It has taken me 12 years to get here

12 years ago I applied to seminary and the Candidacy Process for Ordained Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Later this month, I will be ordained.  Why did it take me 12 years to arrive at this place, instead of the usual four (three years of study, and a one year full-time internship) that is the norm for us Lutherans?

I'm not publishing the tell-all Candidacy memoir of Chris Duckworth (though that would be more interesting that it might seem at first glance), but I'll try over the next two weeks to offer some reflection on the path that has taken me to ordination at age 34, rather than at age 26, as was my intention. 

Here's a timeline of my candidacy for ordination.  I won't be offended if you don't read it all . . . it is quite long, after all.

  • Fall 1996: Senior year at the College of William and Mary.  Seminary and ministry had been on my mind since late in my freshman year (Spring 1994).  I was completing a B.A. in Latin American Studies and an undeclared minor in Religious Studies when I applied to both seminary and the Candidacy Process for Ordination.    
  • May 1997: Graduate from College and receive a Postponement from my Candidacy Committee at my Entrance interview.
  • August 1997: Begin study at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where I'm participating in the Latino Ministry program.
  • Spring 1998: Receive a positive Entrance decision into the Candidacy Process for Ordination.  Decide to transfer to Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia to be close to girlfriend, family, and Candidacy Committee (I had traveled three times between Chicago and Philadelphia in one month that Spring – not fun).
  • Summer 1998: Complete one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.  Wasn't crazy about the experience, but got it done.
  • Fall 1998: Enroll at our Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, living with best friend from elementary/middle/high school 20 minutes away from campus.  Receive a positive Endorsement decision in the Candidacy Process.  Accepted into Horizon Internship program for low-income congregations in urban settings.
  • January 1999: Get engaged to be married – schedule wedding for January 2000.
  • Spring 1999: Unable to secure an internship within a reasonable distance from my fiancee's job.  A combination of emotional crud (both personal and with my fiancee) and frustration with my inability to get an internship site leads me to the brash decision to drop out of seminary and the Candidacy Process with 2/3 of my Master of Divinity and Candidacy requirements complete.
  • Summer 1999: Though I had dropped out of seminary, I take a job as a lay preacher/worship leader at a Sunday evening contemporary service at a congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs.
  • Fall 1999: Accept emergency certification to teach high school Spanish in the School District of Philadelphia.  Love working with the kids.  Don't love teaching.
  • September 1999: Best friend from college dies, the straw that eventually broke my emotional back.  I sink into a period of sadness and uncertainty.  Within a few weeks I call off my wedding and begin seeing a therapist.  I begin to explore bigger family and personal issues in therapy, initiating a period of great – yet difficult – personal growth.
  • November 1999: I admit that teaching won't be my life-long calling, but commit to finishing out the year at my school.  Contact my synod to return to the Candidacy Process, and ask seminary to reinstate me as a student "on-leave."
  • January 2000: Move out of apartment where I had planned to live with my fiancee, and move in with my father (with whom I hadn't lived since my parents' divorce in the late 1970s).  Begin working part-time as a youth director at the church where I had preached the previous summer.
  • Spring 2000: First appearance before the Candidacy Committee since my hasty departure from the process.  They are (understandably) cautious about my quick turnabout in sense of call and vocational plans.  At the time, however, their caution didn't seem so reasonable to me.
  • June 2000: As the academic year ends at the school I take on full-time responsibilities as youth director at the church.
  • Fall 2000: Have a great deal of fun at the congregation, including coordinating a wonderfully creative and logistically-challenging Coffee House event (that still goes on a few times per year!).  I even get to preach on a monthly basis!
  • January 2001: Return to seminary part-time while working as youth director.  Sit next to an extremely attractive young woman named Jessicah in Confirmation and Youth Ministry class.  I ask to borrow her notes.  Later, I call my best friend to tell him about this wonderful woman I've met.  Too bad she's engaged, though.
  • Spring 2001: Realize that I don't want to be a youth minister for ever, and begin to make plans to return to seminary full-time.  I have high hopes that Candidacy will work out.  I also have high hopes that things with Jessicah will work out.  For starters, she's ended her engagement . . . 😉
  • Fall 2001: Study full time at seminary, live on campus. But have a "final showdown" with Candidacy – I am informed that because over the previous two years I had two postponement decisions (more on those in another post, perhaps), a third postponement would result in a denial and a minimum of one year away from the candidacy process.  Not wanting to be kicked out of Candidacy, I drop out (again), and look for work in church and non-church roles.  I'm not sure that I'll be able to return to thoughts of ordained ministry.  Ever.  And I'm crushed.
  • January 2002: Land a full-time job at the Lutheran Seminary – raising money for student scholarships as director of alumni relations and annual fund.  Ironic, no, that the guy who didn't/couldn't become a pastor is raising money so that the seminary can train more pastors?  Early on I find the job to be quite a bittersweet experience, and try to accept the idea of a career outside of ordained ministry.
  • February 2002: Get engaged to Jessicah over chicken soup at the Trolley Car Diner.
  • May 2002: Graduate from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia with a Master of Divinity, Latino Concentration.
  • October 12, 2002: Get married to Jessicah in a wonderful liturgy.
  • November, 2002: Jessicah tells me we're pregnant.
  • December 2002: Jessicah decides to apply to Princeton Theological Seminary for a PhD program in Practical Theology.
  • Spring 2003: work is going well, Jessicah's final semester as an MDiv student is going well, baby is growing well in Mommy's belly.  I take a few courses in an MBA program.  After more than three years, I decide to end my regular visits with my therapist.  I also do my first supply preaching engagements for a seminary classmate . . . an experience that would prove very valuable in my discernment.
  • July 2003: we move to Princeton and have a baby girl, Talitha.  I change my first ever diaper.
  • August 2003: I begin working at a new (non-church) job closer to our new home (and new baby!) in Princeton.  Jessicah begins her graduate studies.  I take an online MBA course.
  • Fall 2003: We join and get involved in a congregation . . . the first time in a long time that I worshiped in and belonged to a church where I wasn't a "leader."  In retrospect it was a wonderful time and place for me to grow and be fed as a child of God, and regain some clarity in my sense of call.
  • January 2004: I quit Princeton-area job and begin a new job as a traveling sales representative for Augsburg Fortress.  I just couldn't stay away from the church.  I put any thoughts of an MBA on hold, and love getting paid to travel to churches and talk with pastors and lay leaders about ministry and the resources they need to carry out their ministry.
  • September 2004: I begin inquiring how I might return to the Candidacy Process.  Talking to all those pastors about their ministry gets me to thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, I'm called to be a pastor.  And perhaps, just perhaps, I'm ready to try again.
  • July 2005: We move to Pennsylvania, as my wife steps away from full-time doctoral studies to enter parish ministry.
  • November 2005: I receive a positive Entrance decision into the Candidacy Process, four years after thinking the door to ministry was permanently closed.  Candidacy committee wants me to do an additional unit of CPE prior to internship.  I continue working at Augsburg Fortress, but realize that my days are numbered there.
  • July 2006: Our second child, Cana, is born.
  • September 2006: Leave Augsburg Fortress, begin a 9-month, full-time, 3-unit CPE Residency as a hospital chaplain at Thomas Jefferson Hospital (where I had completed one unit of CPE 9 years earlier).
  • November 2006: Receive a positive Endorsement decision by the Candidacy Committee, clearing me for an internship.  It's been ten years since I first applied to seminary and the Candidacy Process.
  • Spring 2007: Jessicah is being heavily recruited for a teaching position at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.  I find an internship at a Northern Virginia congregation that had been one of my faithful customers during my Augsburg Fortress days.  The chaplaincy has been exhausting – physically and emotionally – but hugely important.
  • August 2007: We move to Northern Virginia.
  • September 2007: I begin internship at St John's By the Gas Station, a wonderful – and in some respects unconventional – place to learn about ministry and the task of being a pastor.  I preach, teach, lead worship, provide pastoral care, and otherwise participate in the pastoral ministry of the congregation.
  • November 2007: Our third child – and first son, Naaman – is born.
  • May 2008: Approved for Ordination by my Candidacy Committee.  I cry like a baby when they give me the good news.
  • August 2008: Initial conversations about a possible call at an inside-the-beltway congregation.
  • November 2008: Called to be Associate Pastor at St John's Inside the Beltway.
  • December 2008: Ordained into the minstry of Word and Sacrament.

