Last week I got an email from an East Coast synod staff person that made me smile as I read it. “You have been identified through our ELCA database as a possible candidate for **** Church…” It has been just about three years exactly since this same staff person first contacted me with an opportunity to serve a congregation and put my name in their call process. The candidate profile I’d developed at the time had a link to this blog. A few weeks later, she emailed to tell me the call committee decided to pass on me, in large part because they read my blog and decided I was too liberal for them. She wrote that she too read the blog and also had some serious reservations about my fitness for ministry based on a couple of guest posts made by Wylie4Stroke. It was Wylie’s description of hanging out with me at a bar in Denver that caused her the most problems. But the liberal bent of the blog also caused concern.
I blew the piety test AND the political test.
What she failed to consider, however, was the way in which I was being quite honest and open about those occasions when I’d swap the clerical garb for jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to go have a few beers with some regular, blue-collar working folks—and how I’d willingly share my vocation and my Christian faith with those folks if the subject ever came up.
That’s how Wylie came to be a blog contributor. He is a character who would NEVER set foot in a church, but is someone who is smart and curious in his own rough and homespun way. I grew up with guys like Wylie, went through high school with them, worked on cars with them, and yes—shudder—even tapped a keg with them. Guys like Wylie didn’t so much lose the faith of their childhood as much as they got bored with or stopped believing in the church as a viable group worth joining.
The larger church needs to learn that it’s OK to step outside the insular, pietistic bubble from time to time, and that it’s also OK to be honest about having a few beers in a bar. In fact, it’s being dishonest about these things that can get a clergy person in trouble. I strongly suspect you can find a very tragic Exhibit A right here. People like Wylie are suspicious of piety, and in my experience so much of it has become the equivalent of the shields deployed by Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s something to get you through the minefields and meteor storms of life. So what happens to a group of pious church folks–dare I say clergy– who go away on a church-sponsored spiritual retreat or conference, where they can count on being safe in a closed group outside the fishbowl? The cigars, beer and booze come out, as does this sort of cute, rebellious attitude. Someone gets a deck of cards, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group of folks acting like they’re at that bar in Denver, drinking, smoking and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning. Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising number.
Me, I always try to make the most of the spiritual opportunities presented by a spiritual retreat, especially if that retreat is at a monastery. There’s ample time and opportunity to practice a key spiritual discipline—perhaps the most vital one—by entering meaningful, restorative SILENCE. I was tempted to say “simply entering,” but as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing simple about being silent, inside and out. Try it for just 5 ninutes. Shut off all the noise around you. Then, shut off all the noise within you. No inside chatter. No music in your head. Turn it all off. It’s not so simple, is it?
Anyway, back to the situation of the email that began this whole post. I read it over, thought for a moment, then sent the East Coast staff person a reply stating that my wife and I are on the opposite coast now and don’t see ourselves making such a dramatic relocation.
Over the past year I’ve interviewed with several churches and have taken trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Texas to meet with search committees. But each time they have chosen to go another way with someone else, and as I contemplate these events, I have to say that they probably made the right choices. It’s not that I’m not qualified or not good at the pastoral vocation. In fact, I hold the opposite to be true, that after some 10+ years of church ministry, I’m seasoned in a way that opens the door to what I think would be the best years of my ministry. And in the first 10+ years, I was pretty good.
But there has to be a good fit between congregation and pastor, otherwise there is simply too much time and effort expended in one trying to change the other and too much emotion spent resenting the relationship. Life is far too short for such things. I went into each situation with a desire to receive a call at each place. At each place I found myself excited at the prospect of being pastor at such a church. But in retrospect, I was also coming from what I perceived to be a desperate place, a place I was eager to escape, and I saw these places as great potential escape routes. They were—and are—good, strong congregations on the whole, and I also found I was hungry to have a chance to lead one of them. While each proved to be a disappointment, I look back and see that in fact there was some wisdom in their decisions to look elsewhere. At each place there were red flags I chose not to see, some big and some small, which foretold some difficulties in the relationship had they called me.
In thinking back to the Wisconsin visit, I remember my host being as hospitable as possible, and doing everything she could do to make my visit comfortable. Yet on our way to the church for the official interview with the call committee I saw a Scott Walker yard sign in the car’s back seat. In the interview she became a suspicious and relentless interrogator, wanting me to explain my involvement in The Colorado Confession. That was an out-of-the-blue line of questioning, since that document was developed back in ’05 and ’06, and I just attended a couple of information meetings and then signed on to it. I’d forgotten much of the language of the document, but I wouldn’t back away from its significance or my approval of it. I think that was the main sticking point for them, though one of the members of the call committee later thanked me for sharing my thoughts on the relationship of the church to our polarized culture.
