Chasing the Collar (cont.)

My desire to become a priest has certainly not arisen from a sort of naïve, idealistic feeling that I would be a great person to provide an example for the world of the type of unconditional love, grace, and justice that Jesus preached. Neither does it stem from some sort of fundamentalist belief that I have a message of grace which will convert heathens, teetering on the brink of eternal damnation. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my early college years, I really probably would have listed the above as genuine motivations in my desire to be a minister. However, probably owing somewhat to four years of Bible-Belt Holiness preaching and teaching at Asbury, an important aspect of my spiritual dilemma after college, and before New Zealand, was that I didn't feel that I had either the moral character or level of sincere faith required to be a minister. I wasn't a perfect example of Christian holiness and love, and I certainly didn't have a strong faith that what I believed was the absolute truth, as well as the ticket to heaven. It was primarily in New Zealand that I came to see that ministry doesn't necessarily have to involve all of that.

At one level, I began to see things differently there simply because I did more theological study, and developed a more nuanced view of what ministry is all about. Stepping from a very conservative religious environment into a relatively progressive and decidedly un-American one also played an important role in leading me to rethink the way that I'd viewed most every religious issue in the past. However, certainly the most important factor that allowed me to see ministry in a different light, and begin to re-discern a call to ordained ministry was working with and around Anglican priests in my diocesan role as Youth Ministry Educator in Dunedin.

(It might seem somewhat strange that I was actually working in ministry at a point when I wasn't sure that I was fit to, or had any desire to, but I don't think its an extremely unusual situation for those who work in ministry (or possibly any field) to be in. At any rate, when I took the job in Dunedin, I was fairly unclear about what I wanted to accomplish with it. I was, however, qualified in terms of experience, and it was an opportunity to have a real job and a real pay check. In the end, that position ended up being a good fit and an important learning experience for me.)
The Diocese of Dunedin was probably like most Anglican Dioceses in the Western world in that it was genuinely diverse theologically, and generally tolerant of people at various places in their spiritual life. Working at a Diocesan level it quickly became apparent that the Anglican Church as a whole gets by peacefully (in its best days) by being almost militantly anti-dogmatic. In order to exist as part of the same entity, Anglicans who disagree with one another are essentially forced to accept the fact that they don't have an exclusive claim to the Christian faith, and hence don't have the option of telling the unorthodox that they aren't welcome. For me, this was an important revelation, and it allowed me to take a step back in the direction of church ministry as a possible permanent career path. If ministry doesn't necessarily involve dogmatism, I realized, than even someone with as much doubt as faith could conceivably make a good priest.

The Diocese of Dunedin was also like most dioceses in the world in that it was populated by priests who were also human beings, not generally any more or less morally perfect than the rest of us. This really shouldn't have been a revelation for me, but once again, it was. New Zealand was really my first experience of working in an environment where ministers were not expected to be blameless. Similarly, it was my first experience of working with ministers who I didn't perceive as having pretensions about their own moral superiority. As such, it was my first experience of ministry as an occupation in which I didn't have to try to be something that I'm not. The pursuit of holiness, I finally came to realize, is what is required in the Christian moral life, not perfect holiness itself. Once again, this allowed me to take a significant step back towards ministry as a career possibility.
I can actually pinpoint the moment that I realized that I would like to pursue ordination to the priesthood, and ironically enough, it was in the midst of the worst conflict that I experienced when working in Dunedin. I won't go into details, but it was essentially a somewhat childish, and relatively public, conflict between church leaders about issues that really could have been worked out in a mature and private manner. I don't know what this says about me, but seeing leaders openly squabble caused something to click, and I realized that ordained ministry is not too lofty a job for me to handle. Over approximately three years, I had come full circle back to the point where I felt that my earlier impression of a call to ministry was legitimate, and had found my milieu, in the Anglican Communion.