Illness and Identity

Post Author: Lara Blackwood Pickrel

My identity as a clergy gal has changed substantially over the years. I’ve been the reluctant seminarian, the slightly-less-reluctant-but-still-unsure new minister, the energetic still-single-and-happy-that-way rev, the newly-married-second-time-seminarian youth minister, the youngish-married-associate minister. Each phase of this calling has had its ups and downs, and each change in identity has had its awkward adjustments – but for the most part it has been fairly easy to slip into new roles, new ways of being and doing.

But now there is this.

I managed to ignore the burning in my hands for a couple years. Practically everyone in my family has some form of arthritis, so this was nothing worth talking about. It was really only an issue when Chuck wanted me to rub his feet (ouch), or I needed to open a jar (ouch), or I spent too much time typing (again, ouch). And yes, I got tired easily – but I spent most of my time keeping up with people much younger than me, and we’d just moved to a new city, and I’m really good at running myself ragged. I ought to be exhausted, right?

But then it got worse. Getting out of bed in the morning became a feat of sheer willpower, no matter how long I slept at night. My brain got fuzzy – I’d forget what I was saying mid-sentence. Some days my hands and arms were aflame with searing pain, even at rest. I started losing grip strength, which made me even clumsier than I used to be. At the end of a normal day, I was exhausted to the point of tears or rage. By the time I got an appointment to see the doctor two months ago, it took me three days to fill out the paperwork because of how much holding a pen hurt.

I can’t ignore this anymore. And at the same time, I have absolutely no idea what to do with it. I could figure out how to be the young minister, the female clergy woman in a Church of Christ city, the professional youth minister, the co-author/co-editor of books on controversial subjects, the single rev, the married rev, the liberal theologian-in-residence in a conservative town – but I have no clue about how to adjust to an identity that includes life, marriage, writing, ministry AND chronic pain and fatigue.

Up until this moment, I haven’t been completely public about all of this. I’ve tweeted about it, but not shared things on Facebook. Colleagues and family know, but for the most part, church members do not. I’ve been terrified that if I was too forthcoming, folks might see me as less capable of doing my job (when you say “youth minister”, most people think “goatee” or “guitar” – not “rheumatoid arthritis” or “fibromyalgia”). Beyond that, I haven’t wanted to talk about it at length because to do so is to stare this new reality in the face – and that is hard to do when you’re still waiting for an official diagnosis.

But I’ve got to get this out into the air, got to let it breathe. I’m hoping that by throwing the doors open, the Spirit will have some room in me to sort things out. This call is a lifetime thing – it encompasses and utilizes all the details of me, so there has to be some arrangement that will work. There has to be a way to make the pieces (even these new and unwanted ones) fit together into something both holy and wholly me.

There has to be a way to break in this new identity.


Rev. Lara Blackwood Pickrel is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves Hillside Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. She blogs at and

5 replies
  1. Katie
    Katie says:

    Thank you for writing about chronic illness–something that’s not expected of young clergy women, but is definitely a reality nonetheless. And thank you for writing about identity issues, which are so much of everything we YCW face.

  2. Mimi
    Mimi says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Your last two sentences are things that have been on my heart for the past months. I hope you get a diagnosis soon–I found naming the illness was more powerful and freeing than I expected.

  3. ann
    ann says:

    one of the larger theological issues here might be, what does it mean to proclaim an incarnational theology when your own body feels like it’s betraying you? thank you for writing and posting this.


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