I’ve been mostly quiet for the past few months, and there are several reasons for that. Schoolwork saps a lot of my writing time, responsibilities at home and at church deserve my attention, I don’t often feel inspired lately….
And then there’s this. I received some very harsh criticism early this spring. The kind of criticism that could, potentially, derail my ordination. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill disgruntled blog reader snarking in the comments, or someone at church saying something that hurt my feelings. No, this was a person outside my congregation making a full assault on my character, my theology, my vocation. And it was directed to my denominational superiors.
Now….my superiors would probably just as soon that I keep this to myself. But you know what? I hate secrets. I’ve spent much of my life being a secretive person because I was afraid of what would happen if I told the truth. Those days are increasingly behind me. This thing I’ve been going through, this ordeal, has been like a weight on my chest for two and a half months now. I will spare you all the unpleasant details, but I’m not going to treat it like a shameful secret. I’m walking wounded, I’m confused, I’m angry and afraid, but I’m not ashamed.
The long and the short of it is that most of the accusations were completely baseless. My superiors examined me, listened to me, and believed me on those theological matters, thank goodness. I’m grateful that they let me answer the charges directly. The only things that weren’t baseless were areas of legitimate disagreement within our denomination. We’re a big tent – clearly bigger than some people would like – but I’m not outside the tent.
Of course, some have suggested that even if my theology is sound, I “invite” criticism by engaging controversial topics. Maybe. I don’t know. What I can say is that I don’t mean to invite criticism. I’m far too big a baby to do that on purpose: I cower in the face of disapproval. You know those quizzes that have been all over Facebook lately? A couple of months ago I took a “Which Buffy Character Are You?” quiz, because, well, Buffy. The quiz said I was Willow, which made sense to me. A friend commented and said, “I’m surprised you’re not Buffy,” and I thought, “Really? Tough, confident, stake-wielding warrior woman Buffy? Me? You don’t know me very well.”
Maybe my writing makes me seem tougher than I really am. I am not tough. I am not a warrior. What I am trying to be is honest about my own spiritual journey, obedient to the God who called and continues to call me, and brave enough to speak up for what I believe is right.
I’m sure I’m getting some things wrong. Fortunately, I don’t think the grace of God hinges on my perfect wisdom – or yours. But I’m discovering that people want pastors to be answer-providers, not question-askers. They want pastors to uphold the structure, not wonder out loud if it can be improved. At least that’s true for some people, and when you run afoul of them – particularly if they are influential, powerful people – they can make things very difficult.
Have I ever mentioned that one of my central prayers on this journey in ministry is this one? “Lord, help me to tell the truth.” It’s the last thing I pray before every interview with our credentials board, the last thing I pray before I preach. Do I pray this because I have a special temptation to lying? No, I pray it because I think all pastors have a special temptation to lying. We are under such pressure to say the “right thing” all the time that we can easily put up false fronts. There is often a large gap between the performance-self of pastors and their authentic selves. Having been around the church all my life, I knew this going in – knew that the struggle to remain honest would soon become more intense.
The struggle is real, people!
I’ve almost given up on ordination about 20 times in the last couple of months. I’m afraid of getting in trouble again. I’m afraid of silencing myself to avoid getting in trouble again. I’m afraid of giving up and disappointing the people who have supported me (most notably Mr. Right and my children). I’m afraid of not giving up, and being co-opted by the status quo. And the status is not quo, by the way.
I’m afraid of turning back and failing God. I’m afraid of pressing ahead and somehow not being the minister God called me to be in the first place, even if I’ve got that ordination certificate in hand.
Being honest today means just telling you that I’ve been through hell these last few months, and I’m feeling pretty weak and confused and, most of all, afraid. If perfect love casts out all fear, then my love still needs perfecting, considerably. For today, in the middle of my fear, I’m just pressing on.
I’m not Buffy or Xena or She-Ra. I’m not Deborah or Jael. I’m just Sharon. I’m shaky and uncertain about the future, but I’ve known the grace of God that comes through Jesus, and it is life to me. I want to share that life with other people, and I want to remove every obstacle that stands in the way of the gospel sounding like the good news that it is. And I want to do that as myself; honestly, openly, with my questions and concerns, even when that “invites” criticism.