Probably without knowing it, you’ve stumbled onto what may be the last part of my journey to be ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. In June of this year I was recognized by the North Carolina Conference of the UMC as ordained, but I consider this as the final step along that journey. I have waited about a half year to start telling my story about the ordination process, because I wanted to make sure that I had settled in with the story, that I was reflective and not reactive. This first post is very long, probably because as a preacher I tend to think in 2,000 word increments (I finished writing it and somehow, the below was 2,040 words). I consider this first post to be like my preacher prehistory. So, if you want to hear specifically about my experiences in the ordination process, feel free to wait until next week’s post.
Future posts will be much shorter, with the main reflection being between 400-700 words. In the future, I will be writing about the reasons I have been delayed in the ordination process, thinking about how through these, I have come to see what is broken and what is possible in the Church. Through the process of seeking ordination, I have come to see how our current moment of serving God and humanity through the Church, like a funeral, is “a service of death and resurrection.” I am here to hope for and seek life, not death, and so it will be my privilege to speak about this hope, about God’s persistence coming through broken vessels to bring brilliance to the world I have come to see.
PART ONE: THE JOURNEY BEGINS
“You are going to be a great leader in the Church,” I remember Pastor George saying over my very still and interested body, when, as an eight-year-old child, I lay down and was prayed over by elders in the Church, during a worship service. As I close my eyes now, I can see their silhouettes, ties hanging down like prayer beads over my prostrated figure, suit jackets ruffled at the shoulder as their hands extended in prayer over me, their hair moving slowly as they prayed in tongues. The lengthy incandescent lights on the ceiling showed their figures working as a team, praying over me. My only other memory of the instance was calm receptivity, as if somebody had told me that I would have gray hair like my Dad, when I grew up. It was just another, normal moment of prayer in the life of the Church. People who loved me were listening on my behalf, holding a moment of space, and speaking what they heard.
I grew up in a “Full Gospel” Church, what church historians might call a “Third Wave Charismatic” congregation. It most closely resembled the Pentecostal churches that I now see around me in North Carolina. But as a child I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado – the place that some of my friends at Duke Divinity School jokingly called “The Evangelical Mecca.” My Dad used to say that it was “the hardest city to go to hell in,” saying this because of all of the Christian organizations that had a headquarters there: Focus on the Family, World Vision, Compassion International, just to name a few.
Years later, I would hear that so-called “Evangelical Christians” (ranging from the Church I attended as a child to the Southern Baptist Church) were known to focus more on what happens after we die than on the life we are living at present. That was not my experience as a child. We would go to marches, always supported a “sponsor child” in another country, and my family even spent Christmas morning in a soup kitchen one year, feeding the hungry in our city. I remember my family on a few occasions opening up our house to people who did not have a home (people whom they knew would be safe around us four kids, of course).
Of my childhood friends, some of them have become part of the growing statistic of people who have disavowed themselves of Christianity. Some have grown deeper into their faith. Some, like me, have branched out from the flavor of Evangelical Christianity, perhaps promoting the #Exvangelical phenomenon. A few of us have gone into full-time church ministry.
My experience with the Church has mostly been a positive one, but I have heard so many others who have deep wounds in the Church, wounds inflicted from the time they were children. “You are going to be a great leader in the Church,” a group of older men said over my life, as they prayed over me. It lingers as a positive formational experience of prayer for the future.
“God please help her not to tempt anyone else,” is a prayer that another group of older men prayed over the frail body of a young girl who grew up to be a young lady I knew during my college career. She had been the victim of sexual assault, and in her trauma, the elders who prayed over her missed the mark, giving her a formative thought – that God imagined her trauma to be her own fault. It lingers as a negative formational experience of prayer for the future.
Having been raised as a protestor at “Pro-Life” marches, I saw only one side of this polarizing debate, until a young lady told me that she had distanced herself from organized religion, because “Pro-Lifers” told her during her most painful moment—when she decided to abort a pregnancy—that God hated her and that she was a murderer who was going to hell. My positive experience and her negative one.
Certain philosophies of child-rearing from Focus on the Family gave my parents a framework for raising us that gave meaning to my childhood and helped me to grow towards loving God and others. For me, these were joyful experiences. However, these resources have also caused great pain for others. My memory could continue with a list of church-related experiences that, while they gave me meaning, also created problems for others.
One of the greatest gifts my church family and parents ever gave me was a love of God that did not involve early childhood church trauma or negative memories of the Church. I am forever grateful for that, even as I know it is not everyone’s story.
As I reflect on my early childhood experiences with the Church, I reflect on that statement which was prayed over me, that I would be a great leader in the Church. Jesus would define “greatness” as being the least and most humble. My life and witness have a long way to go before I achieve that kind of greatness, although I am trying to love others as myself, trying to be humbler, trying to accept it with joy when I am reproached and humiliated.
