Life Gets in the Way

[UPDATED 7/21, just to fix a few typos and tweak one or two details]

This fall would have been my fifth anniversary of ordination.  Would have been.  I graduated from college in 1997, and began seminary that same year.  Had I gone straight through seminary and the Candidacy Process for Ordination – as was the plan – I would have been ordained and installed in the fall of 2001.  Instead, it’s 2006 and I’m still about two and a half years away from ordination.

You see, life got in the way.

There was the death of my best college friend.  Then there was the drawn-out ending of an engagement four months prior to our January, 2000 wedding date.  And then there were the skeletons.

Well, I don’t know if I’d call them skeletons, but in the midst of the emotional upheaval that was a friend’s funeral and a derailed romance, I opened a pandora’s box of previously unaknowledged emotions and unhealthy coping mechanisms stemming from a childhood marked by divorce, domestic violence and the instability that these two forces foster.  I was 25 years old and going through an emotional breakdown.

On the eve of this breakdown, I left seminary and the candidacy process.  I was frustrated with the Candidacy Process and felt pressure from my fiancee (who as a Roman Catholic was uncomfortable with the idea of being a Lutheran pastor’s wife) to leave it all and seek a new career.  And so I taught Spanish in inner city Philadelphia.

Teaching was not my thing, and within two months I had contacted the Bishop’s office asking them to allow me to return to the Candidacy Process.  Sure, they said, but you have to start over again from the beginning.  Ugh.

After a year of teaching I worked as a full-time youth director while returning to seminary part time and re-applying to the Candidacy Process.  Candidacy never worked out ("mistakes were made," is one diplomatic way to describe the ordeal).  After two years of unsuccessfully re-applying to the Candidacy Process, I finally gave up in the fall of 2001 – the season in which I would have begun my ministry, had everything gone smoothly.  Even though I graduated from seminary in 2002, I thought my dream of becoming a pastor was dead.

In the meantime I was still in therapy.  For two and a half years in my mid-twenties I was in therapy – at first twice/week, and then daily in classical Freudian practice.  These two and a half years changed my life, giving me the emotional strength and freedom to step back from the patterns and behaviors I developed as a child of divorce and domestic violence, and allowing me to create new ways of being and relating to others.  It was during this time that I asked my father the simple question, "whatever happened with you and mom?" (a question I was never able to ask), that I redefined my relationships with my parents, and that I met my wife.

Therapy, meeting my wife, and being away from the Candidacy Process gave me time to grow and reflect without the looming pressure of Candidacy interviews or career concerns.  I had good jobs with church organizations (first in fundraising and then in sales), dabbled with an MBA, became active in my local parish, established a good relationship with my pastor, and continued to discern my sense of call.

And so I’m back.  Five years after I was to have been ordained – and now with a wife and two children (#2 is due any day now!) – I’m about to begin two years of stipended – not salaried – field work experiences to fulfill requirements to become a pastor.  And of course I’m in a much better place, both emotionally and spiritually, to continue my journey and prepare for pastoral ministry.

Yet, there is still a lingering sense of loss.  I could have been a five-year veteran of the parish by this point.  But was I really ready for the parish at that time?  Of course not, but occassionally I’ll glance at the calendar with regret and wonder where the time has gone.  I’m grateful for the therapy and reflection and growth I’ve been able to experience these past several years, and short of turning back the clock 25 or 30 years and changing history, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

And so the lesson I am still struggling to accept is this: life gets in the way.  I do not believe that this sojourn was all in God’s plan, or that it was some fatalistic I-needed-to-do-this kind of experience.  It was what it was, it is what it is – the stuff of life emerging from the recesses of my being, demanding my complete attention, and altering my life in the process.

Yes, life gets in the way.  And that’s a lesson I’ll be carrying with me and struggling to learn as I begin a year of ministry as a hospital chaplain with and to people who are suffering in extreme ways – people who have experienced life getting in the way.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Family, Vocation. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Life Gets in the Way

  1. Josh says:

    As a fellow member of the “Life Gets In The Way Club”, and as someone that has seen you through “life getting in the way”, it is most certainly for the better.
    These lessons and experience will help you in your work with members of your future church, and in your chaplaincy progam.

