Collars, Leashes, and Lead Ropes

One of the very first things my spouse said to me on the day that we met was, “Your sense of call is going to make your life tough.” It has. It continues to do so.

In February of 2018 I took my collar off. I resigned from my call without a new call in place. It was not really my choice. I was in my second call, loving every minute of it. The rural community felt great. The congregation and I were challenging each other and learning and growing together. But then something happened, I am not sure I will ever know exactly what, and my ability to be their pastor came to an end. For the sake of the community and the congregation, I needed to remove myself from the situation.

So there I was without call, without any prospects before me, hurting so badly I was not sure I wanted another call even if there was an option. In fact, I was not sure I ever wanted to be part of a congregation again if it was going to be this ugly and hurt this badly. Pile on the guilt and shame and feelings of failure: and yes, life was tough.

Rev. Alyssa Augustson competing with a client horse “LuLu”(owned by Rosey Paulson) at Lincoln Creek in 2018.

When I began searching for something to do—anything really—so that we could continue to pay our rent, I found myself back in the world of training and competing dressage and jumping horses. I found myself doing things I love: riding, training, competing, cleaning stalls, and all the other work that goes along with the care of horses.

Growing up with horses, I spent the first twenty or so years of my life working toward a career as a riding instructor and trainer. Cleaning stalls, scrubbing buckets, and measuring feed with meticulous attention became one of my strongest spiritual practices. I was centered. I was in the moment. I was grounded. And there I was, once again, living in this spiritual practice with some added adrenaline on competition weekends as the horses I had in training would gallop around cross-country courses full of intimidating jumps.

Shortly after bumping my horse hobby back into professional mode, I also contracted with a dog walking company in Portland. Soon enough I was easily getting my 10,000+ steps in every day, making many new canine friends, and appreciating the company’s focus on being open and welcoming to all in a way that, dare I say, I have not experienced in the church. Read more

the author and her chicken in a bathtub

A Chicken in My Bathtub

the author and her chicken in a bathtub

The author reading to Caroline Radesky, the chicken, soon after the accident.

At four in the morning on a Sunday, I woke up to infernal screeching. I threw on the lights, ran outside, scared the assailant away, and saw my favorite chicken, a golden fluffball named Caroline Radesky (after one of my roommates in college), shell shocked and bleeding standing over the tunnel that was dug into her home. We have three chickens in a coop behind our house. My spouse built the coop, complete with a roost up off the ground and chicken wire surrounding it. Only, a fox dug underneath that night and got to Caroline.

She was not dead, but I was sure she would be soon. My spouse is a pilot, and he was away on rotation for the week, so I was alone, unsure of what to do and not knowing who to call to help. So I just breathed deeply and moved Caroline into the roost, shutting the door so nothing could get in. Then I went back to bed. (Or tried to.) In the morning, Caroline was still alive, so I separated her from her sisters so they wouldn’t peck at her wounds and she could have some peace, and I went to church. I thought she would be dead when I got home. It was All Saints Sunday and I considered whispering her name under my breath when we lit candles for the departed saints. Laughing about a chicken with a halo helped me keep the panic at bay long enough to get through the service.

I grew up with cats and dogs. We got chickens at the urging of my spouse who grew up with chickens and ducks and horses. These chickens were three years old, and not the best egg layers, but Caroline was super friendly and sweet. I would let her and her sisters out after a long day at church and they would follow me and the dog around the yard, running away when I tried to get them back in the coop for the night unless they heard the sweet music of a Dorito bag opening, luring them back home. I love the sound of chickens cooing and the way they sometimes squat down to let you pick them up. These were simple pleasures of God’s creation; pleasures I was grateful for after the difficulty of years of three miscarriages and numerous failed fertility treatments that have frayed my relationship with God. And now my favorite chicken was dying and I had to lead worship as though nothing was wrong. Read more

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more

How Playing Princess Made Me a More Perfect Pastor

Megan Torgerson Then & Now: Pastor & Pageant

We all joke about what we didn’t learn in seminary, but in my case, plenty of people joke about what I did learn. While I was in seminary, I learned how to walk in 4 ¼ inch heels, apply false eyelashes, pick a flattering lipstick color, spray adhesive to my rear so my bikini bottom didn’t ride up, sing an aria, and institute world peace.

The summer before my second year at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, I competed for and won the title of Miss Minnesota. I had to ask my professors if I could miss the first month of class for the following semester so that I could compete for the title of Miss America. The night of the pageant, my classmates gathered in a classroom to watch me introduce myself and then promptly get cut from the competition. But don’t worry – Miss California was also a seminary student, and she made the top five.

People seem very confused when I tell them about this other part of my life. No, I didn’t compete in those weird child beauty pageants. No, I never dreamed of being at Miss America. No, I don’t have any fashion sense. But more than that, people seem to have a hard time reconciling parish pastor and pageant princess. Honestly, I have always thought the two go together perfectly, and not just to justify my side gig.