In Oklahoma, a telling moment came in an end-of-evening conversation with the call committee chair. He told me he liked what I’d done in arranging a special Muslim-Christian dialogue at my previous church and then told me a story that sounded all too familiar. One of the church matriarchs was talking politics with him before the ’08 election and warned that if Obama was elected it wouldn’t be long before women would be forced to wear veils and that he would try to place the whole country under Sharia law. While I was touring the area I got to see all the tornado-sensing equipment arrayed for advanced warning, and also saw a few buildings, trees and fences knocked down by a twister that had touched down a week before I got there. Despite the exciting opportunities to combine parish ministry with campus ministry, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a good fit due to the ultra-conservative climate of the culture and the ultra-dangerous climate of the area.
The Texas church offered the most initial excitement. It wasn’t too far from Austin, a place I still think of as home. I’d have been an associate with a guy I had gotten to know and respect while I was in seminary. They had an active, multi-generational membership and had added a huge gym and rec center on to one end of the church, while maintaining the historic church cemetery at the other end. Quite literally it had become a cradle-to-grave church and they seemed to be doing a good job of opening their facilities to the surrounding community. While I was there visiting with the youth director, a community league basketball game was in progress in the gym behind us. But that conversation stuck with me. The youth director talked about the difficulty in getting financial support for some creative youth-0riented projects and then noted that it didn’t take any time at all to raise about 65K to add sidewalks and landscaping for the cemetery. Not a good sign. Nevertheless, I was stoked to have an opportunity to come in and do ministry in a place where there was such a broad cross-section of young and old, and where they had expanded their worship services to include a contemporary, albeit praise band, worship. We enjoyed that service, held in the gym, and then went upstairs to experience the traditional liturgy with full choir. A couple of things stuck out, though I didn’t pay much mind to them at the time. The first was the rinky-dink and difficult-to-manage elevator they had installed for disabled people. It was set up more like a miniature freight elevator and one had to make sure everything was buttoned up just right before the elevator would work. Then you had to turn a key, press a button and hopefully head up or down. I say hopefully, because getting everything closed and ready was a chore in itself. A disabled person would have a very tough time using the elevator by themselves, and it was barely big enough to hold a couple of people if there was a wheelchair involved. I noticed that the traditional service had its fair share of people using wheelchairs and walkers. On the one hand, I thought this was a good thing, since my wife often needs a wheelchair to get around. On the other hand, if this is all they could come up with to make the church accessible to disabled folks, it showed that they didn’t care all that much about them.
The handicapped parking in the parking lot was also minimal and not clearly defined. Someone told me that members needing close-in parking just knew to take one of the parking spots marked “Reserved.” But what about visitors? And as big as the place was, I figure that not everyone there actually knows about the ability to take a “Reserved” space.
I think I’m sharing the most about this church because this one is the one that excited me the most and gave me the most hope that I’d get called to a place that could make the best use of my skill sets. But it goes even further than that. These “call processes” as we Lutherans term them, are much like dating processes. It’s more than resumes and interviews; it’s meeting people, seeing how you like one another, envisioning how it might be if you became the pastor at a church where you’d visit people, be with them in many of the joys and sorrows that mark our lives, and guide them as best you could into the future. In a way, I found myself falling in love with this place. It was conservative, but also had that very forward-looking, can-do attitude that reflects all the best you can find in my home state. I could see some challenges, but I could also see myself being happy there for the next ten to twelve years and doing some of my best work in the process. I thought we hit it off well, and all my instincts told me that they liked me as well.
So I was really surprised to get back home, to Northern California, check my e-mail and find they’d already decided to pass. The language was official and offered some encouragement about it not relating to the quality of my pastoral skills, they just wanted a different style of leadership. But I was severely bummed out. Again it’s a lot like the dating process. In a weird sort of way it’s like trying to find a date to the prom, finding someone you really, really like, and having that someone shoot you down because they want to find someone they like better.
At this point, I’m not sure I can endure being part of another call process. It may not matter, since one can stay on the active clergy roster for three years before being automatically removed if there isn’t a call to a church or other recognized church organization. Here in the small mountain village of Northern California, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. But you never know. There may yet be a church out there somewhere that might have a place for liberal pastor who prefers a Hawaiian shirt to wearing some hollow sense of piety on his sleeve.