Saturday, July 26, 2014

How did I become a pastor? Do you really want to know?

When people ask me how I became a pastor, it’s a lot like when someone asks, “How are you?” and I reply, “Fine”, even though I may feel like crap. It’s easier to give a simple answer that has nothing to do with the truth. And I suspect that most people appreciate that. For the truth is, my call story has been unfolding for over 40 years. It’s complicated and I’m not sure of how it will end. It amazes me that I still find myself standing behind an altar lifting a loaf of bread and a cup of wine before a congregation of the faithful every Sunday morning. I never thought I’d last this long. And yet, in a very real way, I’m just getting started.  

Although I was ordained when I was 26, I didn’t become a pastor until I was almost 53 years old. What took so long? Was it the diabolical oppression of organized religion? Sexism within a denomination that was experimenting with the first wave of women clergy graduating from seminary? Had some other external forces held me back? Nope. It was none of that. It was me.

For a long time, whenever I looked in the mirror and saw myself in a clerical collar, I wondered, who does this woman think she is, impersonating a pastor?  I could never resolve the conflict between the person I was on the inside and the role I filled for my parishioners on the outside. Every time I stepped into the pulpit and pretended to know what I was talking about, I was convinced I wasn’t fooling anyone. Surely these people could see I was a sheep in shepherd’s clothing. But they didn’t seem to notice. They treated me as if I were the real deal. Occasionally, I believed it myself, but those moments were few and fleeting. Most of the time, I felt like a fraud and I didn’t know how much longer I could continue the masquerade.

Nearly every day for 25 years I thought about making a break for it and running from this absurd life I had chosen. But that was a big part of the problem. I never really felt like ordained ministry had been my choice.

I went through a crazy, mystical experience as a young adult and was convinced that God was calling me to become a pastor. It was as real to me as anything has ever been. I never doubted it. But I fought it like a tomcat getting a bubble bath. Mainly because it made no sense. I wasn’t raised in a church family and entered seminary absolutely clueless. I hardly knew the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I had no idea that, up until a few years before I began seminary, women weren’t permitted to be ordained in my denomination. I was so far out of the loop that I didn’t know the loop existed. And yet, I felt like I would end up Looney-tunes if I didn’t go to seminary. No matter where I went, no matter what I did, the hound of heaven wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. So, I had no choice. I unfurled a white flag over my fortress, called a truce with God, and enrolled in a Lutheran seminary. 

I was a Lutheran because I had palled around with my two best friends in junior high and they both went to confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church. So, for a few awkward years, I attended a Lutheran church. It wasn’t a conscious decision for me any more than the time my older brother Kenny was taking my picture on the dock at our summer cottage on the lake and he kept telling me to back up! back up! back up! until I found myself under water, gasping for breath. Becoming a Lutheran was like that for me; I just fell into it. Some people would probably say it was God’s providence leading me. But, at the time, the whole providence of God idea seemed preposterous to me.

During those times when I struggled with my call so much that the process became painful, the idea of relinquishing my struggle to a higher power was appealing. If I couldn’t find a solution to the spiritual conundrum that kept me awake nights, I could let God do it for me! Then I’d find myself groping around in the dark, trying to figure out where God had hidden the light switch, praying that just this once God would give me a break and make it easy for me. But it never worked out that way.

I’ve heard people tell me that they've never married because “the right person hasn’t come along yet.” Perhaps the reason I didn’t do very well with marriage myself was because the person I married wasn’t the right person for me. But I suspect that a bigger part of the problem was that I wasn’t the right person to be married.  As a result, I never really felt like I was a wife. There was a marriage certificate, I wore a ring on my finger, and my name had changed, but I just didn’t feel it. When I had children, I always felt like a mother, but even having children with a man I called my husband, after 20 years together, I didn’t feel like a wife.

I wonder now if my problem with feeling like a pastor might have been similar to my problem with feeling like a wife. Why had I never felt like a pastor, even though I had been filling that role for so many years? Maybe the right congregation hadn’t come along yet. Or, maybe I hadn’t been the right person to be a pastor. All of that changed for me ten years ago, when I came to serve as pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte.

