To Be Separate or Not: That Is the Question

NailpolishGod and the world.  Sometimes, I think we think of them as two different things.  Sometimes we can think of faith, and the presence of God, as something that happens inside a brick building for an hour (or maybe two) on a Sunday morning.  I know this because even people who long for God in their lives but don’t know how to find Her often say to me, “Say hi to God for me.”  Even people who are lifelong members of church will sometimes say this to me if they have to miss a service.

But God is not separate from the world.  While holy and sacred time is important, the sacred is not reserved for inside a church building.  I long for a church that integrates faith with all of my life – in the ways that I think and behave and talk.  I long for a community that empowers me not to spend more time inside a church building, but to seek and know the real presence of the living God everywhere.

Recently, at the Young Clergy Women’s Conference, I had a powerful experience of the sacred.  I knew and experienced Holy Time.  I was overwhelmed.  I cried and felt goosebumps.  I stilled and was able to experience what Celtic spirituality calls a “thin place.” A place and time where God and world are not as separate as we think they are at other times.

Where was this, you might be wondering?  It was in a nail salon.  I know, I was surprised, too.  It happened quite by accident.  The conference organizers, in an attempt to save printing costs, had e-mailed the bulletins for the worship services.  So, when about twenty-two of us got stuck during soul-tending time at the nail salon, we worshipped at the same time as the YCWs who were able to meet in the chapel.  Most of us had our smart phones and tablets and were able to easily access the bulletins and read the full liturgy for the service.

We worshipped while getting manicures and pedicures.  We sang our Taizé songs, and we prayed our prayers.  And I wept for knowing in a new and powerful way that God and the world are not separate.  God moments – holy moments – can happen at any time and in any place: by accident, by a decision to save money, and by feeling that our bodies and souls and community are all connected during this sacred time and place.

I can’t speak to the experience of the other women who were there.  I can only speak to the thin place I found.  I found a place where community cared for one another.  I found a place where I could worship God while someone else was caring for my body.  I found a place where everything felt totally integrated for our worship service.

As with many holy moments, I did not know until later why this event had impacted me the way that it did.  I had finally found a place where God and the world were not separate, and care for my body was not separate from care for my soul.  God created me a whole-being; during that blissful worship service, I knew that was true.

In relating this story later to my Mom, she replied, “That’s the kind of church I need.”  My sister replied the same way.  I don’t think that we want people to have to pay for manicures and pedicures to come to worship, and I don’t think we want to commercialize and materialize worship that way on a regular basis.  I do think that there is a deep need in our world for our experience of God to be outside the walls of the church building and to take seriously our creation as whole-beings.  God and the world are, after all, not separate.  That is the answer to the question.  So I am left wondering: how do we, as Christians, help the world know that answer?  I came to know it in a very powerful way in a specific situation that happened by the grace of the Spirit, and would love to share that with others.

Job Hunting for the Two Career Couple: When the Right Call Is Not the Church

fargoneI sat on the bed, listening to the shower. At my feet there was a massive pile of laundry, mostly my husband’s clothes. He was packing a large suitcase and moving to the East coast for a job. For the second time in 12 months, we were going to be separated.

When we first met, we were graduate students. In our blind optimism, we assumed that we would work hard, get good grades, and find work anywhere. We had no idea that the Great Recession was months away from crashing down upon us, and we had no inkling that a prestigious, demanding school which is well-recognized in the East would carry zero weight in the West. He graduated with distinction in Connecticut. Two years later, his job hunt has been fruitless in Oregon. In desperation, he accepted a position in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, and we separated for the first time a little over a year ago.

A two career couple has been a very difficult thing in ministry. I find it has been a constant dance of discernment, opportunity, and choice. On one hand, I love that he has different, non-church work. He keeps me real. Sometimes I wish that he was a nurse or a dentist or some other highly transportable profession, but the reality is that he is gifted with artifacts. But one of us (me) believes that God is in charge of my career path. And it was dawning on me that Oregon, the beautiful breezy place where I thought we had found our dream, left him with a choice between living  here and taking a job cleaning out dog kennels, or living apart and having a professional job. I couldn’t ask my spouse to make that sacrifice. But I also couldn’t believe that God would bring two people together, only to split them up. How could God ask that, even of a priest?

There have been ways to cope. We prioritized face-to-face communication. We Skype every night and have “happy hour dates”. (We each make a drink and call each other.) We text constantly – his early morning messages arrive while I sleep.  But we spent Thanksgiving apart, he eating oysters with his brother in Maryland, me sharing stuffing with a coworker in Eugene. Every night, we sleep alone. I snuggle his pillow and negotiate space with his cats, who spent last week sulking in his closet, buried under the clothes he left behind. We used an app called Couple to share secrets.