My joke has been that they’re basically the same except for the clothing, but I’m not sure I can use that line any more. Both jobs involve archaic, specialized garments found only in particular shops and maximized for visibility. I mean, no one really wears an evening gown outside of a red carpet or black-tie gala. But then, no one wears an alb or chasuble or cope…well, anywhere, really. The two wardrobes don’t cross over, but they still have a lot in common in their singularity and expense.

After that we can talk about the real similarities.  Read more

Sabbath, Rest, and the Voices Inside My Head

“Would you ever consider doing something like this?” I asked. I was sitting with my friend Jeff in the balcony seats of the Wilbur Theater in Boston.

“Nooo!” he replied.

“Do you think Hannah would?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “What about Luke?”

“No way,” I answered.

It was intermission at a Mainstage production of the Moth, the live storytelling movement that had taken NPR and audiences across the country by storm.

I had never even heard of it.

Hannah is Jeff’s spouse, and Luke is mine. The four of us are friends from seminary and our two families vacation together every year. We were in Boston for our time together that year, where Hannah and Jeff live, and Jeff had bought tickets to the show after getting hooked on the Moth podcast and reading the first printed collection of stories. Neither Luke nor Hannah were feeling well that night, but Jeff and I went anyway, which is how we found ourselves on that balcony during intermission, discussing the similarities and differences between storytelling and preaching, and speculating about whether our spouses would ever do something like this.

“This” was to prepare a story – a true story, and your own story – on a set theme, and then to share it with a live audience. Notes are not allowed, there’s a strict time limit, and you can’t even wander the stage; the mic stays on the stand. It’s just you and the audience and your story.

I had only begun to understand how it worked – and to understand the draw – about an hour before.

“Would you ever do something like this?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah,” I answered. Something had clicked. I was getting nervous from the very idea of it, and my breath was already catching in my chest. “I think I have to do this.”

Conclusion of the 2017 Twin Cities Moth GrandSLAM

I went home and began to research how the whole thing worked. Moth StorySLAMs are amateur night in cities around the country, where anyone can throw their name in the hat to tell a story, and ten names are drawn. After ten StorySLAMs, the winners face off on a bigger stage at the GrandSLAM, with new stories under a new theme.

I was heading to a writing workshop in a few weeks. I had a piece prepared to workshop, and I volunteered to go first so I’d have the rest of the week to work on my story for the StorySLAM a few weeks later, which seems ridiculous in hindsight, given that there’s no guarantee your name will even be drawn. Read more

Redefining Possible: CrossFit, Transformation, and 5 AM Trips to the Box

Kettlebells

It is a little before 5:00 on a Wednesday morning, and I am driving through the dark streets of West Hartford, Connecticut. There are very few cars on the road–few of us crazy enough to be ought and about. Where would one be going at such an ungodly hour? Well, it is time to come clean. I have caught the bug: I do CrossFit.

If you had told me a few years ago that I would be getting up in the pitch black to go and lift weights and do push ups, I would have given you quite a quizzical stare. I like my sleep (a lot), and given my medical history, I didn’t think I would ever be lifting anything heavier than my toddler.

When I was thirteen, I was diagnosed with bone cancer. The year of chemotherapy and the numerous surgeries that followed taught me a lot about my body and left it permanently changed. The tumor was in my left collarbone, so after the chemo shrunk the tumor, my left collarbone was removed. Because of the mobile nature of this bone, there is not yet (nor may there be in my lifetime) the technology to replace this bone. They cannot put in a rod or a donor bone the way they would if it were a vertical leg or arm bone. This means all the muscles in my left shoulder are now attached to each other rather than my collarbone, which means I don’t have the same skeletal stability in my shoulder that most people do. For instance, I cannot just align my skeleton and “rest” in plank position. On top of that, one of my chemo drugs can have long-term effects on my heart. My doctors have been cautious about how much anaerobic exercise I do. Can you see why I might be skeptical of doing something that involved lifting 50 pounds above my head?

Over the years, I have sought out fitness options that help to strengthen my shoulders and to just keep me in good shape. I have done yoga and rowing. Both of those were great in many ways, but somehow they weren’t exactly the right fit. Then, I started working for a bishop who is passionate about CrossFit. His stories about it intrigued me. One day, I saw a Groupon for a Box (what you call a CrossFit gym) in my town… and so I tried it. I haven’t looked back. Read more

Birds of Paradise

The author and her binoculars

My husband John and I were on our honeymoon when I was first introduced to what has become my most beloved pastime. Relaxing in a mountain cabin at the end of the winter, we enjoyed our first week of our marriage by feeding and identifying birds. “There is something Eden-like about it,” my husband had remarked sometime after we had identified a flock of juncos (and before I dropped his binoculars into the creek, ruining them). The following Christmas, I bought him a pair of water-proof binoculars to replace the old ones. He had also unknowingly suggested that his parents buy me a pair. I found this out just in time to jot a note on my gift to him: “So that you and I might share a day in Eden.”

