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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — When Spirits Wander

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:

Question 1:
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.

Question 2:
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.

Jacque says:
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]


  1. Faith is in a growth process as we enter any church. Many rituals are different, yet the basis is the same..they are vehicles of God's grace. So, in those there are connections, though some we may leave behind, or enhance as we move on.

    The more similarities we look for, the more we will find. Differences stick out because as children we are often trained to see those. Comparing, competition are two ways
    that happens.

    I changed denominations before I went into ministry, but had been going to the one I was called to since I was very young. I went to both for many years. So I knew where I would be able to develop my faith. The atmosphere was invitational and open.

    The Rector of the Parish, though sad, never judged that decision, but a long time friend turned and walked out of my life. The head of the Sunday School I had gone to long before, phoned and told me I was going to hell. The first hurt deeply, and the second one was a shocking verbal judgment. It was good it was on the phone, I didn't know what to say.

    But, neither shook the core of my faith, or reasons that brought me to doing that, rather it confirmed it.

    This may not be a 'heavy' so much today and I have learned that God meets us where we least expect, and often it becomes a point of growth.

    Keeping hearts open to those meeting places offers hope for all Christian churches.

    There are things in my church that I can change my attitude about, if it seems in keeping with my inner soul. There are things that need to change as we walk the path of faith.

    It has given a good grounding for understanding how Grace enters and moves me along. It allows for tolerance, relationships and bridge building.

    God's Grace is for everyone and is open and freely given. This is one the deepest core beliefs in my life. When this in balance I can do, see, and live more faithfully wherever I am.

  2. I was ordained in one denomination, and five years later, I left it to join the denomination of my heart--the denomination I wanted to part of at the beginning of my ordained ministry. Although the process in the first denomination was grueling, and felt like, at times, theological hazing, it was an important experience, although I would never repeat it. However, after five years, I just couldn't be in ministry under that auspice, for so many reasons--a big one was that it seemed that those in power were always trying to squash/stifle or "catch" others in unorthoxody. (could have been the part of the country, too). When I began my process of transfer, I experienced such "welcome to the fold" rather than "hmm, do you deserve to get into the gate?". I have never looked back (well, that pension was pretty good, but...) What is important is that I am so proud to be where I am at now....It is wonderful.

  3. I very much resonate with question two.

    I am one of the pastors in a congregation where we see members leaving because our church doesn't offer the specific schedule or programs they want in their church. (Though this is true for most churches, it seems to be a painful process in our congregation at this time.) This sense of "if it's not going my way, I'm leaving" can be very draining on the faith journey of those who choose to stay and work through the struggle. It is draining on those who lead in the struggle. I worry that people will leave and rather than find a faith community that does meet their needs, they will disconnect from faith communities all together.

    Yes, I resonate with question two. How does faith survive the reality of the church, "warts and all"?

    This is actually my Lenten question this year-- what excites me about my faith, how can that sustain me in the draining times of ministry, and how can I share the specifics of my excitement with others? I suspect if at the end of Lent I've answered the first part of the question I'm on the right track.

  4. Excellent, thoughtful responses. Thank you.

    I have not faced this in my own life, well at least not since I came back to church 20 years ago following a 16 year hiatus - at which time I did switch denominations....prayers for all who are discerning this...

  5. I have been rather peripetetic in my ministerial journey. First I found faith in the Roman Catholic Church but could not live as a woman with the constraints that that Church had on ordained ministry. I found a real home in the Episcopal Church where I was ordained. I now serve an ELCA Lutheran church in NY state.

    I have always thought of myself as a "churchwoman" but I know myself as lover of God first and foremost. I am finding that denominational loyalty is not as important to me as I have gotten older. I also find that denominational loyalty often gets in the way of my loyalty to God.

    As an ordained person in a specific denomination and now called to a different denomination I need to teach in accordance with the denomination I serve. I may not preach like a Methodist in a Lutheran Church. Nor may I promulgate Roman Catholic teachings in the Episcopal Church.

    In today's faith, I beleive that our faith must always go beyond denomination. And if we can't, we must look at the places that rub to see if sin is not present.

    I guess it would be more like--what family are you? Denomination is more like where you are home--this means that we are still Christian in other places than home, but home is where you can let your hair down and be yourself.

    I am not a Lutheran in my little parish--they know that-but we speak enough of the same language of God that we understand appreciate the love of God that we share.

    I have found as I have gotten older, denomination doesn't mean as much--or perhaps we have had so much clamoring over what denomination is in my home church that I don't want to be identified with what it means to be Episcopalian or Anglican--I just want to be known by the name that God calls me--and that means Truth--integrated--honest.

    There is, ofcourse, a big movement in mainline denominations to reorient themselves. I don't know that we will be able to just be ordained in one denomination and stay our whole careers in the future. I don't count that as disloyalty. I count it as growth and maturity in faith.

  6. Thank you for the wisdom. When I was struggling with my candidacy process someone suggested that I switch denominations. Actually, several somebody's suggested it. I had a hard time considering it. I was born and raised a Lutheran. I have found great joy (and sorrow) in being Lutheran. It's become part of my identity. For me, switching would have been difficult--even though there are many things in the suggested denomination that I completely resonate with and are lacking in my denomination.

    I appreciated the thought of not running out when things are hard. I guess that's what I did. I stuck it out even though it was difficult and painful.

    I do envy other processes at times. I sometimes wish my process were more focused on the movement of the Spirit and less focused on giving the "right" answer.

    My suggestion to the questioner is to continue to listen to the still, small voice and examine the motivation behind the desire to switch denominations. It may be what God is calling you to do.

    And, I agree with the premise of the second question. I currently work in the churchwide office of the ELCA. How I got here is a very long story. My experience here has been mixed. Sometimes I wonder if the adage "Ignorance is bliss" is true. Many (many) days I wish I knew far less about how the church operates and its intricasies. My faith has been challenged because of it. The good news is that God is faithful and I haven't run from this place screaming in the night never to return. I've found that focusing on where I see God is easier than explaining or understanding the brokenness.

    Again, thanks for your wisdom and for the ministry you provide to those of "out here"

  7. This was a very helpful post today... thank you to all who weighed in.


  8. About the second question: my dad told me not to run for vestry. He said his experience on a vestry had changed his whole outlook on church. I've kept his experience in the back of my mind during the years I've served on the vestry and as I became active in our diocese. It was good that I was alert to the dangers because some days it still doesn't feel like my faith can survive the church.

    I had one of those times recently. After a bad night, I stopped at the church to pray. I realized as I prayed that what makes it all work for me is the people in the congregation who pray, worship, and work together week in and week out - not the "big" church that we exist in, but the "little" church where we find our life together.

  9. I can very much relate to the second question. In the past, my experience on a church council really soured my experience of church in general, and actually gave me a push out the church door for many years. And I currently treat my own relationship with denominational bureaucracy -- as a graduate of my synod's lay ministry program I suddenly find myself an "insider" receiving regular missives from the synodical office, etc. -- with a certain amount of skepticism and self-imposed psychological distance. Over the years I guess I've come to understand that part of affirming the "grace-based" theology of my particular tradition -- something I do wholeheartedly -- is extending grace to the institutional church, which after all is made up of sinner-saints like myself, doing the best we can with what we have. So while I'm never going to be the ecclesiastical version of an "office wife," I'm not going to pick up my marbles and go home either.


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