Unbidden, negative emotions have roiled. I became jealous that he could spend Sundays watching football on his best friend’s couch, knowing I would come home to a dirty cat box and a cold kitchen after a grueling day. I panicked when I couldn’t reach him, so we decided to install “Find My Friends” app which we call “iPhone Stalker” so we can tell if the non-answering person is on the road. He gets frustrated when I email a dozen articles overnight during my frequent insomnia bouts. Trash talking via text message leads to fast misunderstandings when he threatens to pick up Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback against my strident objections. Sometimes, it feels like we spend most of our time apologizing to each other.

Good friends saved my bacon. Time after time, friends talked me off my ledge when I had convinced myself it was the end.  They shared so many stories of breakups, separations, reconciliations. They told me of the bruises in their own loves, and reminded me to see the best in my spouse. Friends convinced me to see a counselor at my lowest point.

Deciding whether love or career won out was agony. As a priest, my life is so public. Parishioners worried, knowing he was gone. Why had such a happy couple split up? One person suggested that, since we had no children, a divorce would be easy. What kind of couple would choose to live apart? I can point to Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, or to military couples, but the reality is that those couples have resources and innate support systems than I did.  We honestly questioned: was this really the end? Did God call me here to show me that my calling as a priest was more important than any relationship out there – spouse, family, friends? For one horrible week, we talked about divorce.

I loved my job, my people, my town. I thought this was my dream. Yet the dream hadn’t accounted for distance from family and friends. I missed major East Coast milestones. My dream was killing my spouse’s spirit. I couldn’t bear to disappoint or hurt anyone – I imagined waves of anger and disappointment flooding towards me no matter what.

The reality is that church work is tight. The reality is that it’s difficult for women. Changing jobs can be a political dance. Was it the right time to leave? Would it be a bad career move?  Would a future church look down on my moving? Could I take the time to seek a job I truly felt called to, or should I just choose the first option that would bring me back? Logically, I knew we weren’t alone. During this year, at least five other couples in my circle of friends moved away from our small town. Who was being the selfish one in our little twosome – him for taking fellowship offers, or me for sitting on our deck looking out over the rolling hills and not wanting to move? Was I just paralyzed by fear of disappointing people?

Finally, the financial stress was unbelievable. We have always been a fairly frugal couple. But after years of grad school, then a major car repair, then a year of unemployment, followed by another car crisis, my once-healthy emergency fund was screaming for relief. We needed more money, money that wasn’t going to be found in my paralysis.

Making the choice to leave the parish has been the hardest one I have ever made. How could I get so involved in people’s lives, only to leave when my own got tough? People were in love; I wanted to watch them get married. People were pregnant with babies or waiting for adoption matches; I wanted to be there when the babies were baptized. We were getting ready to remodel our kitchen and parish hall; I wanted to walk the new labyrinth and sit in the center.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t actually taken vows to the parish, yet I was treating it as though it had more claim on my love and care than the actual husband. We had always said that the place that was right for one of us was the place that was right for both of us. My heart broke as I finally admitted my parish wasn’t it.

After I dropped him off at the airport and returned home, I opened up the Transition Ministry Newsletters and began emailing my information to open churches. For the sake of love, it was time to leave.

One Year To the Day

Photo Credit to Catherine Roy

The gray walls whisper goodbye to me as I walk through them for a last time, making my way down the long hallways to surgery. Or perhaps I am the one extending silent goodbyes to this space as I wrap up my final day of Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital on Chicago’s south side. A final visit: I sanitize my hands before entering the patient waiting area for the surgical unit. I have never actually been back behind these glass doors; my work is done with patients still awake, conscious, afraid of what will happen behind those doors, putting their faith in God and in doctors that all will be well.

Ms. King lies on a stretcher, her gown low on her shoulders. “Ms. King,” I say softly, sidling up to her. “It’s good to see you.  I stopped by your room and was told that you were up here for a procedure.” Ms. King meets my eyes and a smile plays at her lips.  This is my third visit to Ms. King. The other two times, we have spoken little – I have sat with her, read to her from my Bible and a copy of this month’s Daily Bread, prayed with her. On my first visit, I tried to make conversation but had great difficulty understanding her responses. Feeling us both grow frustrated with my inability to understand, we’ve kept my visits simple ever since.

“I’d like to read to you again today, would that be alright?” Ms. King nods and mouths what might be a yes. I take her hand, clenched in a fist as it was the first time I visited with her, and hold it. I read the scripture, and when I finish, I simply stand quietly beside Ms. King, my hand around hers. “May I pray with you?”

