Over the last couple of days, Landon Whitsitt has posted a couple of blogposts, suggesting newly minted seminary graduates set off to plant new churches. Here are those posts:
You can go read the posts if you want--they make plenty of sense. The titles are self-explanatory--Landon basically says new pastors who want opportunities for new ministry should consider planting a church.
Then Emily Morgan responded to Landon with her post: "Reply to Rev. Whitsitt" in which she outlined her reasons for choosing a mainline denomination with structure and support, and that running off to church plant did not match her sense of call (and I get this).
Fair enough, all of it. I find myself caught by both their posts as someone who has been working as a temporary supply pastor 1/3 time and is now looking for a new call. I didn't succeed in planting a church. I didn't succeed in "saving" an old church. But I suspect that neither dream was what Christ called me to at this time.
Indulge me a minute, because I am speaking from a position of spectacular failure, and what I have left to share are my words and reflections on this time.
When I was a young girl I wanted to be a belly dancer. Somebody hired a belly dancer for my uncle's birthday, and she taught my cousin, sister, and I a little bit of dance. She was so very beautiful, and her clothing sparkled as she moved, her skirts swishing and hair swaying.
The next year I wanted to be a police officer. I don't remember what prompted that desire, but it faded.
For a while I wanted to be a rock star because I had heard rock music at a friend's house. My family didn't listen to rock and roll; I grew up on John Denver. I can still Karaoke "Country Roads" like I was born in West Virginia. Which I wasn't. During that year I made a microphone out of anything and belted out Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" and "Centerfold" by the J. Geils Band. Just playing those songs tonight made me smile.
When I went to college I first was going to study Aeronautical Engineering and the airforce gave me a scholarship. The fatal flaw in this plan is that I stink at Physics. The world is a better place that I don't design your airplanes. Or any part that goes into them. The airforce gladly parted with my overly sensitive self--I didn't respond well to authority.
Returning home after the first semester, I surprised everyone (including myself) by moving out, getting a job, attending night school, and getting married. I finished my degree in Geography.
Along the way I had been unemployed a while. Exasperated, my mother handed me the classifieds with jobs circled. I was to apply for jobs before coming for Sunday dinner. So I did. I got a job as a front desk clerk substitute. After a while I picked up shifts. One day one of the bosses asked me to register some checks for her programs, and I liked the work. A connection here and there, and I transferred to her department. When I graduated, I landed her job.
I was sort of astounded, actually. Her job entailed supervising 25 staff plus some volunteers, along with managing a $750,000 budget. I worked my butt off and got a promotion. And then I had a baby, and I couldn't work 70 hour weeks anymore.
Around the same time my church was looking for a youth director. We had looked for 18 months and had not found the right person. One day in church it hit me that I could do that job, and that I could bring my baby with me to work a lot. We could have a second baby if we wanted. So I became the youth director and had the second baby. I loved it. Every minute.
But we couldn't afford to stay where we were. We cast about for a new vision, and what we came up with was seminary. I felt strongly called to seminary, I did. It also seemed like a good plan for our family. We had a vision, shared by church folk and presbytery folk, that I would graduate from seminary and find a typical mainline church to land in that would mostly pay the bills with work I would enjoy. It was a nice vision.
And then came the divorce, special needs diagnoses for the children, and several moves in a small period of time. We have struggled (still as a family, divorce doesn't change that) to stay close and supportive. But all of that changed what was possible. I landed a gig preaching at a tiny church in my last year of seminary, and when I graduated I was ordained to that tiny ministry in that tiny church. I loved that too. I think you can tell that in my sermons and reflections over the last few years.
I started a PhD program last year. I felt a call to teach and research and write. I had good mentors and advisors, and I started the year with a network of support I had patched together. But over the course of a year that network fell apart, and I ran out of resources. I still feel called to teach and research and write, but I will have to fulfill that call in other ways. The children struggled the whole year I was in school. My ex did too. Our family wasn't making it. So I stopped.
I asked my ex and my children what they thought about moving. Little guy cried. Oldest said I was welcome to but he wasn't. Their dad sighed deep. So we're not moving, and that's ok. I like it in Jersey. I like our quaint apartment at the north end of Trenton. But all that changes what is possible. I'm taking a salsa class.
I think what I'm trying to say is that my call to ordained ministry has not diminished one bit, but the wide open playing field I thought I was working with has narrowed to a fine point on the map. Emily's vision for called ministry is well beyond my reach. Landon's call to plant myself in the neighborhood and start up ministry is more probable than most other plans. I've been tentmaking a while now--I'm sending resumes to whatever might pay the bills. Paying the bills is not my ministry.
There is a wild freedom in tentmaking. I have had the freedom to preach how the Spirit moves me these last three years. I listen to my colleagues talk about not being able to say what needs to be said, and honestly when you're working 1/3 time with no benefits, that's not really a concern. I've had the freedom and flexibility to raise my children, fail at a PhD program, read and write extensively. I don't think people should go into tentmaking because there aren't options--I think people should consider it because it's good for the soul.
In the last three years, I have gathered an online community around me through twitter, facebook, and the blogs that has reached far beyond the walls of the tiny church I worked with. 6740 individuals have visited the church blog from every state (heavily concentrated in New Jersey, California, Texas and New York) and from 105 countries/territories around the world. They don't all come for the Jesus thing--the blog searches tell me that much. But a lot do.
Two years ago I came out as queer while still working as a pastor in the pulpit. My tiny church barely blinked an eye. This too, is part of the wild freedom of tentmaking with a tiny church. Through that process dozens of lgbtqqi2s folk in the church have contacted me seeking connection, companionship, and shared journey.
I need to pay the bills, there's no getting around that. But I am not called to my bills. I am called to follow the Spirit where it leads, and right now the Spirit seems to be sitting still in this leaky apartment by Trenton. So be it. I'll get my PIF out there. But I don't have a lot of hope that a divorced, queer, mother of two children with special needs, pastor is going to nail that denominational dream job within a 20 mile radius of this apartment.
I have no doubt that I will keep doing ministry, though. I will keep on with my online community. I will keep making local connections. I'll finish that work I keep promising to finish for Presbyterian Women online. I'll keep pushing for this youth collaboration I dearly would love to make happen. I'll preach when and where I can, because I love it. I'll do spiritual direction. I'll lead retreats. Somehow it will be enough, and Christ's love will flow through this work, because Christ's love always flows through our work. And that is what we are called to.