A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

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These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

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In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

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There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

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The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

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Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j

12 weeks; 25 lessons . . . my summer in CPE

Greetings, friends.

As the ink dries on my final self-evaluation, presented just this morning, I rejoice in part by sharing this list with you.

I send appreciation to my CPE cohort group (and our supervisor) for sharing laughter, tears, and learning, and for serving as draftreaders of this post.  Appreciation also to the many incredible SLH staff members with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.  Big thanks to my beloved support team who have helped me through this experience in many ways–you know who you are.  And finally, I offer gratitude, wonder, and respect for the patients and family members I’ve had the honor of companioning these past weeks.  Prayers and blessings to all.

Much love,

j

Hospital surgery corridor 12 weeks; 25 lessons (and colleagues, I’d love to hear YOUR lessons as well.)

1. Moving toward any situation, there’s what you expect.

Then there’s what you see.

And then there’s what there is.

Sometimes there is a lot of space between those things. 

 

2. GSW means gunshot wound. MVC is short for multivehicle collision. And STAT is classical Latin for get your butt down here right now.

 

3. People make decisions about me and who I will be to them in seconds.

Sometimes less. Some of that is what they project from without. Some is what I project from within. And amid the projections, there is a circle of space in which I have control over a part of my image. Herein lie power and identity, service and sacrifice. Who am I willing to be for you? How will I move to do that?

 

4. When grief finds you, you can cry. Or, you can not cry. Both choices might change things.

 

5. Your religion matters, even if your denomination is tiny and has an unusually long name.

I never understood as a patient or parent why I was being asked to share my religion upon admission, and I have hesitated more than once to even try to explain that I am a Unitarian Universalist. At one visit to the local children’s hospital I hemmed and hawed, explaining, “probably ours isn’t even one of the choices.” The admissions clerk replied smoothly, “No, we have that. I’ll put it right in.” That was a small moment, but it was one of great hospitality, and I remember it clearly amid a day that is otherwise mostly a blur.

From the medical side of things, I can now tell you that we ask not so we can report your hospitalization to your church (you would need to ask us to do that) or to sort or classify you in any particular way. We ask because your faith and its rituals are important to your life, and that makes them important to your healing.

And who knows—your local UU chaplain may be ready and waiting to talk with you. So make your presence known. Consider that pre-admission faith statement to be part of your ministry, to yourself and to the world.

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6. The most intimidating spaces I walk into are the ones where I will be alone with myself.  Yours are probably different, but if you can identify the scary places, you will hold a key to changing both frame of reference and behavior.

 

7. I feel the sting of failure acutely. And then I reliably reflect, stand up, and keep going. From here on out, we’re calling that success. Which in CPE language means “good enough.”

 

8. Editing means loss. So does stepping forward. So does simply continuing to breathe. In the formation process, you chisel and sculpt and free from the rocks a new version of yourself. And you will, inevitably, leave pieces of yourself on the cutting floor.

 

9. On a related note, it can be scary to move out of draft form. To use periods rather than commas. To bid farewell, walk away, close the door. There is beauty in openness; there is honesty and integrity in closure. The boundaries of this work require both.

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10. Moments are shared, bonds are formed . . . and then, as attends the work of all caring professionals, it is time to let them go.

The place between life and death has been called the thin space, the valley, the hinge, or the knife edge. Whatever words we use, it is a privilege and an intimacy to be invited into it.

As chaplains, our walk through this space with you is often short in duration; then we commend you back into your wider communities of care, trusting in your combined strength and resources, and in the Whatever-Is. There are next steps, but we will not know about them. I find God in that mysterious unknowing.

And I root for you still.

 

11. You took hundreds of risks today, some tiny, some larger. You’ll take hundreds more tomorrow. Which ones did you notice?

 

12. I am constantly surrounded by blessings. And sometimes that bounty feels like too much to take in, and I’m tempted to push them away or live at the edges, with words like “earn” and “deserve” echoing in my mind.

I haven’t figured out why it’s ok to have so much. And I cannot know that things will be the same tomorrow. This means it’s possible and even understandable to meet extreme generosity with shame or fear.

And yet, I find a lived answer to this every Sunday. I love the ancient liturgy, and I wonder if the most powerful words within it are “given for you.” I subscribe to a faith with generous love at its core. Might holding that truth in my heart mean learning to be fearless about receiving?

Deeply grateful . . . and fearless.

