Monday, November 20, 2006

On Hold (A Very Long Story in Five Parts)

1. In Which We Provide Some Background and History

I began attending church on March 21, 1999. I was baptized on June 11, 2000. A few weeks after my baptism, I was flipping through the Book of Common Prayer and stumbled on the ordination liturgy for deacons, which reads in part:
God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. [. . . ] At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself (543).
I found this profoundly moving. I began to wonder if I might have a calling as a deacon. Since I'd only been in the church for five minutes, I didn't do anything about it, but I prayed aboout it a lot. Like, every day for a year. It didn't go away.

Deacons are an ancient order in the church, but as far as I know, only the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches ordain them. Many other churches have lay deacons. During Sunday worship, deacons read the Gospel, lead the prayers of the people, set the table for Communion, and dismiss the congregation at the end of the service, sending the people out into the world to do God's work. Most of the deacon's work, though, is outside the church; deacons serve as a bridge between the church and the world. One of their jobs is to "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world," especially of underserved or stigmatized populations, and to motivate others in the church to do something about those needs. Deacons typically show up in places like hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters. They're the social-justice arm of the church. Deacons don't perform sacramental functions like baptism, Eucharist, or marriage; those are reserved for priests.

Priests have to spend six months as "transitional deacons" before being ordained to the priesthood. Combined with the fact that many parishes don't have deacons, this has led to a common misperception that deacons are mini-priests, pre-priests, wannabe-priests, or subordinate to priests. None of this is true. The diaconate is a "full and equal order" in the church, and deacons answer directly to the bishop. For more background on the diaconate and diaconal ministry, browse the School for Deacons website, especially their online discernment kit. If you don't feel like reading that much, here's my four-word description of the difference between deacons and priests: "Priests bless. Deacons nag."

2. In Which We Are Called to the Diaconate

I belong to a Total Ministry parish. Total Ministry emphasizes baptism as the foundation of ministry and honors the ministries of all the baptized. TM developed in dioceses with small, rural parishes that couldn't afford to pay clergy; one of its cornerstones has been the identification, from within the congregation, of parishioners with specific gifts. TM parishes "raise up" their own clergy, lay leaders who are then trained locally instead of going to seminary. Until very recently, the national church recognized two types of clergy: seminary trained clergy, who could be called to any parish and were paid for their work, and "Canon 9" or TM clergy, who were trained and ordained for service only in their home parishes, and who couldn't be paid. Of the five clergy in my parish -- three priests and two deacons -- only two are seminary-trained. The others were identified by a congregational calling process and took diocesan classes (nine classes in Scripture, church history, ethics, and preaching, plus a "craft class" in issues specific to the diaconate or the priesthood) to get the training they needed. They aren't paid for their service to the church; all of them either have full-time jobs elsewhere or are retired.

In the spring of 2003, my parish had a calling process to identify new clergy. Parishioners were asked to consider prayerfully who might have the gifts required for the diaconate or the priesthood, and to put those names in a box that would be opened by the Bishop.

On July 3, 2003, I got a phone call from the Bishop saying that my parish had called me to the diaconate. Needless to say, I was elated.

3. In Which All Hell Breaks Loose

I didn't think the ordination process would be very difficult; I'd already taken most of the courses I needed, since I was in the process of getting my lay-preaching license, and I had a lot of support from people in my congregation, including my parish clergy.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Things started going haywire almost immediately. My interview to be admitted to postulancy -- the first step in a process leading to candidacy and then to actual ordination -- was a fiasco. I'd spent weeks writing answers to essay questions about my spiritual biography and gifts. I offered to mail copies of this material to the members of the Commission on Ministry (the hard-working and beleaguered diocesan committee that oversees ordination and licensing) and was assured that this wasn't necessary, that the Bishop's office would do it instead. But when I arrived for the interview, no one on the COM had read my fifteen pages of material, because they'd only gotten it that morning. I passed the interview anyway, but I was annoyed.

Not a big deal: don't sweat the small stuff. I'd been admitted to postulancy, which was what mattered. But within weeks of that annoying interview, two things happened: 1. A parishioner came to me with information about clergy sexual misconduct in our parish (this did not, thank God, involve a minor), and 2. My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Let me say up front that both of these situations ultimately ended well. The offending clergyperson is now gone, and my mother is healthy and cancer-free. But getting there took months, and I can't adequately express the toll those months took on me. The parish situation was enormously complicated, even more so than these things usually are. It wasn't hard for me to decide to help the parishioner who had come to me report the situation -- because of my position in the church, I considered myself a mandated reporter -- but the misconduct investigation dragged on far longer than anyone expected it to (or than published church documents about misconduct proceedings appeared to promise that it would), and in the meantime, those of us who'd reported got very little information or support. Other people closer to the situation suffered far more than I did. But through most of this, I was also afraid that my mother was dying.

