We had two questions that had similar directions this week. In one, a postulant muses upon how during her journey to ordination, she finds herself heeding a call that transcends denominational boundaries and wonders how to handle that. In another, one of our readers muses about the possibility that deep involvement in the church can lead to deep disillusionment with the church. Here are the questions, and what our matriarchs had to say. We hope for your wisdom on these topics as well, so feel free to share them in comments:
Has anyone out there started the ordination process in one faith tradition, and ended in another? I feel like a traitor for even asking the question, and I'm positive that if discernment leads that way, it will include a stage of grieving. I don't believe in quitting when a relationship is hard, and I love to be part of growth and change. Ultimately, though, faithfulness to God is far more important than fidelity to one denomination. I want to stay in this beautiful church that I love. I also need to take God's call seriously, even when it isn't in the correct prepackaged box.
How does your faith survive close contact with the church?
From our Matriarchs, first--Ann:
With regard to the first question, I do not have that experience—but along those lines, I
intentionally attended an interfaith divinity school to test my call to be ordained in my denomination. I wanted to be sure I was a Christian and satisfied in my denomination before I became a priest.
The issues with change are:
1. A call comes both from God and a community so one needs to be embedded in a community for discernment.
2. If you grew up in a denomination, it can be quite tribal; a lot of things are a part of it that you don't recognize consciously. So if you change, how will you be a sacramental leader in a new tribe?
3. Every denomination has things one won't like, and when you discover them, will you go looking for a more perfect union?
4. Only you know your heart, and only the community you want to serve can respond to you. Testing before you are ordained is good. If your denomination is not a good fit, or you cannot commit to what it is asking with your whole heart, now is the time to find out.
Prayers for the journey.
For the second question, the truth is, with great difficulty. It can be hard to see the clay feet of the alleged leaders of one's church and maintain one's faith. Sorting out what is of God and what is of "man" in an institution can be a full-time job when in close contact with it. I try to find that which feeds my spirit and renews my strength, looking to those who seem to embody faith whether they are in leadership or not. For my close relationships in the institution, I try to stay away from those who suck the life out of church. Good personal boundaries are important as well as personal practice of faith. When I run across people and things that take away my faith, I try to learn what might be "hooked" in me—that part of me that does the same things. Since I am a priest, I have to work closely with the institution— or quit. I still see more that builds my faith than not, so I am staying. The institution can do things that one person cannot accomplish alone, but if it does not work for you, find what does.
I have served for 14 years of my ministry on the Commission on Ministry overseeing seminary students and ordination candidates in two different regions of our denomination. In that time, I have followed the process of many students who have changed denominations. I hear your desire to be faithful to your home denomination and not to run when the relationship is hard. I have great respect for that approach, and have taken it myself. I will always be a bit pulled between love for my own denomination and my yearning for a higher liturgical expression in worship. On the other hand, I have chosen a non-hierarchical structure that has been very freeing and life-giving for ministry. I cannot say what the "right" choice was. I can only say that I made a choice to stay and there have been positives and negatives.
As I have watched students in the process, I admire the courage of some who have discerned that their core values for church and ministry are reflected more profoundly in another denomination than the one they have known. Very often students come to seminary with limited experience of the different denominations. When we look at it from that perspective, it makes sense and is quite right that we finally experience a call to ministry in the tradition that best fits for us. When we as a Commission on MInistry see that a person has truly "come home" in the change they make, we celebrate it.
On the other hand, we are concerned that students seek a change for the right reasons: That they are not running from conflict, that they are not simply seeking a polity that will make their search for a congregation easier, that their theology and ecclesiology truly connects with the overall theology and ecclesiology of the denomination they want to join. For these reasons, we do not allow "quick" transfers.
As for how my faith survives in "close contact with the church"—I used to feel that my denomination defined what parts of "the tradition" were "mine." When I was growing up, I would hear people say "we do this" or "we don't do that." I finally came to realize that all the tradition—whatever nurtures my relationship with God—is mine. Therefore I can be a relatively "high church" pastor of the Disciples of Christ. I can be a co-member of a Roman Catholic order. I can nurture a Celtic spirit. I can do what is needed to nurture a whole faith that is not restricted to or by my experience in a particular congregation or denomination. The result is that I feel more at home in my congregation and denomination, because I see it as part of the Church of Jesus Christ and certainly not all of it.
[PS--Be sure to send a hearty thank you to all our Matriarchs for their continuing participation in this column! And send your questions about ministry to us at AskTheMatriarch@gmail.com.]