That's how I'd describe my lay ministry retreat this time around.
I always experience this to some extent during my retreats, but more so this time around.
Don't get me wrong: It was a great retreat. Our biblical studies segment was wonderful -- the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. I can't tell you how much I enjoy these lectures; I could literally sit there all day and listen to our professors, and I'm always sorry when class is over. To my delight, we also had a new segment, on spiritual practice; a pastor in our synod who's also a newly minted spiritual director (at least we have one now, that I know of) taught us about breath prayer. We had a segment on ecumenism; on how to create partnerships with other faith communities that help meet the needs of the people around us. And we had devotionals as well as a group Eucharist and farewell to a couple of graduates. It's amazing to see how people blossom in this program; how one woman who was so painfully shy when I first met her that she blushed crimson every time she was addressed in class now very confidently led one of our services and even gave an extemporaneous homily -- something I've yet to garner the courage to do. We have small-group breakouts where people can be very honest and self-disclosing; it's humbling to hear people's stories and to know that they're entrusting them to the rest of us.
But in my motel room Saturday night, the questions started again. Why am I here? What do I want to do with all this? What does this mean?
For the last couple of weeks I've been reading Nora Gallagher's Practicing Resurrection, an excellent book that one of my bloggy friends (Hi, Charlotte! Thanks again!) sent me after my mother died. In it Gallagher writes of her experience losing her brother, and of entering into the discernment process to see if she is being called into the ECUSA priesthood. The book parallels my recent personal life in so many ways that reading it gave me the shivers -- handling a loved one's ashes; coping with the mental and emotional fog that descends after a loved one dies, making one listless, thick-headed, disinterested in most things; crying jags triggered by the most innocuous things. And Gallagher's discernment experience seems so much like my own as well, in many ways.
Do I feel called to ordained ministry? At this very moment, no, I don't, despite the fact that I'm freer to pursue that now than I've ever been before in my life. When I was in college, newly exposed to doing theology in a real way, spiritually nutured in the sort of worship aesthetic that spoke to me and encountering, for the first time in my life, female clergy who inspired me -- I thought, "I'd love to be a pastor." I had a vision of myself someday tatted up, standing behind the altar with arms raised, praying the Eucharistic Prayer; or being almost rabbinical in teaching people, in being a spiritual and ethical counselor. Now, 20-some years and multitudinous experiences later, I don't have that fire in the belly; perhaps because I have a more clear-eyed understanding of what the pastorate is about -- the administrative tasks, the conflict resolution and what my pastor calls "anxiety management," the fundraising -- I mean, that sounds like my job now, and those things don't often give me a sense of service or meaning or accomplishment. I've had several people, including one of my fellow students, urge me to look into seminary, but...I just don't hear that, right now.
The ELCA has a host of diaconal and quasi-diaconal programs (many of them rather amorphous in scope and seemingly overlapping). Do I want to pursue any of those? Frankly, I am struggling (and Gallagher's book brings up this subject as well) with a fear of being "owned" by my church body. Even the thought of the standard psychological spelunking that prospective seminarians -- and potential enrollees in the second tier of my own program -- must undergo makes me nervous. I resent the idea of authority figures holding a claim on my personal life, and all the complications that that suggests. And I don't want, frankly, to be sucked into the belly of the beast -- into that "company woman" mentality that revolves around the institutional church. I just don't want to go there.
Or do I just finish my three-year program, say, "Well...that was interesting," and do nothing with it other than what I'm doing already in my parish? Is that enough? Is that why God sent me on this path -- just to circle back again?
There's a passage in Practicing Resurrection -- I wish I could find it now but I can't -- that talks about finding God in the margins. This resonates with me -- not only finding God in the margins but finding people who need God in the margins. Maybe that's where I'm called to be -- working somewhere just out of view, backtracking to keep people confused, like the fox in Wendell Berry's poem.
Is there even a word for the job I want to do in the Reign of God?