I spent part of last week in Michigan for the meeting of a denominational commission that I currently chair. I'm sure it was pretty entertaining for everyone involved, since I basically lost January and am still having issues with maintaining focus. It's hard to be the Queen of Efficient Meetings when you can't keep track of where you are on the agenda, and when you have to stop to think of the word you want.
It's almost like they implanted a new personality in me while I was in the hospital. This brain gets overstimulated. It took me a while to figure out why I was getting frustrated and headachy when I tried to do work in a public place or chat online while watching TV or any number of multitasking things that I usually take for granted that I can do. Overstimulation isn't really part of my general life experience. Neither is introversion, but suddenly at the end of the day, I just want to go home. I had planned to go out and watch the hockey game over a beer at one of my favorite breweries, but by the time we were done with meetings and dinner, I was done. I watched the game from my hotel bed. It's weird, and I don't like it. The strangest thing of all is when it occurs to me that some people feel like this ALL THE TIME. Me, I'm hoping my real self comes back. She was fun.
Speaking of fun, one of the things I get to do with this commission is meet with seminary students. I like hearing about their seminary experiences and their hopes for ministry. That part of my own life has started to feel very distant, and there's an energy about reconnecting with it that invigorates me. At the same time, I have to struggle against my desire to disabuse them of several of the notions that seminarians tend to have about what ministry will be like. There are some things I can tell them, things that faculty seem not to tell seminarians, that will be helpful to them. For example, I wish someone would have said to me during seminary that ministry would be hard - that it was supposed to be hard sometimes. When things were hard at the beginning of my ministry, I kind of had the sense that that meant it was going wrong. So, one of the things I find myself telling students is that difficulty doesn't equate to wrongness. Sometimes it just means you're a human dealing with humans, and that you're in a complicated role that takes a while to figure out. By "a while" I think I mean "a lifetime."
Another thing I wish someone would have said during seminary is that the things you learn to value in seminary will not automatically be valued by the people in your congregation. Ministers take three years or more absorbing all of these ideals. Then we go to congregations and assume the same things will be important there - or perhaps that the congregation will value our education and our role among them enough to bow to the ideals we hold. I'm a hard-headed person, and it took me a long time to figure out that there is a whole process of listening to the values of a congregation and compromising and working toward mutual change. I feel like there should be a part of the worship curriculum in which the professor says, "Yes, this is the order that we're teaching you, and we have reasons for it and believe it to be valuable. However, your congregation may have entirely different ideas about how it should work. They probably have reasons for it too. This is how you might go about working out together what is best within your context."
But there are other things that I often want to say that are just not helpful. You can't, for example, tell people how young and shiny they are - even though they often are. Even the ones who are older in actual age, even the ones who have years of experience working in churches, even the ones with significant struggles in following their call have this glistening freshness about them. The ideal is still a lot larger in their minds than the reality. That's a good thing, I think. It's the energy of conviction that propels us into this vocation in the first place. It's good for churches to have that infusion of enthusiasm and certainty that comes from people who have spent a lot of recent time studying and thinking about the best of what the church could be. Something changes along the way for a lot of us, when we realize that our people will not always love us and that we won't always love them, that we won't always treat each other well, that we won't always understand each other, that sometimes we'll dig in our heels and make life nearly impossible for each other over the most minuscule of issues. And yes, I'm being completely patronizing right now, but there's something refreshing about new ministers and those in preparation, whose hope for the Church hasn't been quite as tarnished yet.
And then there's the women. Things have gotten so much better for the women in my seminary since I graduated in 2003. It's a much more supportive environment now, and their stories are really encouraging. Even such a short time ago, our stories were often about pain and struggle: classmates who vigorously expressed their disapproval of our presence, inability to find internships and pulpit supply opportunities, faculty who seemed at best neutral. Things have changed there. But it makes me wonder if the church outside of seminary is going to smack them even harder when they get out. The seniors are already encountering church profiles that stipulate that they are seeking the "man of God" who will come to serve them. The couples who hope for a shared call have interviewed with search committees who spoke almost solely to the man, except in questions about children's ministry and Christian education. Their preparation is easier now, but it becomes harder and harder to explain the difficulties of being an ordained woman in this denomination. I can only hope that the changes in the seminary will extend to the rest of the church.