More than a decade into marriage, and longer than that in ministry, I doubt either of us would now assert that Eden is well-represented by vacation. Perhaps closer to the story of Eden would be the act of identification: identifying a bird and calling it by name, which was, after all, one of Adam’s first works in Eden.

The best hobbies and interests allow us to follow our curiosities endlessly, however, and over the years I’ve found even more enjoyment from studying bird behavior than from identification. You can know what a bird looks like, maybe what calls it makes, but there is so much more: how it behaves at the feeder or with its young, how it builds its nest, when and for what reasons it migrates, weird things it does (waxwings watching the sunset, for example), whether it forages alone, with a mate, or in a flock (or like juncos, who could do any of those), whether it flocks with a different type of bird (as white-breasted nuthatches and purple finches sometimes do). Where I live, I have also learned to predict snow with reasonable accuracy by the presence and behavior of white-crowned sparrows under my feeder. And always, there is more to learn. Were I to live several lifetimes, there would be more to learn about birds, their behavior, and their habitat, and it is the kind of knowledge that does the soul good. Read more

The Pastor’s Advent

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As I write this, I’m sitting on my living room couch. I showered this morning, but I’m wearing what my husband’s aunt calls “soft clothes” – a sweatshirt, and lounge pants, and slippers.

I haven’t worn mascara in more than a week.

“What are you going to do today?” my husband asked me, this morning, while he packed lunches and I spread cream cheese on bagels for our daughters, who are 7 and 3.

“I have some writing to do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return those Christmas lights that are too short, and buy some candles for the Advent wreath.” That was the entirety of my to-do list, at least as of 6:30am. I tried not to feel like it was inadequate.

On my way back from dropping our youngest at daycare, I decided to make a lasagna. And then I decided that I would sit my butt down and actually read the two long-form articles that have been open in my browser for days, one of them maybe even for weeks.

The very idea of sitting down, uninterrupted, to read an entire long-form article – without feeling the whole time like I was supposed to be doing something else – was almost unfathomable. The possibility that I could just sit and read the entire thing, from beginning to end, rather than to read it piecemeal – a few minutes here while my kids are playing in the tub, and a few minutes there while I scarf down my lunch – made me happier than I’d like to admit.

I took the week off, you see. Read more

Chips and Salsa

May I Take Your Order?

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

Sometimes we do not choose when our collars come off; the choice is made for us. That’s how it happened for me. I was in a call I had loved for 6 years when I was told the position was no longer mine. I was given a 6-month severance package and a party, and then had to say goodbye to a congregation I had not yet planned on leaving, who had not yet planned on me leaving them.

I spent the first month resting, healing, having lunch with friends, and processing. I rejoiced in my ability to go home to be with family for Thanksgiving and to be home on Christmas Eve for the first time since I was ordained. I updated my Personal Information Form (PIF) and began the search for the next call.

The holiday season came and went, and January turned into February, and the wheels were still moving slowly. Things got…desperate. So I began the search for a job that would pay the bills in the meantime. It turns out, however, that if your Master’s Degree is in the field of Divinity, and you are an ordained minister, people really don’t want to hire you. I was on ten job websites, registered with four temp agencies, chasing every lead I could, and kept getting rejected. As the clock ticked towards when I would receive my last severance check, I took myself out to lunch one Sunday to one of my favorite restaurants. I sat at the bar, eating my food and listening to one of the hostesses tell a customer that they were hiring. I picked up an application on my way out.

The running joke in my house used to be that it’s always good to have a skill to fall back on. I had been a server and a hostess in high school and college, and the skills stayed with me. I had experience, I was good with people, I promised not to try to convert them to Jesus, and then I had a job: waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I wasn’t sure if my collar had come off for good. I kept my head down and served – literally. Read more

The Spiritual Art of Writing Icons

Jonah and the Fish

When I was diagnosed with cancer while in seminary, I started to question my faith and to question whether I was really following God’s call for my life. I knew I needed to find different spiritual practices to keep me grounded. So I started with the practices I knew: I would read the Bible and pray. Still, I felt like something was missing.

The Visitation

During one of my treatments, I noticed that a woman next to me would look at a card and then close her eyes. She and I began to have a conversation, so I asked about the card in her hand. She was holding a picture of an icon of the Virgin Mary and praying for Mary to intercede on her behalf. The icon itself was beautiful! She brought me a picture of The Visitation icon the next time we met, and I kept it inside my Bible. I enjoyed looking at it and being reminded of Mary and Elizabeth, but I used the icon in a different way.

Later, my husband heard of a local woman who taught iconography. He contacted her, found out there was an opening in one of her weeklong classes during the summer, and asked if I would be interested. Read more