The upshot of that particular mess was that my trust in church-as-bureacracy was seriously damaged. After it was all over, I tried to talk to various officials about what I thought could have been handled better. We all know what prophets don't get in their own countries. My efforts seem to have had no effect, although I hope I'm wrong about that.

In the meantime, I started my 400 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), crashed and burned within a month because I was still too stressed out from the other stuff, and retreated into volunteering instead. (CPE is often an ordination requirement, and I was strongly urged to complete it, but I just couldn't. Now you know why I'm so emotional about the volunteer chaplaincy debate.) I went through one COM interview for candidacy and flunked because I was so stressed out from CPE, not to mention the previous events. I passed the second interview, but my trust in church bureaucracy deteriorated further. Somewhere in there, I lost a cherished friendship with a church mentor (not in my parish), over very painful personal issues. Those issues were seemingly unrelated to any of the rest of this, but that situation created yet more trust issues for me. At one point I told my spiritual director, a Roman Catholic nun -- and someone I had, thank God, been able to talk to about everything -- that the overwhelming message of my ordination process seemed to be, "Trust no one but God."

In the meantime, the national church had abolished canonical distinctions between Total-Ministry clergy and seminary-trained clergy. Locally trained clergy can now, like those who've been to seminary, be called to any parish and be paid for what they do. In theory, this did away with a two-tier system in which many clergy with seminary degrees looked down on their locally trained colleagues. (Needless to say, those attitudes have remained impervious to legislation.) In practice, it threw our hard-working, beleaguered COM into a panic. They were now ordaining clergy for the whole church; didn't that mean they needed more stringent requirements? The old nine-courses-plus-a-craft-practicum system went smash. Among other things, the COM decided that all local candidates for ordination would have to take the General Ordination Exam, a four-day, 9-to-5-with-an-hour-for-lunch written test on every conceivable aspect of church history, tradition, and practice. The GOE is the church version of the bar exam or medical boards. Most of the people who take it have had three years of seminary. Local candidates were assured that the test would be purely diagnostic, that instead of deciding whether or not someone could be ordained, it would be used to determine what kind of continuing education that person needed to pursue after ordination. (I told friends, "Oh, terrific. I'll be in remedial church-history classes for the rest of my life.")

To add some comic relief to all this, I'd also discovered that I'm a bumbling idiot when it comes to liturgy. I'd tried acolyting to learn some of the table-setting tasks usually performed by deacons at the altar. I hated it. I was really bad at it. I could never remember what went where or what all the stupid little napkins were called; I did things in the wrong order; I made things more difficult for the clergy and other acolytes. This sounds minor, and really, it is, but it was starting to make me dread going to church, so I finally told everybody that I just wasn't going to acolyte anymore, thank you very much. I told the Bishop that acolyting made me feel like Inspector Clouseau trying to impersonate Martha Stewart. She very kindly reassured me that a deacon's role is to proclaim the Gospel and send the congregation out into the world to live it, and that any other functions "are gravy -- or white sauce."

4. In Which We Are Impaled on the Horns of a Dilemma

Throughout this three-year nightmare, I knew intellectually that church-as-bureaucracy is composed of imperfect humans, and functions no better or worse than any other bureaucracy. I'd never expected either perfection or sainthood from the system. But my own experiences with the insitutional church -- and the many other experiences I heard about from other people, including strangers who wandered up to me at diocesan convention and shared their horror stories of being in process -- started to make me wonder if I really wanted to be ordained. It didn't help that I'd watched ordained friends being badly treated by the bureaucracy, too.

Ordination requires, among other things, taking a vow "to obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you." This is, in effect, a vow to obey an imperfect human bureaucracy, and it's a blank check: a vow to obey anyone who may wind up in a position of authority in the future. It made me very nervous. I began to realize that if I wanted to take that kind of vow, I'd be in the Army. My spiritual director (who's had to take her own vows, of course) advised me rather vehemently that the church couldn't ask me to vow obedience to anyone but God. I talked to clergy who said, "Oh, the obedience clause is never invoked," but then I read about situations where it had been invoked. I talked to clergy who said, "Oh, people don't really mean that; we keep our fingers crossed behind our backs when we say it." But part of my problem with church-as-bureaucracy was that I'd heard the institution say a number of things it then decided it didn't mean; that was what had created my trust crisis in the first place.

