Many years ago, a sweet, well-meaning older woman went on a rant during a United Methodist Women’s meeting about how it was “obvious” that no one could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time. I swallowed. I was already tired in my bones, wanting a completely different job that I could leave every day instead of being “on” 24/7. And being criticized for every little thing. I did not speak.
The Church Lady, as I always called her, who was always eager to start a fight, piped up and said, “Oh, but Rev. Peggy is a Democrat!” All heads turned toward me, mouths open, as if she’d revealed that I’d had an abortion. The woman speaking stared at me a moment, turned back to her audience and kept berating Democrats. I pretended to get a call on my cell phone and just left the building.
I was nearing the end of my endurance. It was still another year before I was able to find a job to save me from the well I was drowning in.
When I was a little kid in Red Bank, NJ, I used to sneak into the church sanctuary during the week, when all was quiet. I can still smell the old varnish on the church pews, a tinge of Lemon Pledge on the surface, the aroma of old pages, and hints of perfume lingering after the Sunday morning services.
I climbed the wooden steps up into my father’s pulpit, a white bulb that held him aloft, over the congregation every Sunday, making him seem somehow higher and holier than all of us. We literally looked up at him as he spoke, his black wings waving as he gestured intensely over some psychological or biblical idea.
As a young child, though taller than most in my class, I could barely see over the dais of the pulpit out into the empty pews. I reverently touched the linen cloth over the flat surface, where he laid his indecipherable notes each week, the color according to the season of the Church year. I felt I was standing on holy ground, in a place where you had to be especially smart to stand. I never imagined I could ever stand in such a place. Nonetheless, I imagined the pews full, all faces lifted up toward me, entranced, listening intensely, all inspired and ready to take off on angel wings once I concluded the Word.
There was a whole lot I didn’t know then.
I did, in fact, get to stand in that place– though not that particular place (serving a church my father served would have required a lot more therapy than I could have afforded!)–for 19 years. It was 10 years ago this fall that I left the pastoral ministry. I hear there was a lot of speculation among my church members about why I did it, even though I gave some lame indications of a plan to go back to school which didn’t pan out as I’d hoped. Some assumed it was this parishioner or that one that “drove (me) out”, and yes, there were a few that I wouldn’t have minded blaming for it all. There were always those parishioners who would have driven Jesus to cuss! I’m not sure I knew then exactly why I was leaving, but I knew without a doubt– just as I knew without a doubt I was being led to do it in the first place–that it was time to go.
Ten years has given me a lot of perspective. Necessary healing. Insight. And hope. None of which I had a lot of when I left. What I did have a lot of was pain, anger, and a deep sense of shame. A lot of that is gone now. At the time, I felt like a victim. I can still recite all the wrongs I felt were done to me by the denomination, individual members and church boards. It helped to justify my leaving by reciting all those wrongs. And those things did happen. They were incredibly painful, and some were very unjust. I’m still not sure I could see my last bishop somewhere without having an overwhelming desire to trip her… but I’m sure I wouldn’t.
Shame was the worst. As much as I knew it was the right decision to leave, how do you walk away from a very real call? It was a powerful call, a very real experience that was profound and life-changing. It is still a huge part of who I’ve become as a human being. There were always the stories of pastors who “left” and they were usually shared in whispers or with raised eyebrows. If there wasn’t some obvious misconduct, then other pastors tended to wonder about mental illness or breakdown of some kind. Of course we’d all thought about leaving, we thought about it all the time, but to actually DO IT… put something of a cloud over one’s head.
Ten years of moving on, trying new things, trying and failing to find a church to attend as a worshiper, and talking, talking, talking with trusted friends, has given me a lot of perspective. And release. I had to forgive myself for leaving, and forgive those who wouldn’t ask me about it, including my father. I had to forgive myself for being human, breakable. For letting some people down. I had to try to forgive that Bishop who “treated me wrong” and also to realize that I was still as much a child of God with worth as she is.
There were so many reasons why I had to leave, and I’ve only learned some of them after having left. And realizing what life can be on the “outside.” I grew up in a bubble, the bubble of the United Methodist intinerent system. Some people told me I had no idea what it was like to be a person struggling to pay a mortgage, afford a house at all, or just the many “real life” things that people face day in and day out. That was mostly true. I lived in a different world. It was difficult to have friends as a pastor. Someone else might get jealous. You didn’t know who you could trust and where it was safe to talk about certain struggles. I learned the hard way who not to trust, and all too often, it was the people who were in a position to be the one who was to “pastor the pastors.” I lived apart from a lot of the rest of the world. I didn’t even know it.