The reason to begin this story with my childhood experience is to remember that the Kingdom of God, el Reino de Dios, is not easily defined. More than a place, it is a movement, the most important Movement into and throughout the world, amongst people, especially the ones who do not like each other. It is not tame. God, the Holy and Great Spirit, is wild, doing whatever she wants to do, moving seamlessly between the Holy Clubs we call Denominations or other kinds of religious divisions.
After my childhood calling, I would encounter the Great Spirit at Southern Baptist camps at the beach and in the mountains of North Carolina. The SBC was the place that taught me to feel shame for my sexuality but also the place that made me feel the possibility of wholeness through my shame. I would encounter the Spirit’s movement as I came into the United Methodist Church.
Spirit called from within me, through my vocal cords, while among a United Methodist gathering of hundreds of youth, “I love Jesus, and I don’t care what ANY OF YOU think about that!” The process of finding my voice came with my voice being a response to a profound and healing Grace encountered. During my high school years at youth events, my eyes would gaze upon the stage with an impulse beyond wanting to be the center of attention. My guts pulled me towards the stage, like a cotton ball towards the mouth of a vacuum cleaner. Something within me wanted to do what the preachers did. This was part of my calling to preach.
After what may have been the worst sermon that anyone in the Church ever heard, members of the three rural United Methodist Churches who made up the family of The Bladen Charge came up to me and said, “God really spoke through you, today.” They would let me preach at two different “Youth Sundays” before graduation, combining with a couple other sermons I preached elsewhere.
“Do not be a pastor unless you cannot do anything else,” an older United Methodist pastor told me, after I said I felt called into pastoral ministry, during my senior year in high school. It was an affirmation of how deeply the call would need to be to sustain me during the challenging times. I took that to heart. Towards the end of my time as a high school student, I would go before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry to declare that I wanted to be a pastor. (I’ll share more about this in a footnote at the end of the next blog post) With their support, and with Pastor Tim, the mentor who supported my journey towards pastoral ministry, we would, for a few years, work through a small book called The Christian as Minister and also a gigantic purple book about The Candidacy Inquiry Process.
As I went off to college, something rang in my ears. “Think about what your tent ministry might be, in case you need to support yourself another way.” My father told me this, when I said I wanted to study Religion for my bachelor’s degree. He had seen enough pastors struggling to support themselves with financially poor congregations, and he wanted me to be well.
Ultimately, I would pour my entire self into the hope of being a United Methodist Pastor, the hope that church work could sustain my life lived in service to God and people. As I began to answer my calling, I would do so with the understanding that I did not have a “Plan B,” that I really would need to put trust into the God who called me and the hope that answering that call could be a meaningful professional goal. From a spiritual standpoint, I was preparing to step out of the boat, knowing that I would not have a lot to stand on if this “pastoring” thing went sideways, that I might one day have to learn on the run, how to provide for myself in a different way. From a work standpoint, I was preparing to place my professional life in the hands of a huge business that I knew almost nothing about, except that it was the place through which I would plan to serve with my one life. That decision began to be made at the age of seventeen, as I was beginning in my senior year of high school and I saw the decision as more final, when I went off to study Religion in college, shortly after legally becoming an adult.
When I arrived at Chowan University as a freshman, in 2006, I had a friend from a different Christian tradition who had just been ordained as a pastor. Having started my calling at the same time as him, I would end up waiting fifteen years until my ordination in June of 2021. Life spared me church trauma as a child, but I would end up feeling a lot of it in the process of getting ordained.
Telling you about my origins was important, to show how many different voices – many of whom I do not agree with anymore – have echoes in the work done in my life. The name of this blog is “Messy, Meztizo, Mosaic,” three words that attest to the beauty and struggle of different pieces coming together. (This blog also uses the domain name www.Methocostal.Church, which further tells the story of differences uniting) In my life, different religious traditions, racial groups, and cultures come together, often clashing. And yet, beauty comes through the dance they do together if I am able to move through the desire to cancel out pieces that resonate less.
My story resonates with the stories of others, in many ways. It bears witness to many of the challenges that young, new, and minority pastors face on the journey deeper into the Church’s leadership structure. My story is a testament that the Church, which is made up of wounded people, will wound you, but if you stick around long enough, the God who lives through this group that we call “The Body of Christ” has a way of coming through and offering healing through the same methods that have caused harm.
In this direction, I am going to spend time talking about my experiences in the ordination process of the United Methodist Church. Like my early childhood experiences in the Church, my experiences in the ordination process tell one part of a multi-faceted story. The ordination process, for me, has been full of gracious people, and it has also hurt me. As we walk through this story – one which has echoes in the lives of many others – I encourage you to be or become willing to hold the dueling possibilities of hurt and hope with me. I began writing this with a story that centered around many experiences specific to me, but I continue, because I know that the challenges of ordination are not specific to me.