Editor's Note: This article is one in an occasional series called "All About the Benjamins," running this fall on Fidelia's Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we'll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the role it plays in our ministries. This is the second in a series of articles by this author, reflecting on how she and her husband have navigated the variety of financial situations they have encountered during her ministry. The third and final article in the series, "For Richer or For Poorer," will be published in the December edition of "The Ones We Love."
I thought I knew what I would be experiencing as I began a Friday-to-Saturday retreat at my church in March 2009. After all, I had gone through this curriculum before with a different group of people. I’m not sure Nostradamus could have foreseen and described clearly how the retreat would end for me, for an explanation beyond “this must be God” continues to evade me.
I had been serving as a solo pastor of a small congregation for 4 ½ years at this point. Ministry was my second career, and this was the first congregation to which I had been called post-seminary. My weeks consisted of a combination of, but were not limited to preaching; planning and leading worship; caring for and visiting the congregation; leading Consistory (the church’s governing board); teaching Sunday school; engaging the surrounding community and assisting the needy; working to revitalize the church through various programs; serving at other levels of the denomination; counseling; conflict resolution; weddings; funerals; and “other duties as required.” Congregational ministry was a vocation that was all-encompassing, not a job, and I believed it to be my true purpose in life for which God created me.
Small groups from our and another congregation gathered for the Purposeful Living retreat, created by some colleagues in our denomination. The intent of the Purposeful Living retreat, as the name suggests, is to assist the participant in discerning her or his God-given raison d’etre through a series of thought provoking exercises. I entered the weekend with my pastor-as-leader hat on, complete with the assumption that I should be authentic, yet not completely transparent, as is befitting any shepherd who embarks on a journey into the psyche with her or his sheep. In other words, I thought to allow the Holy Spirit to work in a way “just so” that would enable me to retain the personal and group control I deemed appropriate for a leader.
I navigated the first several exercises according to plan. Friday night came and went, as did Saturday morning without much ado. Some poignant insights arose, as did reminders of lessons and feelings long since placed on the backburner, but nothing particularly noteworthy. We took our first break after lunch during the Saturday afternoon session, and returned forthwith to face the exercise that would unbeknownst to me dishevel my world.
We had before us one fill-in-the-blank statement and one rhetorical question. They were uncomplicated in their language and altruistic in their objective to open participants’ minds and take them perhaps to a deeper, more honest place within themselves than they’d ever been.
“Though I have always dismissed the thought, at times I have really felt I should be doing…”
“Based on how God has shaped you, if you knew you could not fail what would you do in your lifetime for God's glory?”
The facilitator encouraged us to dream big, past our fears, past practical concerns, past what we believe to be possible. Following my tendency to be compliant, I entered into the exercise per the instructions. And this is when the tsunami hit me.
A wave of feelings of purpose that I assumed were long gone flooded my mind, heart and soul to the point that I felt a somatic response. Two internal currents of dialogue crashed against one another with such passion I thought I might drown: one proclaiming my true person and purpose with holy fortitude, the other screaming back that I could never be such a person or do such a thing for a myriad of reasons it had at the ready.
Beneath my fears, self-denial and negative self-talk steadfastly existed a pure and True Self, pulsating with anemic vigor like a steady heart beat, who yearned to live freely and fully. She is an authentic person of integrity, deep faith and trust in God who knows herself and needs only the love of her Creator to sustain and affirm her. She is an intelligent, compassionate and profoundly theological woman who places great value in relationship. Her charisms are beyond the scope of congregational ministry, and she is not arrogant for acknowledging it. She is a talented and published writer, and a strong and charismatic preacher through whom the Holy Spirit touches people in inmost places. Her name is publicly known due to her work. As a result, she travels occasionally, lecturing, preaching and witnessing to the mighty acts of God in her life. She lives boldly and humbly into her unique purpose, pleased enough that God is glorified through said living. And, crucially, her boundaries are appropriately firm and healthy to the effect that she knows when to say when, and how to communicate it gracefully, else she lose sight of her God, herself, her marriage and her children, each of which center her.
When I was most honest with myself I knew I was born to be her, and yet I so wasn’t her – by choice. During my senior year of seminary, when I was simultaneously working to complete my coursework, candidating, and welcoming to the world my first born, I subconsciously searched for the least-visited abyss within myself whose location I fancied forgettable and buried my True Self (for what I thought was) once and for all. My sincere hope was that she would never return to entice me with appealing pipedreams too costly to justify the emotional, et al risk and investment.
While most certainly not all bad and still bearing the image of God in which I (like all of humanity) was created, the person that I allowed myself to become was “Self Light.” By the grace of God the Holy Spirit had overcome my most self-sabotaging efforts through various spiritual gifts and daily sanctification, but I had limited myself to such an extent that there was a daily battle of the selves waging within me. Simply stated, I was afraid. What if I spoke too boldly? What if I stuck my neck out too far? What if I wrote something that left me vulnerable and the work (read: I) got annihilated? Was following God’s call on my life worth the peril of not being accepted, loved, recognized, heard, respected, etc.? Would anyone want to be connected to me? Despite my strong, outspoken and sometimes bitchy outer appearance, the truth was that these fears had kept me behind the line throughout my life. Author Marianne Williamson could have been speaking directly to and about me when she wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” It was almost as if God knew that I would never let my true self out without dramatic affect.
When my turn came to share revelations garnered from the exercise with my small group, the truth thrust out of my buried awareness like Old Faithful spewing, an uncontained occurrence of nature. I began apprehending and linking things in real time, and I could contain the internal storms no longer. The water came gushing out of my eyes, and the violent winds reduced me to a fetal position in the company of the members of my small group. My thoughts were an erratic stream of realization. “I’m gonna have to leave this congregation…I’m meant for something bigger…I thought this had died, never to return…I can’t abandon y’all, what would y’all think of me?” (There went my stay-in-control-and-lead plan.)
I knew that something new had broken through on that day, but I fought it tooth and nail, which is never the most emotionally healthy choice. My primary reason was most practical. I was the breadwinner in our family. Every cent we had came from my salary. Our health and dental insurance was 100% paid by my congregation, per the requirement of the denomination. Our home was tied to the congregation, as it had lent us money for a down payment in the healthy Chicagoland real estate market. The terms of the loan were that full payment was expected upon the end of my pastorate, and the church held a lien against our home. We didn’t have the money to purchase our home from the church in order to be able to stay. If I left this church, not only would I be unemployed, but our family (now a family of four) would be without income, health and dental insurance and a home.
I was a professional person of faith and I was terrified of the formless void in which such a move would place us. My husband, amongst other emotions, was angry regarding this path along which he and our children were helplessly and without their consent being dragged. It was a terribly dark and uncertain time. And so began my downward spiral into the deepest depression and hugest life transition I’ve ever experienced.