In the end, I just wasn’t cut out for it. I needed to get some “real life” experiences, to relate to regular people without the set-apart-ness of the clergy robe. Other clergy colleagues had lived that life before answering the call, but I moved from one parsonage– that of my father– to another parsonage. Insulated.
For someone who always worried about what other people thought of me, being clergy was deadly. There’s always someone who hates you or talks about you behind your back to others. There were many who hated me just for being female, but I think I won most of them over. There were others who hated me for not being the previous pastor, as if it was my fault the bishop moved them out and me in.
It was all Love/Hate. The people who loved me really loved me, and the people who hated me, really hated me. I was good at a lot of the parts of the vocation (we were told in seminary it’s not a job, but a vocation). I loved preaching and planning/leading worship. That was all my favorite part– Sunday mornings! I could have left the rest of it to some other thick-skinned martyr. I enjoyed sitting down with the little kids and doing children’s sermons and trying to make sense of the Christian narrative to preschool minds. I was delirious with joy holding a warm, bundled infant in my arms and proclaiming his or her worth in the eyes of God, inviting the congregation to claim this tiny person as one of their own as God’s community.
Little introverted me came alive in the pulpit. It was a call, a challenge, to be bigger than my little ol’ self, and somehow God gave me a gift to preach. I knew that in my gut, and rode the wave each Sunday morning, feeling blessed, as if a dove had alighted on my head and said, “Good job, Peggy.” I loved my people (mostly). I was in awe of the vulnerable ones in a hospital bed, feeling unsure and scared, putting their hands in mine, trusting me to pray them through, to encourage them and put them in God’s hands. I was honored to be called in when someone was dying, to walk with them to the edge of this life and see them off into the next. To hear the stories of their lives being told around the bedside. “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” said Truvy in Steel Magnolias.
But I was not cut out for the politics of the Annual Conference, the vying for churches on the part of pastors, the measure of success being how much money you could extract out of your flock to pay the Conference bills. Some nights I felt like a lamb at a slaughter at Staff-Parish Relations Committee meetings, when some chairpersons felt it was their duty to find out what people thought the pastor was doing wrong. At one church, I was reduced to tears and one large old lady said to me, “What the hell is wrong with you??” (That was my second-to-last church)
I didn’t have the stomach for sitting on a church trial jury to judge one of my peers, and listen to other clergy assigned to the position of acting the part of lawyers, using the same manipulation and devious word-games to “win.” And “winning” meant a clergy was de-frocked. I also couldn’t live with seeing other clergy committing sexual misconduct but “getting off” by making a deal with the bishop– because they were “powerful” or “charismatic.” I was incensed to hear parishioners defend a guilty pastor’s sexual crimes against someone vulnerable with “a man has needs.”
And I wasn’t up for being in the same profession, finally, as my father. There was inevitably comparisons. He had almost all big churches, big salaries, and outward signs of success. I couldn’t seem to succeed with those criteria, and ultimately, couldn’t seem to make enough money to pay off my student loans. It wasn’t in me to play the political games I saw others play to get where they wanted to go. I was naive, I guess, to think that that’s not what it was supposed to be about.
For many years, I felt like a failure. By the time I was offered a chaplain’s job in hospice, a gracious gift of a job and a place to “land”, I felt I was near an emotional breakdown. I felt I let God down. I felt like I let my parents down. Even as I moved on with my new job, there was that underlying anxiety of having failed.
However, this many years later, I feel whole again. Or maybe whole for the first time. Looking back, I realize how much anxiety I felt 24/7 when I was a pastor, and was therefore unable to truly enjoy life. I was unable to receive love. The pastoral ministry intensified all my worst character defects. It’s taken me almost all of ten years to let it all go. To know that I am grateful for those 19 years of ministry and the precious people who trusted me with their hearts and souls. To know that leaving was truly what needed to happen, to move on, to heal, and grow in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise. I admire those who can do it for a lifetime. And still hold true to who they are. It takes a strength of character I didn’t have at the time. Or maybe I just needed to “live” a little, and I don’t mean sow any wild oats. I mean just be a regular human in the crowd. Learn how to be in relationship with other regular humans. Fight for what I believe in without worrying about the church ladies being upset with me.
And finally, just learning how to love and be loved. To offer kindness. To encourage and inspire others when I can, from the same level. Ten years. I am grateful for the journey. I wish I could go back and tell that poor broken, anxious, depressed pastor as she hung up her robe: “You’re going to be fine. Really, really fine.”