discernment, ministry and quitting

In the long run, I'm sure I'll rewrite the narrative of this period of life, at least in my mind, quite a few times. For now though, I'm hoping to make this one last post on the topic of my current spiritual transition - which is out of ministry and out of normal church life and into whatever it is that I (and Angel) figure out. After that I'll try to get on with the business of thinking and writing about other things, in a more positive vein, related to the way that I'm trying to live out my religiosity without participating in traditional religion. For now I've been wanting to personally unravel some of the overlap between my experiences in ministry and my experiences of religion, as it relates to letting myself drift out of church.

The story of my relationship to religion would be dramatically different if I hadn't decided to go into ministry when I was 17. I don't know what it would have looked like - I might have quit church in college when I had my first significant spiritual crisis after realizing that 1) creationism is crazy and 2) masturbation is normal, or I might still be sticking around and evangelical today, putting less energy and angst into all of these religious questions. Who knows? I do know that it made things complicated. There's a great old quote (I think it's attributed to Mark Twain, but who knows?) that I'm going to butcher/paraphrase - "It's difficult to convince a man that something is a lie when his paycheck depends upon it being the truth". In that spirit, for a significant amount of time I felt like my school investments, paycheck and profession were directing my spiritual life. I was interested in theology, but I spent two years in a closet studying it diligently b/c I'd already dropped $60k on an undergrad so I figured I'd do something academic with it. After realizing that I would hate being an academic, I signed up to be a priest, in large (if subconscious) part b/c religion was the hole that I had already been digging myself into. When I eventually burned myself out professionally because of too many long hours, too little pay, and too much overcommitment, I experienced it as religious and spiritual burnout.

Eugene Cho wrote a good post on ministerial burnout a few months back (following on a piece of research that was published during the time that I was experiencing it). The point of it was that being a minister stresses you out - it negatively affects your health and marriage, frequently pays you at near-poverty level, leads you to serious conflict with parishioners, and generally requires you to work more hours than you can healthily manage. The statistics were crazy - 70% of pastors constantly fight depression? 50% would leave ministry if they could find another way to make money? 80% feel unqualified and discouraged in their role? I don't know, but those were all of my experiences. By the time I decided to change career tracks, I was constantly stressed about finances (not least the $30k of ministry student loans sitting on my books) and responsibilities (heading up more activities, events, etc. than I could manage), and was legitimately depressed - avoiding responsibilities, sleeping late in the day and unable to sleep at night, expecting unrealistic things from Angel in terms of financial and domestic, and generally functioning with a low level of simmering anger at the world. I don't know if I've mentioned this here, but during a long stretch of Sundays on my way to work in Bellevue in 2009, I'd envision passing my exit and continuing on to Spokane and away from the stress. You know you're burnt out when Spokane becomes your happy place.

In retrospect, for the most part, I really didn't like being a minister. I don't think I was horrible at it, and I don't think that being a minister is inherently a bad thing - it's just that it's a job that cost a lot more for me personally than it gave back. I didn't like the type (or constant sense) of responsibility, I didn't really like the autonomy/lack of support/authority, and I didn't really like that it always seemed to demand some kind of response when I told people that I was a minister either positive or negative. My only real work experience prior to quitting was in ministry though, and I always just assumed that you weren't supposed to like work. (It's strange now, having a job that I really like, and that I don't dread going to. And where I get benefits and overtime pay. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.)

And so, eventually, after about 4 years of not liking work, I associate bad experiences with religion. Not intentionally - that's just what happens in the dark recesses of my soul.

The other thing that factors in here is that, even though I got through most of the steps, the 'process of discernment' for ministry felt like a three year job interview (seriously - think about that) and an extended series of humiliations. I thought at the time that it was me that was bristling against it, but I don't think so entirely - there's something about the process that you go through that really sucks, and can be really damaging. I say that from experience, but I also say it because so many other former discerners have said the same thing to me. I'm tired and I have to go pick up Angel, but if I had more time/mental energy I'd provide reasons that there has to be a better way, and how spiritualizing the ministerial vetting process can be damaging, and how disconnected the whole process seemed from reality, and how it's not about the people (they were almost all amazing and really supportive) - it's about the system, and the system is truly fucked (can't think of a less abrasive term that is equally appropriate). Unfortunately I don't have time or energy, and anyway, I said I wanted to get on to more positive things.

In that spirit, next week maybe I'll post on this new discipline of exercise and health that Angel and I have committed ourselves to, and how it has been a really positive transition. Or maybe something about music, or health care, or my new job, or politics or something. There's lots to talk about.