A difficult place to be: Reflections on a pastor becoming a pastor

It’s been 22 months since I started interviewing for a pastoral position in area churches and ministries. It’s been 22 months since I looked to the church to validate my call to ministry.

Twenty-two months later, I am beginning to discover that I must die to the thought that the church proclaims my worth before I can be worthy. That’s how the system works; I am not ordained a “Pastor” until a church (or ministry) offers me a job… er… I mean extends me a call that confirms I am a pastor.

Then, why do I feel like a pastor?  Why don’t they see this in me and hire me?  Am I not worthy?

I can see where this way of thinking is taking me and it’s not a good place. Just imagine, today the church says I am worthy but tomorrow I will likely be a disappointment. I’ll have lost my worth, like yesterday’s gossip. Oh, they will have good reason for my dip in value – knowing me, it will probably be that I didn’t stay on the safe, obedient course laid out for me ~ because I didn’t stay “contained”. In the post-disappointing tomorrow, I will question my call and my worth again, wondering if what they see lacking in me is a problem of me being truly found wanting or them being blinded by the preservation of their comfort. Either way, I lose.

Dying hurts ~ the woman I thought I was is now just a shriveling shadow of her. I no longer engage with hope; I don’t want to because unrealized hope robs me of entire ‘lives’ that will never be lived. That’s a lot to lose. But, without hope, I have become a desperate woman. A wilting woman. A woman crumbling and, as hard as it is to say, a woman dying to the multiple dreams she once thought truly possible.
Shit. This sucks. It really sucks.
For what its worth, there is a very tiny, tiny, tiny part of me that is comforted in my journey of dying. It is this:  Resurrection can only come from after death.
This invites me to a different kind of hope ~ it’s not a hope based on what is realistically possible. It’s a hope based in the miracle of the resurrection. It’s a hope where I, you, we could never go but for the death of Christ. It’s a hope that comes from death and a place that takes believing.
Like Fairyland, Wonderland, and Never-Neverland, we are expected to grow out of this type of thinking. So, the thought of a resurrected life seems like childhood fantasy. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I believe with faith like a child that I’m headed to Resurrectionland.
In Resurrectionland, I will be who God made me to be no matter where I am, whether I be in a church or on the street. In Resurrectionland, the mere fact that I am standing will be a testimony to God’s irresistible grace. In Resurrectionland, death isn’t a threat because I’ve already died … and lived through it! In Resurrectionland, I will stand with my shoulders back, my chin up, and my chest out in front of me; I will let my womanhood be the first thing that others see, and the part of me I am most proud of. In Resurrectionland, whether the people in power affirm me or not doesn’t matter one bit, because my life doesn’t depend on their approval – it depends on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
All this is to say, I am dying a little more each day. But, because God is the one who called me to this, it’s the kind of dying that will bring new life. Only then, after death, can I be who God has made me to be for a world dying to know Him.

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19 thoughts on “A difficult place to be: Reflections on a pastor becoming a pastor

  1. Marla, I feel your pain. It took me a while to find my first call and then (because it was an interim that ended 15 months later) waited 8 months to find another call. Of course, it was worth the wait and yet it was an agonizing 8 months where I even questioned my call to be a pastor. I cannot imagine waiting 22 months to fulfill a call. I am a second career pastor and so my corporate side wants me to ask, what do you think is the reason that you aren’t getting a call? Is there a pattern? Have you felt a fit and then the call doesn’t come? I am a PCUSA pastor and on our Committee for Preparation for Ministry and so we coach candidates in their call process. If there is anything I can do to encourage you, please email me erint@calvarypresch.com Erin Thomas

    • Erin – I appreciate your offer, and your empathy. I don’t think ‘time’ as we measure it can be a true indicator of severity of pain, whether it be 8 or 22 months.
      At the same time, while your questions make sense, they aren’t helpful to me. These questions are what I must die to – I’ve had more than enough time to ‘fix’ the problem, find the pattern, discern my fit, etc. etc. etc. I have been coached, I have been advised, I have been prepared. Not that I am perfect – no – but I am NO LESS perfect, ready, advised, prepared than my peers. This isn’t a matter of getting better, but of a cultural impasse.

  2. Praying for you, and praying that others will experience your giftedness in ministry and affirm you as their pastor. I too have experienced a long period of time between finishing formal education and calling… I graduated from seminary in 1988, and was ordained during chaplain residency in 1993… Grace and peace to you…

  3. So, less than a week ago I began my first call after a 12 month wait. I read your blog and kept thinking – did I write this in my sleep – or even in my waking? It is a terrible thing to wait, no matter the reason, for something for which you have studied for and prepared for and prayed about intensely. I started this later than most people in my life, and I gave up a lucrative career to do this, and for many more days than I can tell you, I woke up afraid that I had chosen the wrong path, heard the wrong message – or somehow become the punchline of God’s joke. Waiting and wanting is hard and painful and my heart hurts for you. The best advice I can give is to surround yourself with other clergy, pray with them, laugh and cry with them, and let them help you through the really hard days. Telling you to keep your chin up won’t help you, but you will be in my prayers.

    • Yes, yes, and yes. That’s what it feels like, ya know? Thankfully, I am not alone. I love that I am surrounded by wonderful, supportive people who affirm me every day. I couldn’t do this without the space to be real, fall apart, cuss, and cry.