This timetime certainly doesn't tell the whole story.  I could say much more about friends and family, or the process itself (for example, for a few years my participation in the Candidacy Process was just a mess, and I think it can be fair to say that "mistakes were made."  In a future post I'll allude to some of those mistakes and offer some reflections on the Candidacy Process as it is structured in the ELCA.  After all, I should know something about Candidacy – I was in and out of the process for much of the past 12 years!). 

But this timeline is a good start to some pre-ordination reflections . . .

About Chris Duckworth

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

8 Responses to It has taken me 12 years to get here

  1. Thom says:

    Wow, what a story. May God bless your ordination and all that will happen after this!

  2. David Lott says:

    Chris–Congratulations on your call and ordination! My prayers will be with you and Jessicah as you move forward in this next, great step. (And, in case you’re wondering, Fortress had a very good SBL meeting, and a weak AAR meeting [pretty much like every other publisher].)

  3. Ray opkins says:

    Chris…odd that I read of so many people with a path to ministry and a call to work in the church that is full of detours.
    The challenges and learning oppurtunities you have been blessed with will only help. If we ever get time, I should tell you how my “blessings” have done more to secure my faith then any other gifts from God.

  4. PS says:

    In the long run, each detour has given you a fuller understanding of the different sorts of people you will pastor. May God bless your path now and in the years to come.

  5. It was really good to hear your long twisting road toward ordination, and good to know folk make it to the end.
    Peace,
    Chris

  6. Scott says:

    Wow – that’s a story!
    Blessings on your big upcoming day, and I hope the readings challenge and comfort you in this new calling.

  7. Nathan says:

    It is cool to get the whole timeline in one shot. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  8. Catt says:

    Thank you for sharing your timetable. I’m in that crushed moment right now (after being denied) and it’s helpful seeing that sometimes it isn’t THE END, but instead a different door opening.

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