Situation Normal, Part 1

Those of you who are familiar with fun military acronyms know where I’m headed with that title. I thought it appropriate given that this post is about the path I began to forge that took me away from working in church.

When I started in divinity school, I looked for a job as a youth minister–because it was what I was called to do in the end…and because I had bills to pay. Nothing panned out and I found myself doing my usual job of working in some sort of daycare facility. Let’s face it. That isn’t a lucrative job when you work it full-time. I was only able to work part-time because of my class schedule. After one semester, I knew I needed a new job or a new living situation. I opted for the latter because my best friend and I BOTH needed better paying jobs–but perhaps between our measly paychecks, we could pay rent.

And then I got a job working as the graduate assistant for campus ministry at Campbell. I joined a long line of wonderful ministers who at one point worked as the BSU intern for Terry-Michael Newell. I kinda liked campus ministry, but I realized that year that I still hadn’t quite recovered from my own experience as a student in BSU (a completely different story for a different time), and I decided to make what could have been a two-year contract only one. In the end, it made T-M’s job easier because they were going to cease funding one of his assistants anyway. That decision had already been made in my mind, but it was further solidified when my mom died very unexpectedly at the end of that April. I suddenly found myself focusing on other things–and having no energy left over for doing ministry.

I moved home–another decision that had  been made prior to Mom’s death–and another decision to which I stuck. As Dad and I tried to pick up the pieces, I continued school and went back to working with children at the afterschool program at my church. I also got sucked in to a lay leadership position, which I took on not realizing just how little energy I had.

And then came Supervised Ministry. It was easy to find a location. It just so happened to be an incredibly difficult situation for many reasons. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say it was a GREAT learning experience. That left me even more depleted.

Al and I were also trying to figure out how to pay bills and who was going to work what job and the financial feasibility of the whole marriage thing. One random afternoon at Campbell, I had an impromptu interview with a pastor who was looking for a youth minister–preferably one who understood military culture. We sat in the conference room and talked and I really liked him. He kinda reminded me of Donald Sutherland, too. Not long after that conversation, I received a phone call asking me to come for a more formal interview with the youth council and personnel folks. The pastor and his wife took us to dinner, showed us around town, told us about the church and the youth ministry and I got a more detailed description of what I would be doing if I took the job.

By the end of the night, they offered me the job.

I told them I’d have to think about it.

And I did. And each time I did, I felt physically exhausted. At my gut level, I knew this wasn’t the job for me. I could do it, but not for long. I simply didn’t have the energy or the drive anymore.

A different church called and asked if I’d consider taking their youth ministry job. By that time, I knew I didn’t have the energy for ministry. Not the way most churches expect their youth minister to do it. And I set my sights toward something else.

It was about a year after Mom’s death and I started looking at the possibility of doing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at WakeMed in Raleigh. Campbell Div students had had a good experience there–and have seemingly since taken over. The application is a beast, but I finally did it–sitting facing a window looking out over a river at a friend’s house in New Bern. And I was accepted for the fall unit–for the semester that was my last at Campbell and during which I got married. We moved all of our stuff to Apex that Labor Day weekend.

While doing CPE, I realized many things. Among them, I realized that I really am more oriented toward direct service. I learned exceedingly well in church that, though you are on staff as a minister, the bulk of your work isn’t ministry–it’s administration. I also realized, while visiting a patient who was in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, that I really missed psychology and I wanted to do counseling.

Unfortunately, getting an M.Div. makes you a one-trick pony.

I knew I’d have to go back to school.

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Why I Was Going To Work In Church

Growing up, I had a really good church experience. I wasn’t in one of those ultra-conservative, dogmatic churches. I didn’t have family that pushed religion on me. I came to a lot of Christianity with the help of both church and family—but in a way that was mine.

So I liked church. I mean…really liked church. It was the center of much of my life and the place I met some of my closest friends. It was the place that provided a solid foundation for my faith, where I learned that—contrary to popular opinion—women could be (and were) ordained, not only as deacons but also as ministers, where everyone knew my name (a la Norm from Cheers).

Let me be clear. This church was not without its issues. But it did the work of the Kingdom in spite of those issues. And I’m thankful.

When I went to college, I joined the Baptist Student Union (BSU) on campus and learned about summer missions opportunities. My first summer as a college student, I worked as a Youth Corps worker (read: summer youth minister) for a small-ish church in a rural part of the state. Once again, it was a really good experience. The pastor was great—as a pastor, supervisor, mentor and friend. He and the church trusted me with their children and youth and allowed me to try just about anything. The work I was doing—and I myself—were supported by these wonderful folks. And I confirmed my call to youth ministry that summer.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to work at a much larger church as a volunteer with a fantastic group of youth led by one of my favorite youth ministers ever. I followed that year up with being the intern for the summer—and once again loved the work I did and the people with whom I did it. Once again, the church was not without its issues. But it worked.

