Saturday, March 10, 2007

Life in the Fishbowl

While searching online for detailed guidelines regarding the "In Care" process (of which my home association's website has zilch) I came across the following warning on the Massachusetts Association's website:

"The decision to accept a person "In- Care" is a crucially important one….It is important for students who will be committing approximately $50,000 to obtain a Master of Divinity degree, and dedicating themselves to one of the most stressful careers in our modern society."

It's not the bit about the money that I find most troubling in the above statement, it's the bit about the ministry being "one of the most stressful careers in our modern society"…that part scares the bejeevus out of me.

This frightening job description has been the thorn in my side since the idea of the ministry first crept into my head roughly ten years ago.

People with my personality type - introverted, craver of solitude, avoider of conflicts at all costs - tend to shy away from professions that involve lots of hands-on people time, are fraught with spontaneous events having unpredictable outcomes, and take place in an environment in which diversity of belief and personality create a breeding ground for disagreement and conflict.

Sometimes when I look past my excitement about going to seminary, and my love of being involved in my local church, I think about what actually is going to happen when I have that M.Div in hand and begin the search process for a church call…and then in a flash of fearful panic I think "What the hell are you getting yourself into you dang crazy woman - give me back my body and we shall get a sensible Monday-Friday job dusting shelves at a bookstore."

I've had 9-5 jobs my whole adult life - bike shop manager, recording studio assistant, ebay/consignment store salesperson - and while I was drawn to the security and the predictability of those jobs, they all eventually chafed against my need to be doing something more meaningful in my daily work, something that made a difference in the lives of others.

The kicker came on 9/11 - I was working as a purchasing agent at a MajorUSA bicycle manufacturer in CT, when after watching the Towers fall on TV we were instructed to return to our desks and continue working. One of my colleagues sobbed in anguish on the other side of the cubicle wall because she could not reach a friend who worked in Tower One. My email inbox overflowed with letters of concern from vendors in China, Korea, and India all of them saying "Is everyone ok there? Our prayers are with you."
It seemed ludicrously insane that my scheduled task for that afternoon was to call a supplier and complain about a late order of cycling socks while only 50 miles away thousands of people had just lost their lives. I think many of us had a major shift in perspective on that day.

One month later I enrolled in University and began taking classes towards a Religious Studies degree. For years people/events/God had been pushing/cajoling/tugging me in that direction. Yet prior to 9/11 I could not bring myself to walk away from 'full-time-job-with-good-pay-and-401k' to go back to school. After weighing the pros against the cons I decided that 'meaning' was more important to me then 'security' and off I went down the path labeled "ministry."

But no one said it was going to be an easy road to travel.
I continuously ask myself "Can I do this?"
I take comfort in the realization that I'm not the first wanna-be minister who has questioned her suitability for such a demanding role.

My list of concerns looks like this:

*I love being with people - but I need time to myself on a regular basis or I go mad…literally.
*I love writing and preaching - but will I still love it when I have to do it every week, and can I do it effectively while tackling the dozens of other 'need-to-get-done' items on a parish minister's weekly to-do list?
*I like working with kids - but their unpredictable nature adds an element of stress and fear of 'doing/saying the wrong thing' on my part.
*I like to organize and create - worship services, religious education, outreach projects - but how will I react in the face of resistance, criticism, and when I hear the inevitable "that's not the way that we did it last year."
*People have told me that I'll make a good counselor because I'm a "good listener," but I've led a relatively sheltered life and I don't know how I will fare talking people through the rough stuff - abusive relationships, addiction, divorce, death.

My seminary experience should help lessen some of these concerns, and the rest may be shaken out during field education and my first call. Some may stay with me and I'll learn to work around them…'s the ones that I can't shake out or learn to work around that worry me. But I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
I've had a taste of preaching/teaching/pastoring on a small scale, and I've liked it enough to want to do it on a large scale.

One pastor once told me that the life of a minister is comparable to living in a fishbowl - especially if you're lucky enough to be living in a parsonage next door to the church - you're on call 24/7 and everyone knows all of your comings and goings.
Setting and enforcing boundaries is imperative, as is taking personal time to recharge, but both are easier said than done.

I've spoken to pastors who in one breath complained about all of the above and in the next said they wouldn't choose to do anything else but the ministry.
The pros outweigh the cons.
The good days outweigh the bad.
"You'll do fine" they say.

But still the doubts remain.

Is ministry "one of the most stressful careers in modern society?"
I guess I'll find out when I get there.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Mocat--from my vantage point of having watched a number of different rectors, I can say that the most successful ones were the ones who knew how to draw boundaries--to guard their personal space and their time...kindly but firmly and jealously.

Just because you are a minister does not mean that the people in your congregation own you.

A friend of mine who is a priest says that you must have a high tolerance for both your own pain and the pain of others. I believe he is on to something.

Good luck!

Eileen said...

I have this same fear, Mo.

Burn out is a real concern.

But, I think Doxy is speaking a big truth here. It's about knowing what you need as a person, and working to create a balance. What you need as a minister may not be the same as what I need.