Snapshots of My Depression #15: The Belly of the Whale

This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

This is the story of how I experienced the call to become a pastor. I’ve told this story in various ways over the years (in fact, I told it two years ago, right here on this blog), and I usually frame it as similar to “Jonah’s Journey,” because I kept refusing God’s call for years, only answering it when swallowed by the “whale” of a retreat center in New Jersey. This telling of the story is a little different — it’s from the standpont of mental illness.

After graduating from college, I went directly to a theological seminary, for a three-year program that culminated in my receiving a Master of Divinity. (That has got to be the most arrogant and pretentious title of any degree available.) This degree has pretty much one purpose – to qualify one for ordination in a mainline Christian church. There’s not really much else one can do with that degree. It’s not common for people to enter an M.Div. program without the intention of seeking ordination. But I’m not common, I suppose. I went there just to learn. I had no desire to be a pastor. Three years later, I graduated, and I was pleased that I was, after all, still hireable. I found a full-time job at a congregation as their Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant. I talked to former classmates and current colleagues about the job, and I found that is was in many ways similar to being an assistant pastor. I was doing, to some extent, the same work that some pastors do. Not quite — I did not preside over communion or baptism — I did not perform marriages or funerals. But I preached, I taught, I led (non-communion) worship, I did pastoral visitation and care. (Most of these were “smaller” parts of my job description, which also included, in larger part, overseeing the Christian Education and Youth programs of the congregation.) Yet I was NOT a pastor — and that made me very, very happy. Who wanted that level of responsibility? Who wanted to be a lightning-rod for everyone’s frustrations? Who wanted to be where the buck stopped?

Well, after four or five years in this ministry, I was getting burned out. Conflicts, such as the story I told in Snapshot #14, were part of it. I loved the congregation (I still do), but I no longer loved the work. Honestly, I was finding that I enjoyed the pastoral elements of my work, but less and less the programmatic stuff. I enjoyed preaching and visiting the homebound, but not organizing ski trips for the youth group. And that scared me. I felt very stuck. I couldn’t imagine leaving that church for another one — I would just be doing the same work in a different locale. And I couldn’t imagine finding a position that was more in line with what I was enjoying, since I wasn’t ordained. I wasn’t a pastor — I would never be a pastor — that was absurd. So, what options did I have? None.

Until…the Retreat. I attended a retreat in January 2005 — a mandatory retreat. It was primarily for new pastors, in their first three years out of seminary; for reasons not really pertinent here (see my other post if you’re interested), I was also mandated to go. I went there with a bad attitude, but while I was there, God threw me on the ground and told me to shape up.

God threw me on the ground. And told me to shape up. Almost literally.

I recall walking around the cemetery at the Xavier Retreat Center. I walked and walked and walked around, hearing God telling me a few things:

  • It’s time to stop screwing around.
  • It’s time to listen to me.
  • It’s time to accept this.
  • It’s time to let me break through this enormous wall you’ve built.

I began to see that I had indeed built a wall around myself. A wall that said in big letters, “NO PASTORS ALLOWED.”

Each afternoon and each evening of the retreat, I walked around that cemetery. On the first day, there were a few inches of snow on the ground. Over the course of the retreat, the snow melted, and along with it, so did my wall. The conversation with God continued:

  • I saw you made peace with a former classmate today. I’m glad you did that. Yes, she forgave me. I forgive you too. When can you forgive yourself?
  • I heard six people telling you today you should be a pastor. Yes, they’re all crazy. People have been saying that silly thing for years. Hmm.
  • I saw you in that Conflict Management workshop this afternoon, when you asked, “What if I’m the one bringing all the conflict on myself?” Did you hear the leader’s answer? I guess. And did you hear when he talked with you later and laid his hands on your head, offering you forgiveness? I think.
  • The retreat is over. Go home now. I will have more messages for you.

And before long, I finally realized what had been happening for years: I was actively stopping myself from becoming a pastor. I was actively throwing roadblocks in my own way, actively building this wall. And why? Out of fear. Fear that I wasn’t good enough. Fear that I would not be able to handle the responsibility. Fear that the life of a pastor was something for people other than me: people more stable, people more confident, people less broken, people who are — better.

But God reached out to me and said, Enough. It’s time to tear down this wall.

And it was remarkable, absolutely remarkable, how quickly and smoothly and gracefully the process to ordination went from that point. To change the metaphor, it was like I was running the wrong way on an escalator or a moving walkway for years, running and tripping and trying to find my own way, avoiding what sounded so horrible. But now I was finally allowing the walkway to take me where I was called.

Looking back, I think — I think — the reason I kicked so much against ordination was because a part of me knew that I was called to it. I think the reason was that I was unconsciously trying to keep myself from failing. I can’t fail at my calling if I refuse my calling, right? If I don’t think I’ll ace the test, I’d rather not take it at all. Better to get an incomplete than an F.

It took a really long time for me to come to terms with this, and to accept what was really going on in my heart and my mind. For many years, I was fighting against myself in this way. That’s one of the ways I commonly experience my illness — it’s like there are two sides of me actively fighting. Like there are multiple voices in my head, playing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. A voice that tells me, “You are worthless.” Another voice that tells me, “Keep away from conflict and trouble. You can’t handle it.” Another voice that tells me, “I’m scared.” And every now and then, I hear the voice of God saying, “It’s okay. You can do this. I love you, and I will go with you.” Every now and then, that voice wins. It did in 2005. I’ve got my ordination certificate to prove it.

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