And so I went off, at the end of that summer, to divinity school—and a trajectory that led to working in church. I was excited about the opportunity to provide ways to lay a solid foundation to teenagers—especially as they moved from a concrete way of thinking to a more abstract way of thinking and reasoning. I wanted to help them learn about the world around them—its craziness, its brokenness, its pain, its beauty, its mystery. I wanted to help them engage that world in a way that was meaningful and authentic for them and who each of them was as a child of God. And I wanted all of us to have a little fun along the way.

I Don’t Go To Church

I have a seminary degree…and I don’t go to church.

For a long time I thought something was wrong with me. I was too critical, too pessimistic, too anti-institutional to be OK with church. It doesn’t help that being seminary-trained ruins you for church…and adding CPE on top of it pretty much f&$*s you up for good.

For a long time I questioned why I couldn’t get into church…why I couldn’t fit into a community in this area (preferably Baptist). But then I heard some interesting stories last week while at a large gathering of Baptists…and it led me to the following conclusions:

Baptist churches where I live are bat shit crazy. Either that, or they lack something that meets the needs of my family–like a youth group.

I concede that there is a certain level of crazy in churches that is acceptable. There is a certain level of crazy that keeps the drama going but still allows the church to function in the way it should. This is how church is–and always will be. I’m still looking for a church with an acceptable level of crazy that provides a loving, supportive community in which my whole family can be involved.

Of course, I’m not sure I can find the kind of church I’m looking for in Baptist spheres–or any sphere for that matter. But I want to keep searching.

And I’m not sure I can articulate at this point why it’s so important to me to do so. I just know that it is.

I also realized while at this gathering that, at least in the way I was treated by some (read: enough) people, I took a different trajectory and my ministry will take a different shape. And in so doing, I gave up my seat at the moderate Baptist table. Perhaps even other types of Baptist tables as well.

But the more I thought about that, the more I realized that maybe that perception is limited to those individuals and informed by the area in which I live. For you see, if I lived in another city–say, Greensboro–I know where I’d go to church. And it would be a Baptist church. And I would do so happily.

For now, it appears as though I’m a Baptist on the margins, moving closer to the edge of another denomination altogether.

The Book I Want to Write

I read Guyland about a month ago and found it to be an incredible book…and incredibly insightful.

It also got me thinking about girls and how there’s no equivalent book on the coming of age for young women. Which got me thinking further about how someone needs to write that book.

And then I put together my summer reading list…which served a dual purpose. For one, I wanted to delve further into gender issues and the coming of age of young women. The other is tied to the fact that I’ll be working in the university’s Counseling Center during the upcoming academic year and some of this reading was “professional” in nature. I’m working my way steadily through the list (which I included below), but found that, as I near the end of one book, I may need to switch gears on which one is next.

You see, I got a message from my seester in love this morning who is the mother of a 5 year old girl. She is a brilliant child and will likely be like her mother and I as young women: diabolically smart, a good sense of humor, a good sense of self, an independence streak 3,000 miles wide, and one to think for herself. She’s also a beautiful girl–which will probably cause a few friendly fights along the way. And she’s starting to ask about when she can get married, when she can get a romance book…and has had a few boyfriends at her montessori preschool. In many respects, those things are normal for girls her age. When I was her age, I remember telling my dad that I knew who I was going to marry when I grew up. When he asked me how that was going to be, I told him it was he. I’m sure he got a good chuckle out of that. And I know he became aware of his role as a father of a daughter–and how daughters learn a lot about relationships with other men from that very relationship. He has said on more than one occasion that dads are their daughters’ first dates.

What is scary, though, is this oversexing of girls–beginning waaayyy too early in life. And we all know it to be true. Even the New York Times has some comment…which is well worth the read.

And it brings me back to my book list and the book I want to write. Parents of girls are beginning to realize that we are socializing our girls differently–even from 15 years ago. And they don’t know what to do about it. They are wondering where and how to draw the line. They want to know how to appropriately protect their girls from–and expose them to–what the world includes and the expectations that are there. I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m collecting thoughts and ideas on what it might look like. For now, though, parents can’t go wrong with open, honest communication with their children (read: get REAL comfortable with sex and talking about it at various developmentally appropriate ages and stages) and letting their children experience natural consequences.

And if you have time to do some reading about all this, [before my book gets written ;)], here’s what’s on my list or what I’ve been reading:

Pledged by Alexandra Robbins

Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both by Laura Sessions Stepp

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids Edited by Levin & Kilbourne

The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons

Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman

Nurture Shock by Bronson and Merryman

*I have not yet read all of these–they are simply on my list because of their relevance. I’m almost finished with Pledged (which is a great look at sororities and girls’ varied experiences of them)

**Note: these are hyperlinked to Amazon.com not because I’m promoting the sale of anything but so you have easy access to descriptions and reviews of these books.