 

13. If you’re tempted to say something stupid, try not talking. Truly. There are events for which the solidarity of silence is the only reasonable response.

 

14. I have told myself for a very long time that I “don’t do well with blood.” I can now tell you, post trauma center, that when it comes to the physical realities of bodily fluids, blood is only the beginning. There’s also vomit, sputum, cerebrospinal fluid . . .

As it turns out, I can handle more than I thought I could, in the moments where “handling it” is what is needed. Blood running down the wall? Alrighty then. Wound vac at the bedside? Ok. But later, post-fluids, what needs processing are my feelings. Life in the trauma bay is a buy-now, pay-later endeavor for care providers. I choose to pay later in a way that affirms life and hope, and that means remembering that good stewardship of resources begins with my own emotional and physical energy.

 

15. People are often not sure what a chaplain might be for. Nor a Unitarian Universalist. Explanations can be invitations, obligations, or apologies. They can also be opportunities.

 

16. There is both magic and danger in the spaces between us. When I walk into your patient room, or come into the trauma bay as a fellow staff member, we are immediately negotiating and sharing power. We might also be mediating God.

 

17. I would rather scrub floors or skip meals or, on some days, cut off fingertips than ask for help.

Even when it matters. Especially when it matters.

I hope to continue challenging this tendency in myself. In the meantime, I pray that the realization inspires a more generous pastoral awareness—the reluctance to request or receive assistance of any kind is not uncommon in our congregations, and it presents challenges around concepts of covenant and care.

Support

 

18. Holding the hand of a dying person will encourage you to touch your faith. Holding the hands of fifty dying people will demand, instead, that you challenge it.

So do it. Lean in to the questions. Despair, even—can it be faithless to cry out into the expanse of space My God, My God, Why if Jesus did just exactly that? And to notice that that the question goes unanswered?

Wrestle. Observe.  Acknowledge, get mad, throw anything you need to overboard . . . and then, return to what is simple. To what you know about living and meaning and this moment. And find with the darkness and the questions and the numbered, labored breaths the faith that will carry you forward. It is, now, a faith fit for the valley . . . a faith worthy of the sacred steps you will take holding so many other hands.

 

19. I do not know why bad things happen. I just know that they do, and that sooner or later, some of them will happen to you. And when they do, I hope that you let yourself fall, as Rev. Kate Braestrup advises, and, when you’re ready, that you notice what catches you. That you can number each blessing, each piece of grace and beam of love as it finds its way to you. Comfort and solace amid the Very Worst.

You don’t have to call that God . . . but you could.

 

20. Sincere affirmation opens many doors.

 

21. Food does not heal sadness.

Like the children’s story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the fundamental truth of grief is that we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

For me, despite many attempts, chewing has not turned out to be an instrinsic part of the healing process . . .  and even so, the hospital cafeteria offers surprisingly good meals and its staff engage in a cheering ministry all their own.

Bon appetit.

Slice of apple pie

 

22. People will tell me they are “spiritual, but not religious,” in any of the ways that people say this, approximately 500 times between now and when I’m ordained.

And infinitely more times after that.

I have come to accept this. And believe that my task is to see it as an invitation to exploration, using language, symbols, and values that hold meaning for the individual. This will be how we do faith in this time . . . and it’s actually not a bad place to start.

 

23. Both/and isn’t just seminaryspeak. It is an invitation to find oneself within the complexity of life, where things are rich and ambiguous and multivalent.

This way of looking at things can be deeply uncomfortable—it offers none of the easy answers of either/or. It also offers possibilities and hope that remain obscured within a two-dimensional view of conflict.

Developing the emotional range and creative tools to live into ambiguity, and to encourage others to explore it with us, is one of our most important tasks as religious leaders. It is risky, deeply countercultural, and requires the use of imagination and prophetic voice. And it just might offer a future in those spaces where the horizon seems the darkest.

 

24. The fact that a thing needs to be done does not mean that the thing is mine to do. Sometimes simply taking care of my own square is an act of love and faith.

 

25. Some days, it is worth planning an outfit around your shoes.

(Any day you spend working in a hospital is one of those days.)

 

Ballet flats

summer vacation (a dialogue about questionable life choices)

I’ve been kinda quiet here lately. In real life, too, unless you’re one of My People.  Then I’ve been rather chattery. Nerves, you see.

We here at Raising Faith are dealing with Many Big Events In the Formation Process.

