Thursday, May 30, 2013
I'd do that for free!
The occasion was my second post-divorce retreat to the desert. In December 1995, I drove to Utah to tour the national parks, something I had wanted to do throughout my first marriage but had never been able to interest my wife in. As luck would have it, though, that trip coincided with the Clinton/Congress budget standoff, and all the national parks were closed. I was able to see parts of a few, but only if they were visible from the highway (Capitol Reef, Zion, and on my way home through California, Death Valley). Within days of my second marriage ending, I knew I would repeat the odyssey, and this time I'd see Arches.
On New Year's Eve, I made it. I only had one short winter day to see as much of it as I could. In term of size, Arches is actually one of the smaller western parks. It's possible to see most of the highlights in a single day, and I set about doing just that, visiting Park Avenue, the Balanced Rock, the Double Arch (all of which make appearance in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"), with some extended hiking at the Devil's Garden, sight of the Landscape Arch. At the end of the day, I hiked up to the Delicate Arch, in my mind the most spectacular natural structure in the world. I was there at sunset, to watch the colors shift from yellowish-organge to deep red. As the sun dipped belong with horizon, one of the other hikers who was there began softly playing a hand drum. It was awe-inspiring, solemn, more sacred than any worship service I'd ever attended, whether in a chapel or a cathedral. I made my way back to my car humbled by the ancient beauty of what I'd experienced.
So there I was, back in Utah, seeking perspective on my second bout of involuntary singleness, but with an added cause for self-reflection: the Hillsboro United Methodist Church, of which I had been associate pastor in charge of music for barely six months, was fed up with the sadness divorce had brought on. They wanted me to just get over it, and since that appeared not to be in the offing, they wanted me out.
As I explored Arches, I found myself digging deep into my sense of vocation: did I really even want to be a minister anymore? I was afraid of what would happen if I just quit and I suddenly lost the salary and housing allowance I had come to expect; but fear is not the same thing as vocation. There were many pastoral tasks for which I had no motivation whatsoever, and this had been going on longer than I had been dealing with divorce. Halfway through my day at Arches, I found myself at the foot of an arch like that at the top of this post, gazing up at a natural window that had taken millennia for the forces of nature to create. I closed my eyes to meditate, and felt something emerging from the recesses of my mind: I should only be a pastor if I would be willing to do this work without pay. And there it was, the answer to all my wrestling: I didn't love this work. I didn't even like it. Oh, I loved preaching, mainly because it was a weekly opportunity for me to do improvisational performance art; but in my new position, I preached at most once a month, and people weren't taking to it the way they had in my earlier, weekly preaching appointments. The other thing that could have been rewarding, music direction, came down to one evening of rehearsals a week, and again, people in the choir and praise band just weren't taking to my ideas.
But in all honesty to myself, I knew my dissatisfaction with the pastorate predated Hillsboro by years. Going all the way back to my internship in Illinois, I remembered how isolated and alone I felt most days after Brenda would drive off to Robinson. Forcing myself to go out and visit with my parishioners, I had many wonderful encounters, but it was always hard work. I came to love the people of Seed Chapel, and as undemonstrative as they were, they loved me. They were patient with me as I taught myself the art of manuscript-free preaching. Sometimes I'd forget where I was going, and just have to end the sermon--which was fine with them, since it meant they could beat the Baptists to the good restaurants for Sunday dinner. They took good care of me, just as they took good care of each other, and after eleven months, it was hard to leave. It was a good, growing year.
England was good, too, though often difficult. Visitation again came easy with a few people, but it was difficult with most; and in England, I could exploit my role as one half of a clergy couple, sending out my far more gregarious wife to do the casual socializing I didn't care for. The friends I made in England came to me in my role as Brenda's husband. I honed my skills as a preacher and worship leader, but started falling away from the intentional visitation discipline I had imposed on myself in Illinois.
Returning to Oregon in a pre-depressed state, the year in Medford nearly did me in professionally. I barely got to know my congregation in Talent, let alone the Medford church where I was supposed to spend half my time. In Estacada and Lents, my first year was a time of darkness, as I came to grips with my inner sadness over a failing marriage and career, neither of which I was admitting to myself. After a year, Lents was dropped from my appointment, and I was three-quarter time at Estacada. There I began to explore my depression in sermons, and the congregation identified with me, began to care for me in ways that reversed the pastor-parish role. In the middle of my third year, my tattered marriage finally came apart, and the church and town of Estacada became my support group. I believe I did good work there, providing a voice for the community activists who gathered around that church, but it was despite, not because of, my receding call to ministry.
Amity/McCabe/Sheridan was where my vocation called it quits. Now I was going through the motions, spending far more time preparing for services and sermons I could have improvised in minutes. I had that aspect of my work down. I can still do this; give me a text, and a couple of minutes to think about it, and I'll preach you a sermon, as well as rattling off several hymns that would fit the message. I spent hours in the study, reading, organizing, creating beautiful layouts for bulletins, writing newsletters, doing all I could to avoid the work of visitation. During my third year, the Amity/McCabe parish entered into conversations with the Sheridan church and its pastor, Bert Hanson, over merging all three churches into a single cooperative parish. I'd known Bert for several years, and found him to be amiable, but no great shakes as a worship leader or preacher; and yet, in Bert, I saw someone who had the one essential element I utterly lacked. Bert had left a lucrative career as an industrial chemist to become a lay pastor assigned to a local church, and was on the very long course of study track to ordination. And he loved it. Every time I met with him he talked enthusiastically about how much fun he was having, how he'd gladly keep doing this as long as he was allowed to. I just couldn't see it.