Call me naive or idealistic, but I didn't want to take a vow I didn't believe. I didn't want to begin my ordained ministry with a piece of calculated cynicism.

I started thinking very seriously about not being ordained. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I wouldn't have to add yet more tasks to an already-overcrowded schedule; I wouldn't have to take the blasted GOE (yes, I could do it, but if I wanted to, I'd have gone to seminary); I wouldn't have to learn what all the stupid little napkins are called and the proper order in which to snuff candles; I wouldn't have to take a very problematic vow of obedience. But I could still keep living a diaconal life, doing the things that had made my congregation call me to ordination in the first place. I could still preach (I have a lay license), still bring services to nursing homes (I have a lay-eucharistic-visitor license), still do my beloved hospital work. (I wouldn't have started volunteering at the hospital if I hadn't been in process, and I'm forever grateful to have discovered work that means so much to me.) The only thing that not being ordained would prevent me from doing is reading the Gospel to the congregation on Sunday morning, and was that worth all the agony? Some ordained deacons assured me that ordination opens doors, but others warned me that it closes just as many, that in many cases, the collar interferes with diaconal ministry. Collars scare people.

So I talked to friends and a few trusted advisors, weighing the points for and against ordination. It was hard to keep emotional turmoil out of these conversations. Because I've been so vague here, the fact that this three-year string of events reduced me to a crispy critter may seem puzzling. The people I talked to more openly weren't puzzled at all.

One parish friend, when I told her that I was 95% convinced that I shouldn't be ordained, listened to my history and reasons, and then shook her head and said, "Why is it only 95%? Good grief, Susan, why would you want to be ordained at this point?"

Another parish friend, when I burst into tears one Sunday morning, took me aside and said gently, "You're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You know that, don't you?"

A priest in another part of the diocese, when I gave her a brief (but more specific than I've been here) rundown of my problems with the church, blanched and said, "I'm amazed you're still standing in the church."

The whole mess affected my health. Before my postulancy interview, I was required to go through a thorough psychological examination. I passed it with flying colors, despite my depression history; the psychologist wrote a glowing report and said specifically that I showed no evidence of depression.

When the events I've outlined here drove me back into therapy and back onto meds, I was diagnosed with "major depression." You don't have to be Freud to figure out that there's a cause-and-effect relationship.

For about a year now, it's seemed like an obvious decision. I shouldn't be ordained. Gary agrees; my therapist agrees; my friends and family agree; even people who say "But you'd be such a great deacon!" come around to agreeing after they hear the whole history. My parish clergy have been scrupulously careful to avoid anything that might seem to be telling me what to do, and have assured me that they'll support me whatever decision I make -- but they clearly understand my misgivings.

So it's easy, right? This one's a no-brainer.

Except that I can't seem to bring myself to withdraw from ordination. I've told any number of people that I'm withdrawing, and I've outlined my withdrawal letter. I just can't seem to write it. Part of this is because I actually feel more called to diaconal ministry than ever. My faith in God hasn't been shaken by any of this, and my sense of calling has only intensified. I'm simply very, very wary of trying to live out that calling within this particular imperfect human bureaucracy.

One factor is undoubtedly pride: if I withdraw, some people will see me as a failure, someone who just couldn't hack it, no matter what I say to the contrary. Another factor is simply that I've been following this path for so long -- six years, in one way or another -- that leaving it is very hard.

Intellectually, I'm 150% convinced that I should withdraw from ordination. Emotionally, I can't let go. I'm a Myer-Briggs J: I like having things settled. My paralysis is making me nuts.

5. In Which We Cry a Lot

One sign that I can't let go is that thinking about this keeps making me cry. Typing out the passages from the Prayer Book at the beginning of this post made me cry. Attending the ordinations of friends makes me cry. Seeing our deacons in liturgical regalia makes me cry.

Two weeks ago, I decided that I just had to bite the bullet and write the @*&@)# letter. After church, I marched up to the head of our vestry -- who's also very conveniently on the COM -- and said, "I want to withdraw from ordination. Can you tell me how to do that? I write a letter to the COM, right?"

As I've said, our clergy have scrupulously avoided telling me what to do. But our senior warden looked at me and said point blank, "Susan, don't withdraw. Just -- be on hold. There are people who've been in process as long as any of us have been alive. Everyone on the COM knows that you're doing diaconal work. No one's going to hassle you about this."

My eyes welled up, but I managed not to cry.

Later that day, I did my monthly service at an assisted-living facility. After the service, a new person wandered into the room, and one of the regulars introduced her to me. "This is Susan, our deacon."