  4. Thank you for writing about me. I feel less alone. Thank you for re-framing the dying, hopeless feeling and showing me a glimpse of Resurrectionland. Your honestly has encouraged me. It feels better knowing I’m not alone. Hope knowing I’m here encourages you too. May we both be blessings~

    • I have to admit: since first writing this piece about a week ago, I have gone to Resurrectionland in my mind OFTEN. My husband goes there too. It’s a nice place. Hope you like it. 😉

  5. My first call came easy- but then it was a long time between when it ended and I received my next one. And this is how it felt- 18+ months of wondering, agonizing over had a made a mistake and wasn’t called to this, and the pain caused by well meaning but unhelpful people who wanted to tell me what I was doing wrong, or to help me “find” what I was doing wrong. Most of that made me neurotic and unsure of myself. It wasn’t until I was able to affirm that called had called this person just as I was to ministry, that some of that resurrected life started to come back- and that wasn’t until I was in my NEXT call. Thank you for describing this so well and letting others know that they are not alone even when it feels like they are Job and all their friends are taking a page from his friends book when it comes to “comforting”.

    • Deb – I am beginning to understand that getting my ‘first’ call won’t necessarily solve my problem. I was under the naive impression that experience goes a long way toward marketability. My husband, who is a pastor, has always received invitations to other churches while he was serving elsewhere. I assumed this happens because he has a great reputation and is good at what he does. But you, and a few others on my facebook page, have shared difficulty BETWEEN calls. This invites me to more prayer – God is going to have to completely renovate my heart if I am going to survive this. Thanks for sharing – if you ever decide to write out your experiences, I’d love a copy.

  6. Marla, I wanted to thank you for sharing your heart with us. This is vulnerable and holy ground. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I do think that in some ways, things are easier after the first call. You have been affirmed by a ministry. You have experienced using your gifts. You can look back on moments of holy ministry and think – THAT, that’s why I’m in this.

    That said, a first call doesn’t always mean the second call comes more easily. Sometimes it will. Other times not. Timing is a large piece of it. The state of the church in the U.S. isn’t great. More and more churches are calling part-time, tent maker pastors. Fewer full-time calls exist. And people continue graduating from seminary. There are more pastors than there are positions for them. Right now as you are looking, there are SO many people in your same position.

    Now as I am in year 7 of my first call, I can tell you that sometimes churches come looking for you once you’re in a call. I’ve been pursued a couple of times, it just turned out that those churches would not have a been a good match.

    But without those experiences of ministry validation to cling to, you are left wondering if you will ever get to experience ministry. Hugs and blessings to you in this time of waiting. Many wait with you!

  7. I recommend a book: A Church of Her Own: What happens when a woman takes the pulpit by Sarah Sentilles. It’s been a 16 year process for me (from start of seminary to approval for ordination; I’m still searching for a call). I’ve met with all kinds of “this extra year or twon is just to affirm your call” to “this is an administrative oversight, not your fault” to “Sorry you got caught in the process” language…At the end of the day, I know I was called by god, I’ve been doing ministry (in prisons, with unchurched people, with students, as a pulpit supply minister, etc.) for 14 years and the people who seek me out affirm my gifts and my call. In the end, it’s each person who turns to me who reminds me of my call…eventually I will be ordained. That’s just the paperwork. The call is to serve the ones who ask for my time and my training. It would be nice to get a paycheck, though! 🙂

    • Amen to this! I love your line “it’s each person who turns to me who reminds me of my call”. It’s SO true! And it’s what keeps me going, too!

  8. Marla, thank you for your vulnerability and openness. I’m so sorry for your painful death in this process – your hope and joy through seminary was a great encouragement to me! I’m very familiar with this walk of death and this past year I “put on new shoes” and am learning to “dance in the valley” – even though my circumstances haven’t changed. I am confident you will find your way, as well, dear sister.

    • Thanks Sharon. I am not surprised this resonated with you. Thanks for the encouragement – I long to be the hope-filled, joyful woman you once saw, but I guess that’ll come when I get to Resurrectionland. 🙂

      • You will – you’ll get there.. but not back to what you were before….getting “through” and “to” makes you wiser and stronger. LMK if you want to get together for lunch or coffee sometime. Would love to connect!

  9. Marla,

    I feel your pain. Even though I’m serving in a ministry capacity (praise God!) there is still a lot of frustration because I feel as though my strong gifts aren’t being used, and honestly, I don’t think I make a difference–at all. But this particular position is “acceptable” for women.

    I so hope your call is affirmed soon. But if it’s not, you KNOW you’ve been called. You are so talented, passionate, insightful, intelligent, relational–I could go on. I know you’re called. It’s such a weird place to be, isn’t it? To know you’re called, and at the same time wonder if you’re called. On my worst days, if I could go back and do seminary all over again, I wouldn’t. And those days happen far too frequently. I read a quote somewhere from a seminary prof: “Only do this if you can’t do anything else.” Lately, I think I could have done something else.

    But mostly, it’s simply painful that you’ve found what you were CREATED for, and now have no place to use it. Wow, sorry to be such a Debbie Downer. There’s no balm I can offer for your pain, Marla, but please know this: you touched my life, and over the past two years, you have been in my prayers, never far from my thoughts. And I’m not just saying that.

  10. Dear Marla, et. al.,
    thanks for opening yourself up; I’ve heard your frustration, and feel impatient with you. And over the years of trying to be one of the links for people to find places to serve, I’ve felt that those of us who have access to information about positions have a responsibility to let folks know what’s open out there (based on many of my experiences of “it’s not what you know but who you know” when it comes to job openings).

    i’ve also had little thoughts over the years about how our reformed understanding of call (and the confirmation of receiving a call as a sign that you’re in the right spot) is a bit at odds with economics, and our official rules about the call process. Maybe there is a way to think about these (call, and the economics of paying someone to minister in a position/employment) that helps us have a more cohesive theology of call, but when my friends and acquaintances struggle with finding a place…as a gainful-employment-place, I think our system is a bit unfair and somehow, not an adequate way of viewing call and ordination.

    Cindi

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