So I started looking elsewhere. I heard there was an opening for a chaplain at Portland State University, and applied for it. The application was similar to the mountains of paperwork needed to apply for ordination, and involved a great deal of soul-searching. I visited the campus of PSU, walked around, tried to imagine myself serving the student community there, and felt a mild stirring. It wasn't a full-blown call, but it gave me hope. When I was turned down without even an interview, I could feel the lid beginning to close on the coffin of my career.
Hillsboro was my last chance. I probably could have made it work. I knew how to do the visitation, had done it successfully in other places, though never to the degree I really needed to. I just didn't want to. Those words don't do it justice: I so badly didn't want to that I no longer cared what happened to me. I was stuck in a job I could not force myself to do, trying to spin out the busy work to stave off the ecclesial ax that was soon to fall on my clerical collar.
I should only be a pastor if I would be willing to do it for free.
Looking back on my career, I know I had met many pastors who, like Bert Hanson, would happily have done their work for free. Some of them grumbled about the low wages and substandard housing, but most were simply delighted to be able to do the work, and receiving a salary was a bonus. After I left ministry, I became part of the Metanoia Peace Community which, for its twenty-five year existence, was able to do all it did (much more than large churches with multiple pastors on staff) because John and Pat Schwiebert voluntarily took poverty wages to avoid paying war taxes, and yet devoted their entire lives to serving the poor and marginalized. John tired of wrestling with Metanoians as the years went by--the community could be extremely argumentative and simultaneously stuck on needing a "sense of the meeting" before making a decision--but I never knew him to covet the much more comfortable lifestyle of a senior pastor at a large church. He would have done it for free.
Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that ministry should be done for free, though I doubt I was alone in my sense of being trapped in the profession by my need for shelter and income, and out of obligation to the sheer volume of grief it took me to achieve ordination. I believe that most pastors do their work out of a sense of vocation, and find genuine rewards in serving God and others in this way.
To get to my point, I'm going to spend a little time on my transition back into teaching. I've previously described how my early days in education paralleled by pastoral career: I was full of doubts and misgivings, didn't feel like I had a knack for it, was easily discouraged by my student teaching experience with a supervisor who was, quite simply, a jerk, and then being summarily dismissed from my first true job by a principal/superintendent who was, himself, incompetent. The different is that I gave up on teaching before I'd given it a chance. Knowing I had done this, I felt a real obligation to stay in ministry well past the time I probably should have left, rather than be a two-time quitter.
As my time away from ministry expanded, and my two attempts at returning to it were rebuffed (first by the conference, then by Emanuel Hospital, where I had sought an internship with the chaplaincy program), I knew I needed a new source of income, as my disability benefit was running out. And then it came to me: substitute teaching. I contacted the TSPC, and began the relatively long process of reinstatement: compared to my ten-year ordination odyssey, the months-long wait for my new certificate was a walk in the park.
Once I got back in classrooms, first as a substitute, then as a full time music teacher, I found, much to my amazement, that things had changed for me. The challenges were still the same, the children (despite radically different clothing choices, hairstyles, and electronic pursuits) were developmentally the same; what was different was me. I had grown up. Maybe it was the wear and tear of marriage, divorce, remarriage, redivorce; or the experience of raising my own children through the developmental stages I was encountering in students; or those years in the clergy trenches, and my struggles to stay in them. Whatever had happened, I was tougher, more assertive; and now I loved this work.
It didn't completely love me back. It took two full-time jobs with varying degrees of success before I hit on the right mixture of firmness and fun. And then it all went away, and when it came back, it was only half-time, and with the big kids I used to fear. Except that, in the years I was working with little kids, my own kids got bigger and passed through the same developmental stages as my current students. So it again comes back to this: I love this work. It seems like an amazing treat that I get paid to do it. In fact, I have four jobs, all music-related (essential for filling the budgetary hole left by half-time schoolwork), and I enjoy myself doing all of them. One of them I would gladly do for free, in fact.
Let me spell out a few details on that last bit: for almost four years now, I have been playing keyboard for ComedySportz. I was brought in through the side door by my partner, Amy, who had herself been improvising on stage with CSz for over a year at that point. After one of the first CSz "Farm Team" events I attended, many of us gathered at a McMenamins pub that is popular with them because of its large tables and late closing hour. There was one "Pro Team" player there with us, Bill Cernansky, an Intel engineer by day and a brilliant improviser by night. Bill is very well paid by Intel, enough so that he and his wife, Betse (another improv genius) recently bought a home in the spendy Irvington district of Portland, as well as a Nissan Leaf. Bill was in a speculative mode that night at the Tavern & Pool, and said dreamily at one point, "If I could have anything, it would be to be a full-time improviser." That's it: Bill works his day job to support his love for his night job, which pays him probably around $100 a month. Between rehearsals and performances, Amy does improv 3-4 nights a week, for which she receives, if she's in a show, the grand sum of about $25. This is something we both love so much we'd do it without the monthly "player share" check.
But as Bill's remark demonstrated, one can't be a full-time improviser and pay the mortgage. That's why most artists work at other jobs to cover expenses.
Now let me reiterate what I said earlier about pastors: I shouldn't have to do it for free. I should be paid a decent wage for the hard work I do with my students, or as a performer entertaining others, and I am. I put in plenty of extra hours for my school job, and I don't begrudge a minute of it, because this, really and truly, after all those years trying something else, is what I was called to do. Had I stuck with it for another year of subbing and perhaps a new job with a district, I might have figured this out for myself. But sometimes you have to take a long journey to realize how much you love your home.
Do what you love. If you hate what you're doing, but it's making it possible to do what you love on the side, that's a pragmatic compromise. If you hate your work, and you've got no time at all for what you love, it's time to find new work.