  2. Ross says:

    I think life will always get in the way, and only fools plan without considering that fact. I also believe that we’ve all been foolish when planing out our lives. I know I have.

  3. LP says:

    I wish we could sit face to face and talk about how this stuff plays out. I spent 9 years in the candidacy process. I got divorced during that time, as did my parents. I had panic attacks that were so severe that they required medication. I spent 2 years on a therapist’s couch.
    What I have discovered about myself is a sense of compassion for those people i minister among that I may not have been able to develop otherwise. It doesn’t always show through in blogging, or in ministry for that matter, but I am more aware of people’s pain.
    I am not a fatalist either, as if it had to happen for some divine or cosmic reason, but it did. And these experiences made me who I am and God uses that.
    Thanks for sharing this part of your story. It makes me think about the recent Christian Century article about the value of “witnessing”. Others could benefit from hearing about your journey.

  4. PS says:

    A former pastor here talked about going to a pastor’s retreat where one of the topics was something about 5 and 10 year goals and life plans. It really rubbed him the wrong way, because he knew better than to think one can really plan like that.
    I’ve had discussions with women pastors about how it is harder for them to be open to going to just any church because of the husband’s sense of career. But I think that sometimes we may close ourselves off to something wonderful if we don’t try out something that isn’t in the “plan.”
    I know that I have been able to do lots of things because of being in a small church in a small town that wouldn’t have happened had I stayed in the big city. A small town wasn’t on the radar screen at one time, but now I love it.
    So the other side of Life Gets in the Way can be detours that take us on unexpected paths because of being open to new invitations or because of road blocks that aren’t just of the crap variety.
    I am sure that you will be a better pastor for having been in the valley. You already know that you are a better person. You are probably gentler with yourself and with others.

  5. Lutherliz says:

    I too was on the Candidacy track and was waylaid, and have not returned to the process yet. I got an MA instead and do work in a church, but I was unprepared to take on the role of ordained ministry.
    When I chose to take myself out of the candidacy process my thinking was this…I respect the office of the pastor and the job of the pastor too much to go through it if I’m not ready. I did want to burn out and leave church work because of my own inexperience and shortcomings.
    The call has not quite gone away, and I still consider it to be a possiblity. However, I am able to work for the church in a meaningful way. (On a side note, I think more credit needs to be given to lay church workers in this world.) Who knows if I’ll end up back in the MDiv sometime. Life can get in the way, but it does have a funny way of preparing us for what is coming ahead.

  6. PS says:

    Regarding Lutherliz’s comment: I have a friend who is certified to be an Associate in Ministry but hasn’t gotten a call. She suspects that the Bishop’s office isn’t giving out her name, although she has great qualifications, IMHO.
    There is also another AIM in the synod who has been unable to find work.
    So yes, “lay” workers need more credit, whether they are officially serving or wanting to serve, or unofficially serving.

  7. liz says:

    As much as I have been grateful for the years and experiences I had between college and law school, don’t think there haven’t been times where I was jealous of my friends who zoomed right through law school and were licensed attorneys well before I even took the LSAT. On the other hand, I think “life getting in the way” is the perfect observation from a Lutheran who takes seriously the paradox of life and faith. Life is messy, life takes detours, and God is there in the midst of the mess.
    On a side note, I’m sorry to hear about the death of your friend – actually, maybe I did know about that, but regardless, I’m very sorry for your loss.
    And I’m very excited for baby #2!!! Give J my love 🙂

  8. Wes says:

    I appreciate your perspective that “I do not believe that this sojourn was all in God’s plan, or that it was some fatalistic I-needed-to-do-this kind of experience.” One can go crazy trying to figure out why God would “do” such things. In a broken world, in the process of redemption, life just gets in the way. I am amazed by your perseverance and appreciate how you have grown through trying circumstances. Thanks for your honesty and willingness to give a glimpse of the Grace of God in the midst of “life getting in the way.”

  9. rich says:

    Zep,
    Don’t give up! I am currently experiencing CPE and it will be tough(it will reveal your weaknesses as well as your strengths) but will confirm your gifts. Just remember that God is always present with you in your journey.

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