[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.