My sense of call to the ministry started as I think many do – with many questions and doubts. Was this really God’s call? Why me? How could I be “worthy” of such a responsibility? What about all of that time in college and for a few years after where I wasn’t even going to church? God, are you sure you have the right person?
As I started to sense my call to ministry, my small group, friends, and leadership in my church in Boston were wonderfully supportive and affirming. As I took my initial steps of looking at M. Div. programs, I felt called to one particular PC(USA) Seminary, and in the process confirmed again that my denominational home was in the Presbyterian Church. Then I started to learn about the ordination process.
I realized that I would need to go through the process in a home church, but I hadn’t been active at that church in a number of years. Plus there was the fact that I had never really considered that church to be much of a home for me. Though there was an active youth group, my sister and I always felt like outsiders, and though I tried to go and engage in the program, the questions that I wanted to ask and the discussions that were burning in my heart weren’t really welcome there, and so eventually we stopped going to youth group and Sunday school, and our participation there was nominal.
So when it came time to enter the ordination process, I was really wary of doing that at this particular church. However, after a lot of thought and prayer I started to look at it in some ways as a coming home of sorts, perhaps an opportunity for some healing and reconciliation between me and God, and I decided to enter the process through that church. I had a very hard time getting any response from the pastor or the church leadership.
Finally, I received a letter from the Session asking me three questions in light of all my paperwork. They asked about the length of time I had been away from the church, my views on the importance of church membership, and why it wouldn’t be better to wait and join a church in Louisville. They asked about the nature and theological stance of my church in Boston. The third question alluded to some denominational issues regarding ordination standards, and they wanted me to summarize some of my “core beliefs and essential theological tenets.” This was a great opportunity for me to share my reasons for coming back to this church, and I openly responded to each of their questions in a 3 page, single-spaced letter. After receiving my response, I was informed that they had voted to endorse my application as an Inquirer.
When I started seminary that fall and began to talk to my classmates, I realized I had a lot of questions to ask. I wrote emails and letters and left phone messages with just about everyone I could think of at my home church and Presbytery but got no response at all. Of course it was hard not to take this personally. There was another woman at my Seminary, a middler, from the same church and Presbytery who had an equally hard time getting in touch. We finally heard from someone when the new Executive Presbyter was hired. After a few weeks on the job, he found our letters and immediately called, horrified that this had happened. A minister who had rotated off the Committee on Preparation for Ministry to be on the Executive Presbyter search committee was rotating back on as committee chair, and I asked him to be my new CPM Liaison. Communication, at least at the Presbytery level, went much more smoothly from this point on.
All was going well until it came time for my annual consultation just before the start of my middler year. I completed all of the required paperwork to move into Candidacy and sent it to my home church Session and CPM. I worked diligently to try to get in touch with the Pastor to set up a meeting with the Session, and finally got that set up. Since I was traveling from out of town, I went ahead and set up a meeting with the CPM for two days after the Session meeting.
When it came time for the meeting, I worshiped at the church, and met with the Session immediately afterwards. The first question was from an old family friend, “Well, it certainly is an interesting time in the PCUSA, isn’t it? How do you feel about being in the ordination process right now, with everything going on?” My answer was that it was really too early to know how any of it would impact the church, that I was hopeful for peace and unity, etc… The second question, from someone we’ve known just as long was, “Stephanie, I’m going to ask you point blank, do you or don’t you support homosexuals in the church?” I gave a long, heartfelt and open answer, looking at scripture, experience, and church history and ultimately said that whatever happened, I would abide by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). His quick response to me was, “If you can’t give me a black and white, yes or no answer, then I don’t see how you can expect us to give you one.”
The meeting was a painful hour-and-a-half long grilling session, focused almost entirely on the issue of homosexuality. At the very end, the pastor briefly mentioned the materials I had sent them – “very well written, extremely thoughtful;” my grades – “I never made anything close to this when I was in Seminary” (all A’s with one A-); and a note from the Dean of the Seminary stating that I showed “extraordinary leadership in and out of the classroom, and had the full support of the faculty and administration in confidence of my future service in the church.” Then I was asked to step down the hall.
I got as far as I possibly could from the room they were in while still being able to see when they would come out to get me, but even from there I could hear active discussion and raised voices. The door opened, and the Elders poured out of the room, none of them looking at me. I started to walk back to the room, and the Elder who asked the second question stopped and said, “Nothing personal, Stephanie. You have great gifts for ministry and I’m sure you’ll do very well wherever you are.”
Come back to “Divine Details” on September 3rd to hear the rest of Stephanie’s story…