Mostly, I’ve been taking lots of deep breaths. I’m getting very good at that. Someday you might not even be able to tell that I’m breathing.

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Then I’ll be like this rock. Only smaller. And slightly more responsive.

In one month and one week, I start CPE (that stands for Clinical Pastoral Education) at a medium-sized metropolitan hospital.

 

I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it will be. But, thanks to numerous versions of this very conversation, I can tell you what you’re likely to ask me—in order, even.

Those exchanges generally end with you looking astonished and slightly horrified.  Which in my head I translate as, “I do not understand . . . and Wow.”  Or, maybe, “You really have made some terrible life choices.”

Maybe so.  Sometimes I wonder.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, though, I realized I can use printed words to really answer the questions.  We have time here, and space, and  . . . . it’s just easier.

So: here goes.

What’s CPE?

Clinical Pastoral Education.  It means chaplain rotations at a hospital.  It’s like a full time job, time-wise; I’ll be at the hospital through the workweek, and work an overnight shift once every six days.  Since I won’t be in my hometown, but in a nearby city, it’s fortunate that the hospital has an on-call room where I can stay during the night shifts.

That commute sounds rough. Why don’t you just be a chaplain at our local hospital?

For a CPE program, you need a hospital that has not just chaplains on staff, but resources for training and supervising new chaplains. This is like the difference between a hospital that trains and teaches doctors and a hospital that merely employs them. Facilities with the capacity for chaplain training can, in general, be found here: Like most areas of health care, programs for chaplain education are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

Fortunately, I live near just such an area. Also fortunately, the hospital consortium I’ll be serving with is working on a deal with my smaller community hospital that would allow me to do some shifts locally.  This is probably obvious, but I am a big fan of that idea. We’ll see if it works out.

Do you get paid?

No.  In fact, it costs money.  There are several sources of potential financial aid available to help defray the costs, but completing a unit of CPE means paying fees to both the hospital and my seminary.

Hmm. And do you know what you’re doing?

Not really. I did take a required class at my seminary this spring. It was fine. But I wouldn’t say I feel prepared.

How is that ok?

I can’t really answer that. I will tell you that I have talked with at least 40 people about their experiences going through CPE and that not one of them has said “I knew what I was doing.” At all.

“First Day of CPE,” via EverydayImPastorin’

I was going to add, “and nobody died!” but probably, that’s not true. That’s, you know, one of the reasons you might need a chaplain.

 

You don’t sound very excited. Isn’t this what  you wanted to do in the first place?

Yeah, about that. So back when I first acknowledged to myself that I was discerning a call to ministry, a primary point of terror was that it made no sense. None. I had a whole life, which I mostly loved, and none of it pointed this way.

Except. I spent five years volunteering and then working at a crisis counseling center with a particular focus on suicide prevention and grief support. Then three more years assisting a complicated grief group at a family support center. Then I got a grant to do some research around grief and the legal process. Later, in the education field, I did my masters project around supporting families of young children in grief.

So you see, I had this beautiful aha moment, one I clung to as I jumped off what felt like a very tall cliff: I’m not interested in ministry, per se. I just want to find an authentic way to be present to families who have experienced a loss. I could be a chaplain. And better still: I could be a pediatric chaplain!

Eureka. Insanity explained.

And now, 18 months later, that pediatric chaplain vision still lives in a corner of my mind. She’s increasingly cramped, though, by things like radical hospitality in congregational life, the intersection of the sacred and the secular in our voluntary organizations, the opportunities every day to recognize the humanity in another and, quoting Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. So I don’t think about her much these days. And also, there’s the reality that she might actually need a chaplain herself.

Trigger warning: this is a very sad story. And it’s not mine. And for that reason, details have been changed.  The thing is, last month I rode home from Chicago on the train, returning from my last set of seminary intensives for this year. I ate in the dining car with my friend and colleague.  During that meal, we shared a table and talked love and life with the two women across from us. They were a generation older than we, one already a grandmother several times over, and the other excited to greet, this month, her first grandchild. It was a story of joy and expectation.

Until, over dessert, we began to talk ministry. And then the second woman told me a different story. Of another first grandchild. A beautiful baby boy, Evan—the pregnancy was perfect. His birth went fine. And Evan went home to his loving and overjoyed family . . . but he failed to thrive.