"I'm not a deacon," I told her. (I'm diaconal, deaconish, deacon-like.) "I'm a layperson."

She patted my arm. "I've just elevated you to deacon."

My eyes welled up; again, I managed not to cry. I went home and wrote e-mail to two of our parish clergy, describing these two conversations. I didn't know how to interpret the second one. Was it a sign that I should continue with ordination, or was it -- which really makes more sense -- a sign that I'm indeed already functioning as a deacon even without the blasted dog collar? In the e-mail, I included the riff about being a J and wanting to have things settled.

The next morning, one of our priests wrote back. "You are settled. You are Susan, who is multi-gifted, multi-talented, a multi-blessing. You are in transition, as every human being is."

This time, I cried.

I haven't posted about the ordination mess on the blog before -- although some of you already know about it -- because I wanted to wait until I'd made a final decision before saying anything. But it doesn't look like I'll be deciding anything final anytime soon, and it's too big a part of my life to keep censoring entirely.

So there you have it. I'm on hold. I know what I think I should do, but I can't make myself do it, and I don't know if that reluctance is self-centered or God-centered.

All prayers will be appreciated.


  1. Wow! Prayers for discernment ascending, Susan!

    After all you've been through I would think that God is telling you to back off, but...if the urge to serve is stronger after all of that, perhaps he is preparing you for some specific ministry. I really believe that we are hardened by the trials and tribulations. Somehow I think you are in the right state now that you are on hold. God wouldn't want you to go into a ministry with starry eyes if you ended up worse as a result.

    With your heavy schedule I'm loath to suggest this but, if at any time in the near future you can find even a one day retreat to distance yourself and pray about all of this I hope you will.

    Peace, Hope, and Joy!

  2. God I love. God's people I love (at least I try to) God's creation I love. The Church . . .

    I have problems with any institution, especially one that appears to be very much more in love with Paul than it is with Jesus.

    The Church, as I see it, is a useful conduit, a signpost in our search for God. In the end, though, our Christian relationship with God in intensely individual, and the institution is essentially irrelevant (not to say that it isn't important and highly useful in other ways) Our God speaks directly to us, without using intermediaries who are authorised by other intermediaries. Sometimes that voice scares us, when it is the voice from the burning bush. Sometimes it scares them, when it is that still small voice of calm.

    God has created each and every one of us, and loves us for what we are (and knows us for what we are and still loves us) God created YOU. God loves you. God wants what you can do to shine that light in this place that is so often dark.

  3. Good lord, if I may use the expression, the toll this stress has taken on you is certainly understandable to me. Besides the undeniable huge stress of so many trials and unresolvabale uncertainties at the center of this crucial thing in your life, I suffer as you do from a psychological inability to hold possibilites in suspense. Trivially but symptomatically, I can't even read mystery novels, because I am constantly stopping and trying to assimilate every new piece of information so I can figure out what is true. Eventually the stress of unresolved possibilities kills my pleasure in reading the book. When I explained this to Teresa she said "You have no negative capability!" I had to look it up.

  4. Prooferdeacon5:25 PM

    What a coincidence! I started to edit a discussion guide on The Necessary Begger today and noticed the author of the guide had included your blog url, so I went there. I'm a deacon in North Carolina and I know exactly what you're going through. Many prayers are ascending. And if you aren't already in the habit of it, please take lee's advice and go on retreat -- preferably a "directed" one.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everybody.

    Prooferdeacon: There's a discussion guide for TNB? For whom? By whom? Nobody's told me about this! More info, please?

    As for the retreat idea: I'll quite literally have no time for a retreat until next summer. Because of committee work at school, I barely even get a winter break this year, and we'll be spending spring break in Maui. That's a retreat of sorts, but not a directed one!

  6. P.S. Oh, and: Prooferdeacon, so how did you handle the vow of obedience?

  7. Prayers and sympathy. I'm in kind of a similar spot. I understand how it can take a toll on your health.

    PS. I have learned that Methodists have an ordained diaconate too.

  8. Susan, Susan, Susan. Can it all be a lesson in learning to cope with imperfection and uncertainty?

    At one time I would have suggested looking for a different church, and maybe that WOULD help, I don't know. I can't seem to find the congregation that feels like just the right fit for me, much less for the wide-ranging needs of my little family. Your problem seems similar, but more intense by several orders of magnitude.

    I can't help but be reminded of the Talmudic injunction, "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." (Hope I haven't quoted that here before. I suspect if I really knew how much I repeat myself I'd be horrified.) I take this to mean, do the best you can. The very best. Try to do a little more each day, each week. Try each season to find some good to do that you've never done before. But respect your own limitations. God doesn't expect us to do it all. God's work isn't going to get done this year, next year, when you become ordained (if you become ordained) or in our lifetimes (Messianic intervention aside).

