Situation Normal, Part 2

My CPE internship turned into a full-time paid residency from January to August, 2006. I had the opportunity to extend my contract another year, but decided not to. Although working as a chaplain at WakeMed—a Trauma 1 hospital—was the most transformative experience, it was also one of the hardest. Although working there helped me to continue to process my grief, I couldn’t process it at the pace set by the people I encountered at the hospital.

Just before I started full time, I had a conversation with a faculty member at NC State about the possibility of pursuing a PhD in psychology there. Ironically enough, I never ever never in a million years thought I’d pursue a graduate degree in psychology. I was going to seminary to be a youth minister. The M.Div. was the end of the educational line.


Since I wasn’t planning a graduate career—or any other—in psychology, I didn’t do research with faculty as an undergrad. One’s ability to do research is part of the criteria for acceptance into a PhD program. I also knew I probably wouldn’t have stellar GRE scores. During the conversation at NC State, the professor suggested contacting faculty in the department to see if there were research opportunities available. I thanked him for his time and took more time to decide how best to proceed.

There are multiple paths to becoming licensed to do counseling. The shortest, most versatile path is a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Yes, it’s true. You become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and do counseling just like psychologists do counseling. Among other things. The path that provides by far the most options (and I like options) is a PhD. Once you have that degree, you get to call the shots. You decide for whom you work and how much. You can work in a variety of settings at different stages of your career or all at once.

But you must first make sacrifice to the PhD gods.

I knew enough about what that experience would be like to say this will hurt a little but it will be worth it in the end. That, and Al saying, “If you don’t get the PhD, you know you won’t be satisfied.”

It isn’t about the letters at the end of your name or the title that comes before it. Anyone who wants that should seriously re-evaluate what they think they want to do. A PhD isn’t worth all that.

Trust me.

It’s about the means to an end and the freedom and flexibility to craft my vocation as best fits me—something I would be unable to do in 99% of the churches in which I might have worked.

It’s about direct service and advocacy at a level that you can’t do when you work on a church staff.

What it ultimately means for me, though, is that I followed a path to ministry and, at the last minute and due to circumstances in many ways beyond my control, I took three steps to the left. And I walked forward a little more. Then 6 steps at a diagonal. Then 6 steps at a diagonal the other way. I actually mapped this out once. Embedded in my path was the shape of a martini glass.

It also means that I don’t work in church and when I go to a large gathering of people who do or have some job like it, I don’t fit. And people wonder what I’m doing there. And my seat at the table was long ago snatched up by some other willing minister.

I’m still searching for where I fit in. Hell, I’m still searching for a church I can attend and maintain my theological integrity. I’m still trying to figure out where this crazy path I’m on will lead and how I can best meet the needs of those suffering around me.

And I’m hoping that I can draw a decent paycheck in the process.