Eventually, he was scheduled for exploratory surgery. It revealed a hidden heart defect. And, during that that surgery, one which the family has been told was merely a routine step in a longer diagnostic process, Evan died.

This woman, this grandmother of loss, and grandmother-to-be—her faith and her grace, her openness and hope— she was luminous. I hold her in my heart. And Evan. And his new baby sister. Lord, let her grow.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was physically present, don’t get me wrong, and I managed to keep the tears mostly in my eyes. But friends, my heart is not the heart I had when I did those other things. The griefy things.

I have a mama heart now, and it throbs frequently and breaks easily and just is probably not cut out for this chaplain stuff. 

I spent that conversation listening through the treacherous haze of a mental battle, one that went something like, “OMG, I Cannot. Handle. This./Seriously woman Keep Your Shit Together/ How are you ever going to be a minister if you can’t even be present with Random Lady on a Train?

And that, friends, is when my pre-CPE crisis began in earnest. You know, the what the hell was I thinking, this is an awful way to spend a summer and maybe also my life crisis.

My casual observations indicate that we all get to this realization at some point. That we really are not enough for what is being asked of us. How could we be? No one is.

And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again

Then we do it anyway. You wake up, one morning in your bed, or one evening on a train in the face of hope and loss sitting across from you and your chocolate mousse, and you know you cannot do it, there’s no way you can do it, no one could do it . . .

And then you do it.

All of that said though, that experience on the train was a dash of cold water in the face of my pediatric chaplain vision. Because, you know, no one comes to the children’s hospital because they’re having a really great day.

And yep, someone needs to be there with those families. To be there with each of us, when it is our turn.

I’m just not sure I’m made of tough enough stuff for that to be me.

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You’re right; that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do this thing?

The immediately available answer is: we do it because we have to.

If you know a minister in a denomination that requires an M.Div., ask her about her CPE experience. She had one.

But why do you have to do that?

Everyone I have talked to—you know, the ones who did not say they knew what they were doing—has given me the same answer about this. It’s very short. And totally predictable.  It’s like it comes to you in a personal fortune cookie at a closing CPE banquet.

That answer is: CPE breaks you open. You hold and hurt for and walk with other people’s pain—and your own—until you break. And then, eventually, with help, you put yourself back together. As a person who can be at peace amid pain.

There’s variation on the amount of collegial support or competitive torture that people report experiencing with their cohorts, or their supervisors, or the nursing staff . . . and some people have 5 minutes to answer a page and some have 30 . . . but the process and its effects sound pretty standard.

 

That sounds really, impossibly hard.

I agree with you.

Seminarians do it anyway.

Yay.

So You’re Thinking About Seminary . . . our ACTUAL advice to you

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Dear prospective UU seminarians,

We’re back!  We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another.  And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.

In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works.  In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.

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1.  Build and care for your support network

Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy.  Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life.  The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.

Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community.  As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably.  It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.

If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double.  The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice?  The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency?  Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold.  (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time.  Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)

Take care of your primary relationships.  Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support.  Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.

When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you.  Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns.   And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback.  There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.

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Unity Temple in Oak Park

2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation

Attend regularly.  Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together.  Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul.  There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.

Get to know your minister.  In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways.  S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond.  Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.

Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life.  From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together.  There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.

Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.

Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead.  This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership.  You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.

And prepare to let it go.  Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have.  And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back.  When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too.  Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process.  [Yep, it’s really true.  Need a tissue?  We’ll wait.]

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3. Connect with the broader UU movement

Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings.  They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.

Keep track of what’s being talked about.  By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in)  some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.

Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary.  Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant.  UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context.  Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.

Bring your faith with you when you travel.  It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point.   The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel.  And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj

balance

4. Take stock–is your life in balance?

Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.

You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience.   You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.

Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before.  In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.

If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.”  You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment.  All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.

Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial.  It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.

The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.

The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level.  In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.

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5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.

Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.

Connect with others on your spiritual journey

Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.

Consider what feeds you.  

Is it time with your children?  Reading mysteries?  French cooking?  Yoga?  Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things.  Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation.  Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.

Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community

Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon.  As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping.  Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home.  Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.

We realize this is a lot to take in, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  (You should see what we took out–post coming soon on surviving the first year of seminary.)  For now, know that it’s a work in progress for all of us, but that in our experience, some things are more easily attended to in these months before you begin seminary.

Blessings on your journey!  And now, get back to those applications!

Jordinn, Kimberley, Alix, Shane, and Lynda

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