Phase Two is Done

You probably aren’t keeping up with this as much as I am, but it’s been another month of P90X…and there are still some good results going on.

In some ways I feel like I need to make some decisions about the food plan going into Phase 3…to follow the Phase 3 plan or to head back to Phase 1. They say people in the test group got frustrated with the lack of progress in Phase 2…but really saw results in Phase 3.  We’ll see what I decide between now and in the morning…and how it goes over the next four weeks.

Imaginary Jesus

I finished Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos this morning. And it moved into the must read list.

We all have our ideas of what Jesus looked like, how he behaved, what he did. We bring him to life in our own biased imaginations in order to better understand and get to know Jesus. Over time, though, our imagination–and our Jesus–becomes overtaken by our beliefs, doubts, perceptions, misconceptions, what we’ve seen or heard–things that come from others who imagine Jesus in their own way–overtaken by their beliefs, doubts, perceptions, misconceptions, what they’ve seen and heard…and…well…you get the idea.

In Imaginary Jesus, Mikalatos contends that in order to see the real Jesus, you must first get rid of your imaginary Jesus. This not-quite-true-probably-spiritual-memoir gives us laugh out loud story-telling and a frolicking journey around Portland, Oregon and first century Judea as Matt himself chases after his imaginary Jesus in order to let him go. In the process, Matt encounters many other Jesuses that are in the world, conjured up by all kinds of different people. We meet Testosterone Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus (my personal fave), King James Jesus (always quoting scripture), Bargain Jesus, Liberal Social Services Jesus (who has no mouth, constantly doing kingdom work but never talking about God), Conservative Truth Telling Jesus (who thinks the only way to tell people about God is through hard truth and never raises a hand to help with physical needs–so he has no arms), and many others. As Matt encounters these other Jesuses, the reader is bound to see Jesuses he or she recognizes–either because they’ve met people who imagine Jesus these ways or because they are meeting their own imaginary Jesus.

With the help of the Apostle Peter, a reformed prostitute and a talking donkey, Matt works to get rid of his imaginary Jesus in order to start over with the real Jesus. What he finds is better than what he expected.

I appreciated Mikalatos’ way of describing his experiences with Jesus–imagined and real–and his fantastic sense of humor along the way. Even in the midst of personal grief, Matt maintains his sense of humor–and renews his search for who Jesus really is.

Perhaps it’s because I can relate to Matt’s story in many ways personally. Perhaps it’s because I, too, have been searching for the real Jesus. Whatever it was, this book was a fantastic read that prompted me to consider my own imaginations and thinking about who Jesus is and what Jesus does–and what it means to be a follower–and I’m starting to really like the conclusions to which I’m coming. Even if “the real Jesus is inconvenient” (p. 79).

Mikalatos should have another book coming out next year–and I look forward to reading that one, too.

Disaster and Recovery

It’s the first day of June…and the first day of hurricane season. We’re 5 years post-Katrina and 5 weeks into the nation’s largest oil spill in history.

Once again, our attention turns to the Gulf and the state of Louisiana. Once again, the media is discussing the clean-up in the Gulf region. Once again, our government finally gets their boots on the ground to assess the damage and the on-going clean-up process.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if, once again, we fall short of finishing the job.

I say again because New Orleans still has 70,000 homes in need of repair–and it looks like Presbyterians are the only Christian group still seeing the work through. Thankfully, someone is still in New Orleans, trying against what I can only imagine to be great odds, to bring restoration to a people displaced by disaster. It’s a business you’d think Jews and Christians would understand well. Both groups have a history of being displaced and restored.

Granted, our attention in the Christian community has turned toward Haiti and Chile where, earlier this year, disaster struck in the form of earthquakes, displacing countless individuals and families. Our attention should be there–but we should never forget to follow through and see the work to completion. If we fail to do so, what kind of God are we really representing? The kind of God who grows tired of the view in one place? The kind of God who is incapable of spreading resources around to make God’s presence known and bring about redemption?

My seester-in-love is in New Orleans this week and added a beautiful post to her own blog here. When she posted the fact that 70,000 homes are still in need of repair on Facebook, one person commented that if each church in the southeastern United States committed to rebuilding one home–just one–New Orleans would finally and truly know restoration post-Katrina.

I know Haiti and Chile are important. I don’t mean to diminish the relief efforts in either place and I think they should continue to be supported for a long long time. But one church building one house will not break the budget. It will not divert a massive amount of funds from relief efforts and organizations trying to aid Haiti and Chile.

It’s just one house. And it’s time for a homecoming for the people of New Orleans.