Going into “the ministry” is no small endeavor. I wasn’t expecting a call and didn’t really get one in the traditional sense. Rather, I chose the path of ministry as I chose other vocations in my past because I knew that I had the gifts and experience to be a minister. I was drawn to the academic side of ministry first. The pastoral calling came afterward.
Making this confession feels empowering now because when you approach ordination boards and committees, they want to hear the more fantastical aspect of your call: the “burning bush” moment when God spoke to you by name and said, “Who shall go for us?” Then, you say, “Here am I. Send me.” As it turns out, I sent myself!
When I was laid off by the railroad in 1996, my immediate inclination was to return to another position in corporate finance. It seemed the natural thing to do with the education and experience that I had accumulated. Had it not been for an encounter with a wonderful man, named John Winham, who helped me understand that I could redirect my passion for religion and powers of critical observation and thinking and use them for a career in ministry.
He discerned this in me during a couple of conversations we had during breaks at a “job transition” seminar. I’ve learned from that experience that it is not always the quality of the advice we receive that makes the difference in our lives, but our ability to receive and execute what we’ve heard. I could have easily dismissed his counsel and gone my way. But, over the years, I had developed the capacity to take people’s advice and running with it. When I heard John’s encouragement to consider seminary, I knew he had read me well and I could trust his discernment. Within a month, I was a seminarian, starting life anew.
Using the metaphor from the book, What Color is Your Parachute, I realized that my parachute’s color had changed. It was time to move on to a new life, a new me, a new future. I arrived at seminary amongst people who were driven! Most had dreams of becoming a big preacher with a big church. I just wanted to learn a few new things. I was ready to go where the hot air took me…up, up, and away. And away I went.
Being a student of Dr. Bailey and Dr. Holmes had prepared me to think critically about the world, especially about faith and the spiritual life. Being in seminary helped me learn how to think academically and with structure. I learned how to craft and develop my mind on deeper levels. Working my way through two seminaries and two degrees helped me write and tell stories and integrate my studies into my real life. In other words, I learned to integrate theory with practice.
When this happens, we’re talking about praxis. I wish that I had learned this earlier, but I learned it when I was able to. While I learned a lot in early degree programs, I didn’t quite put together the learning with the living. My graduate seminary studies helped me make the connection.
There was another vital link that I cannot leave out concerning this theory and practice connection: clinical pastoral education (CPE). This is the name for chaplaincy training in hospitals and other secular institutions. Training in a hospital is all about growing into one’s identity and authority as a minister. You work with a chaplain supervisor and your peers to work out your personal issues. This work is imperative because your personal issues get in the way of your own personal goals and ambitions. Your issues are a hurdle that, if mastered, can become an asset for your personal freedom in the world.
The most important issue for me was anger. I walked around angry all the time. In particular, I was distrustful of white people, who I felt treated me disparagingly due to my race. Two experiences helped me get over anger. It happened totally unexpectedly. The first was a trip to Clark Atlanta University for a job. I thought I had nailed the interviews. They never even sent me a rejection letter. Nada. I learned that even black people could treat me disparagingly. More importantly, people can treat you ways that are confusing and you may never know why or what you could have done differently. So what is the use of being angry for such experiences. They are beyond our control.
The second thing was reading a book called The Skilled Pastor, which had long chapter on rational emotive behavioral therapy and how we can be caught up with irrational thoughts. I had a few that I needed to let go. I thought too highly of myself and was easily angered, for example. I decided to take this irrational thinking for what it was, irrational. Then, let it go and act, otherwise. My anger evaporated into thin air.
From this point, my life was so much more open to what life had to offer. Without anger pulling at my heartstrings, I was free to be. But, there was more to come.
I’ll pick up with more in the next post.