I was an unusual child. That was probably true in more ways than one. One of the ways I was unusual is that from the time I was 10 I had a strong interest in making the world a better, more just place. I remember staying after social studies class in seventh grade and debating the Chrysler bailout with my social studies teacher Mr. Anderson. In seventh grade! Who does that?!
My interest continued throughout high school. I was the only student I knew from our high school who had letters to the editor published in the Spokesman Review. The flames of interest were fanned in college as well as I became a secondary education major with an emphasis on Social Studies. I took as many history and political science classes as I could.
After graduating from college, I became a precinct committee officer by the time I was 22. I worked on several local, state, and national campaigns. I was a frontline activist on the issues of abortion and homosexuality in my twenties. I became the first openly gay man appointed to serve a full-term on the City of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission. And a few years later, I declared my candidacy for the Washington State House of Representatives. I had accomplished all of these things by the time I was 29.
So when I lost the race for the state legislature in 1998 and answered my long-simmering call to attend seminary, I thought I knew exactly how my ministry would unfold. I would get my seminary education and serve as a director of a non-profit back home in Washington State. To that point in my life, my faith was focused on accomplishing one thing: fixing the world!
Then something remarkable happened in the second year of seminary. I realized I wasn’t called to get the seminary degree and serve in a setting “beyond the local church” (church-speak for a setting other than a local church). I realized I was called to serve the local church as an ordained pastor.
As I finished the last year and a half of seminary and started work in my first parish, I began my service with that same focus on fixing the world. But then two things happened that changed my life – and my ministry forever. One thing was national; one thing was local (within the church I was serving). Let me lay those occurrences out for you.
The year before I entered parish ministry the Enron scandal broke. For those who don’t remember, the Enron scandal involved high level business executives who had raided the pension funds of lower level employees in order to make risky investments. The investments failed – leaving thousands of workers without pensions for their retirement years.
The trials of the executives happened, then, during my first months serving a local church. And one thing struck me about the proceedings. So many of the executives who were trial had been seen as pillars of the community. Many had sat in the front pews at their local churches on Sunday mornings – singing songs of the faith, listening to dozens and dozens of sermons, and bowing their heads during the prayers of the people. Some, I imagined, had served on their church councils. I’m sure that many had even taught Sunday school. And yet in spite of their religious participation, they still felt comfortable walking into boardrooms on Monday mornings and making decisions that fleeced thousands of people out of their economic futures. Their unspeakable actions weren’t just an indictment of the individuals; their actions were an indictment of all the local churches who failed to help them develop a moral compass.
The second thing happened over the course of my first year in my parish. The church I served was full of good people who, out of their pain and brokenness, occasionally did very hurtful things. I remember, for instance, how a debate over whether we should pass a deficit church budget turned into a yelling match between two church leaders in the kitchen one Sunday morning after worship. I remember that during a council meeting a conversation occurred over whether we should let our current custodian go and hire someone else who would be cheaper (a person, by the way, who was undocumented). I remember ugly things that one congregant said about another. Each and every one of these things broke my heart.
Things began to permanently shift for me as a result of these things. The first was faith-based (Scriptural even!) while the second was borne of my own personal journey. Let me address the two things in the order I listed them.
First, two pieces of Scripture often came to mind those first years of parish ministry: Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – NIV) and Mark 8:36 (“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” – NIV). As the pastor of a local church, I did NOT want to produce future generations of Enron executives!
Second, as I began to pastorally counsel others and deal with their challenges – I started to look within more. I realized something about how I had approached the world. As a gay man who was a part of a marginalized community, I felt the pain of my oppression on a regular basis. When I came out at the age of twenty-five, I took this approach to managing my pain. I told myself, “If I can just fix the world first, THEN – maybe – I can feel okay.”
Over time in my practice of parish ministry, I realized I had the order reversed. If I wanted to make the world a better place, I needed to start by tending to my own pain. Then I would be in a healthier place to go out into the world and participate in its transformation. For I have come to believe that individual brokenness is the foundation upon which systemic injustices are built.
I did NOT want to be a hypocrite – using one set of standards to judge and condemn the world while allowing the faith community I served to look the other way as the brokenness of its members caused them to take their pain out on others (either systemically or individually).
With those two convictions in mind, my approach to parish ministry changed. My all-consuming focus became directed on providing the best pastoral care I could to whomever presented themselves to me (both from within the church and the larger community). I would allow God to use me as an agent of healing: first for the individual and then for the world.
There was no doubt that I had arrived at the right place for me. For the times I feel the greatest joy and clarity around my call is when I am helping facilitate the healing of individuals.
The difficult part for me, however, is that I still feel guilty at times about not being out on the streets as some of my ministerial colleagues – whose sense of call is a more traditional expression of activism.
Those experiences of guilt are another reason why I considered leaving parish ministry …