    I wish I could tell you whether God wants you to be ordained, since you obviously want to know so badly. But I hope looking at it that way will help you feel a little better about not knowing.

  9. Prooferdeacon6:18 AM

    I work for NoveList, which produces an online fiction database that includes discussion guides and various articles about fiction. People who are good at it write discussion guides for inclusion in the database, and I'm the coordinator and editor for those materials (and many others). I just got the initial submission of the guide for Necessary Beggar yesterday, so it's nowhere near ready to post. NoveList is a library subscription service, and I don't know if the Reno public (or University) libraries subscribe. More on that if you want -- just ask.

    As for vow of obedience, I take that very seriously, but also view that I have responsibility for decisions and actions I take. Although I would not simply act as though I were free from any promises, I also think that in some areas there may be an equivalent to conscientious objection or civil disobedience. I also think our baptismal promises and our vows of marriage (for those who are) are just as serious and weighty -- perhaps more so.

    Susan, assuming St. Stephen's is actually your church, I took the liberty of sending my e-mail address to St. Stephen's info address. Some of these questions are much too complicated to deal with by blog postings, and I would be happy to correspond with you off-blog if you wish. Please check with the person who gets the info e-mail.

    As for retreat -- you'll have to carve out the time in advance. I do! And when I get too hungry for spiritual rest and replenishment, I grab some time at one-day events. But you have all the time there is, so plan ahead.

    BTW, I was ordained 14 years after I first started pursuing the call to ordination, but that's another VERY LONG story.

  10. Prooferdeacon -- Thanks for the new comments! Fourteen years: wow, that gives me hope! As for corresponding offblog, sure: my e-mail address is SusanPal (at) aol (dot) com. St. Stephen's tends to be a tiny bit chaotic, so it might be a while before they give me your info!

    Claire -- Nope, not switching churches. I love my parish and I love Episcopal liturgy (even if I suck at doing it myself). But I owe you e-mail on other matters, so I'll continue these comments privately!

  11. Thank you for posting your experience; I'm just beginning and the path you've described helps me realistically assess some of the issues involved. I'm sharing you with my discern-ers.

  12. Prayers as asked. The church needs people with your calling, however it is expressed.

  13. Laurel8:17 PM

    This is fascinating reading to anyone interested in internal church affairs, if you don't mind my saying that about your own story, which is obviously painful to write. Another thing that seems obvious to me is that your church, both locally and nationally, is blessed to have you, in whatever role you choose.

    God our everlasting Guide
    faithful is, whate'er betide.
    Gladly may you journey on
    With God's arm to lean upon.

  14. Thomas, Sarah, and Laurel: Thank you! (And to Mark, too, whom I forgot to thank earlier!)

    Thomas and Mark: good luck with your own processes. And Sarah and Laurel, I appreciate the kind words. And Laurel, if one's going to have painful experiences, may they at least make fascinating reading for somebody at some point! As a writer friend of mine says whenever bad things happen to her, "It's all material."

  15. Hi Susan,

    I've been reading your words for just a few weeks, but I really appreciate them.

    I have a very conflicted history with my own faith (Methodist) which includes some of their official decisions as a body and also the fact that after my mother divorced my abusive father she got little and I got no support from our lifelong church.

    Since then I've tried to talk to a few clergypersons about my distress, doubt, and confusion about the institutional church and was (as I felt it) pushed aside. I really wanted to talk about it with someone in the church, someone "in charge" -- I wanted so much to find healing through church.

    Instead, I'm not currently attending. But I had been considering seminary -- I still feel called to return to a church community someday -- but I've ended up in nursing school instead!

    I guess I'm sharing this rambly bit of personal history with you to let you know that I'm so proud of you for sticking in there and doing what I feel I can't do right now -- dealing with all the messy contradictions of attempting to build a perfect institution in an imperfect world, with very imperfect people. God bless and keep you. I'll be thinking of you and hoping we both eventually find some resolution!

  16. Kathryn,

    Thank you so much for your comment, and for the kind thoughts. It really does help to know that other people are going through this, doesn't it?

    When I wrote this post, I was afraid it would sound whiny; I'm really gratified by all the supportive comments I've gotten!

  17. Hi Susan,

    I am currently an aspirant in the Diocese of New York and have been experiencing similar things as you did those years ago. Thank you for sharing your story! It is nice to know that one is not alone in their frustrations ... I hope all is well with you and you are having a great summer.

    All best,

    the Reverend boy


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