“Yes. Please.”

A nurse approaches us ready to take Ms. King’s blood pressure. “Will you give us a moment?” I ask him. “I’d like to pray with Ms. King.”

“Oh, sure.”  He steps away, allowing us some semblance of privacy in this wide-open waiting area. And so I pray with Ms. King, giving thanks for the time we’ve shared together, giving thanks for God’s presence with us, praying that the procedure she is about to undergo is smooth and without complication. I close with the Lord’s Prayer and Ms. King echoes my amen. Opening my eyes, I meet her gaze, and I smile.  “God bless you, Ms. King. It has been such a gift to spend time with you.”

“Yes,” she nods.  “God bless you.”  Three simple words, and yet so clear in intention.  “God bless you.”

Today, this last day at the hospital, marks exactly one full year of ministry blessings; it was this day last year that I began serving as a full-time ministry intern at a local church in North Carolina. This year, nine months as a congregational pastor and three months as a hospital chaplain, has reminded me of how profoundly blessing the work of ministry is.  Sure, it is part of my role to be a conduit of God’s love and grace, peace and comfort, and as I am learning, also of God’s prophetic word.  Part of this job, though, has been opening myself to receive the love, grace, peace, comfort, and challenge that others offer.  Even as I bless Ms. King, so does she bless me. Of course, I cannot do this work in order to receive such blessing: sometimes it comes, sometimes it does not, but so often God’s gifting goes in multiple directions.

This was true for me in the nine months I spent in a local church as well.  While I brought my enthusiasm, curiosity, love of liturgy and genuine care for the well-being of God’s people and world, the congregation welcomed me with space in which to explore who I am as a pastor, to explore my gifts and passions, to make mistakes, to live into what it means to be a part of God’s beloved community.  And no, it was not a perfect church: it has its fair share of anxiety around change, its fair share of messy history, its fair share of growing pains.  Yet its ministry to me was its openness not only to what it might give me but to what I might give it, this two-way movement of God’s blessing.  During my time there, I preached regularly, led worship and presided over communion, presided at a funeral, planned and organized an ecumenical Longest Night Service, taught Sunday School, led a Lenten Series on spirituality, provided pastoral care to congregants.  Sometimes I made mistakes, but this congregation embraced me in my humanity and invited forth my gifts.

God works in mysterious ways, blessing us as we bless others, teaching us as we open ourselves to learning, guiding us as we strive to discern God’s call.  I have long looked forward to hospital chaplaincy, thinking that it would be a good vocational fit for me: someone who has at times expressed some ambivalence toward the Christian story and tradition, someone who values plurality in tradition and belief. But God works in mysterious ways.  While I loved my work in the hospital, while CPE taught me a great deal about myself and who I am as a pastoral care-giver, I find that my passions and gifts come out most fully in the context of a local congregation. I am eager to do more Clinical Pastoral Education, but I will do so knowing that everything I learn and do in this program will better prepare me for my work as a congregational minister.  I am coming to love the church, to be passionate about the ways in which church can live into our vision of the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the ways in which church can be a mediator in the multi-directional blessing of the Divine One who binds us all together.

Thandiwe Gobledale is entering the final year of her Masters of Divinity Program at the University of Chicago.  She enjoys travel and worship and looks forward to being a part of the Disciples Divinity House community after being away in North Carolina last year.  She hopes to graduate and pursue a CPE residency for a year before entering congregational ministry.

photo credit: Catherine Roy zaziepoo via photopin cc

Wo/andering in the Desert…

Walking wandering on footprints desert

I spent twenty years of my life intimately tuned to the liturgy of the academic calendar – the rhythm and rest of lengthy breaks interspersed between semesters that flowed from introductions and syllabus to final exam. Progress in academic liturgy is measured in assignments completed and grades assigned. The tools are books, pencils, words, and lately, computers. The art, or music, or poetry comes in originality and articulation. Often times I miss this rhythm, at least the graduate school version of beginning to end, unbearable intensity to crash. The parameters are clear, and the center is well-defined by either teacher or topic, regardless of the pedagogy. This liturgy is lush and abundant and measurable.

And then there is the liturgy of the church.

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The View from Your Ministry

Thanks to everyone who contributed photos for “The View from Your Ministry” contest! A few of our favorites appear below.

Also congratulations to Emily Chapman, who won the drawing for a Young Clergy Women tote bag and other goodies.

It is exciting to get a glimpse of the different contexts in which we do our work.


“Slow Church” By Abby Auman

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