It has to be a calling because you’d have to be crazy to do it as a job.

  4. And as I head south to accept my first call, I heave a sigh and deny that my next decade could possibly be anything but wine and roses.

  5. All blessings to you, PeaceBang. You are a blessing. . . and a sweetie pie (or, as an elderly – to me, then – gentleman I admired liked to say, a “pie of sweetness”)!

  6. This is perfect reading for me tonight, as I prepare for my last real day at my present work and look ahead to seminary in the fall. You describe my hopes almost exactly. And the reality that I have been foolish enough to respond!

  7. congratulations on such a big milestone, and it is good to hear the other side of the story. the relationship between congregation and minister is so interesting, as what do you do when something isn’t working very well. For those churches who find a way to enjoy a minister for decades, I’m in awe. Being married is hard enough; having a relationship with several hundred unique individuals has got to be much harder.

    Hope you didn’t discourage folks from ministry too much; and hope the good days far outweigh the bad. I appreciate the ministry you do via this blog.

    We have a new minister coming at the end of summer, and I just hope folks give him a break. I think they expect things from a minister that they wouldn’t expect from anyone else. I wish for all of us that we have patience and care for each other.

    Congratulations again on the milestone.

  8. PeaceBang, happy anniversary, and just so you know how far your ministry is reaching, I will be lighting a candle at Canterbury Cathedral on Sunday to mark this milestone and give thanks for the sunshine of you which reaches all the way over here and lifts my spirits.

  9. Happy Anniversary! And thanks for the fine, moving reflections. They should require ’em at our alma mater and other div schls and seminaries too.

    Hugs and kisses,

  10. As I’ve been reading your blog I had the feeling you sound as if you’ve been to Harvard… 😉

    Congratulations on your milestone from MDiv 03.

  11. Your 10 year reflections were recommended by a friend as I too just reached my 10 year anniversary (RC priest). Happy anniversary and thanks for some marvelous insights that made me go–yeah, exactly!

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