I had become battle-weary through the years. After my marriage ended and some bad decisions in the aftermath, I moved from my native Ohio to North Carolina for a fresh start at Advent Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation in the University City area of Charlotte. I worked beside one of the true saints God has sent into my life, Pastor Dick Little. He gave me the space I needed to tend to my wounds from the past and heal. But, as the years went by and I was feeling stronger, it felt like too much damage had been done and I didn’t have it in me to continue as a pastor. Any energy that I ever had for pastoral ministry had been spent long ago and I was certain it was never going to return. So, I went to school to get a Master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language. I planned to teach adults to speak English and finally do what I had been considering for decades – leave parish ministry. I announced my decision to the congregation and I was on my way out. It was over and I was relieved.

I can’t remember all the details of how I ended up interviewing at Holy Trinity; it’s all a blur to me. I was walking away from parish ministry. Both feet were out the door and I was just about to slam it behind me. The thought of serving another congregation had all the appeal to me of a colonoscopy.  But this wasn’t another congregation. This was Holy Trinity. When I was asked if I wanted to interview there, something inside me clicked and I could hardly breathe.  It was another one of those mysterious encounters with the Holy like the one I had back when I was a clueless kid in college and felt the call to go to seminary. I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to be the next pastor at Holy Trinity, even before the search committee had received my name as a candidate. The tedious interview process seemed to go on forever. I was ready to begin, and they were plodding along, almost afraid to make a decision. Of course, I understood why. They were afraid. They had been in healing mode much as I had been.

The time while the search committee was meticulously going through the interview process and I was chomping at the bit to get started was a liminal space for me, a between time when I was neither here nor there.  The furniture was pushed back, the rug rolled up, and I had nowhere I needed to be. So God and I could dance.

For as long as I could remember, my life had been lived on a battlefield. It was Nancy versus God and I never knew who was going to win in the end.  With all the conflicted thoughts that were bouncing around in my head, I decided to take an individual retreat to sort through it all. While I was there, the spiritual director said something to me that changed my life. After learning of my lifelong battle with God, she said, "Nancy, why does everything have to be so hard? Is God’s way always the hard way?” And then she suggested that maybe God isn’t the enemy. Maybe God doesn’t want to make my life miserable.

It all sounded so ridiculous when I heard her name it like that. But, this is the way I had been dealing with my call to ordained ministry. Of course, I knew God wasn’t the enemy. God loved me. Yes, I knew that. And then she said something that blew my mind. “Maybe the God who loves you simply wants you to love him back.” I was dumbfounded.  

Although so many saints of the Christian faith teach that that the key to following God's will for your life is surrendering your own will to God's, it certainly hadn’t worked that way for me. When I surrendered to God, I felt defeated. I resented it. I continued to want the same things for myself that I’d always wanted, but I felt forced to deny them. How could I ever love someone to whom I had surrendered myself like that?

Was it possible that I had been wrong all these years? Was it possible that God didn’t want me to surrender? It was such a foreign concept to me that I could hardly wrap my head around it.  God loves me. And God wants me to love him. When you love someone, you want what they want. That’s how love works. Your will becomes the same.

This truth has changed my life. It’s why I can say that although I’ve been ordained for 35 years, I've only really been a pastor for the past 10 years. It took so long for the resentment in my heart to be replaced with joy. I needed to know that I could walk away before I could choose to stay. And I stayed. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I finally understood what it meant to love God enough to want what he wants for me. 

In a lifetime of deaths and resurrections, some large, some small, this was a huge death and resurrection for me. And it has brought me a surprising new life. After all those years of impersonating a pastor, limping along in shoes that rubbed and pinched in all the wrong places, now I’m wearing shoes that fit so well I can hardly tell I’m wearing them at all.  And I’m enjoying the dance. 

So, is that the story of how I became a pastor? Not exactly. It's the story of how I'm continuing to become a pastor.