Memory is a fickle thing. We are shaped by the things that happen to us, and we are also shaped by the way we tell stories. In my family, a few tales have become fun to tell and retell, and, depending on who is telling them, different points will protrude like points on a star sharing extravagant rays of brilliance in different directions. Take, for example, the story of me playing with a rubber band and accidentally shooting my niece Hadassah with it when she was about 18-months-old. Yeah, that one likes to follow me around at family gatherings.
Stories follow us in families but also in anything else that occupies our time. For every place I have worked – whether Dairy Queen, Cape Fear Chicken and BBQ, Windsor United Methodist Church’s summer childcare, or as a pastor – I have a story to tell that is like a legend, a saga that I sing internally like a ballad.
From the first church I served out of Divinity School, I have a few of those stories. Most of them are so beautiful and heart-warming that even to think of them, I feel as warm inside as drinking hot cocoa when it’s snowing outside. One time a family paid to fly me to a church growth conference in a different state, and I felt like royalty, being given literature and free swag, just for being in the position of leadership. I remember the story of a man who drove our church van into trailer parks and down half-mile-long, muddy driveways – as tenacious as a mother elephant protecting her young.
It’s ironic and sad how the stories that dig the deepest neural pathways in our brains are often the most traumatic. Whether a child who is accidentally lost at the park or a teenager who sees her cat get attacked by a wild animal, the traumatic memories live, not only in our minds but in our bodies also. In this way, I have a somatic relationship with one of my personal legends from the first church I served.
It was after a Church Council meeting one night. I had been sick that week and had told people about the illness, which made me miss a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event called “Fields of Faith.” It was an event that invited local pastors to connect with students. As a former football player myself, who played thirty minutes from the local high school, I would have liked to go. But sickness and busyness kept me.
At the end of the Council meeting, a person who had earned a reputation as a bully came up to me and said, “You have caused irreparable damage between our church and [the local high school],” and then he went on to tell me how immature I was and how poor my leadership skills were.
“I am your pastor; please respect me,” I said, right before the retort came. “Not my pastor. And until you get your act together, you won’t be. You have thirty days.” As he spoke, I could see his jawline shaking with anger. Closing my eyes, I can still see the light glistening off of the sweat on his chin, thinking if he was going to his my jaw with his fist. He seemed scared, like someone much more intimidating than me had threatened his body.
Presumably, I had a month before I would be forcibly removed, before some unknown threat would come. Angry outbursts and personal threats is not how pastoral transitions happen in the United Methodist Church, but it still hurt. That incident of pastor abuse was the first of many, both for me and my wife. At one point, she was bullied to the point of crying in the bathroom and throwing up, right before worship. On another Sunday morning, I was accused of plagiarizing my sermons, directly before recording the sermon I would share with the Board of Ordained Ministry for the next step in the ordination process (which caused me to act overly jubilant in the video, as a counterpoint to the toxicity, which seemed inauthentic to the space, which partially caused me to be delayed in the Ordination process).
These things do not hold the same sway over my body as they once did. The contortions I once felt in my stomach have dissipated. The hairs on my neck no longer stand on end when I think of the bully. But for a long time, they did.
At the same time that I was struggling with the bullying, I was also managing the task of being a new pastor, struggling with a new ADHD diagnosis, trying to find my identity as a Latino in a county where roughly 1 of 3 people were Latinx. One time, I talked with a number of Latinx families who were interested in integrating with the Church, and from both ends, that conversation fell apart dramatically. I was struggling to understand how to articulate the good news. The congregation was growing in diversity through our van ministry. It was an outreach that brought in lots of children, young ones who did not solve problems but brought their own, who did not alleviate financial stress but brought financial needs. (The aforementioned bully made this, and all these situations more difficult by saying of the children, “You’re just padding your numbers, trying to look good.”) At this time, I was growing as a husband to a wife who was exploring a calling to Divinity school while pregnant with our first child. All this while trying to be ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.
I have many times joked about how many times I was delayed in the ordination process. For many of us who are delayed, the holdbacks are similar, year after year. You may have heard the term “going against the grain.” It gives me the image of a person who rubs their hand the wrong way on a rough-cut piece of wood, and they get a splinter. This is appropriate here, for me. I have not intended to “go against the grain,” but something about who I am so often rubs the “wrong way,” in the Church. Rubbing a piece of wood the wrong way means you will get a splinter, and continuing to do this means that you will get many fragments in your fingers until you either develop calluses or the wood becomes smoothed out so that the direction of rubbing it does not matter. As I have gone through the ordination process, I have rubbed the wrong way. A lot of it started with my trip to the Board of Ordained Ministry that happened after the story about the bully.
“Most of us, if we were in your shoes, would have responded in much the same way that you have,” one person on the Board told me, in regards to how I had handled the incident. In truth, it was more than how I handled one incident and more about how I handled an abusive pattern in a relationship. And yet, I was ultimately delayed in the ordination process—you might say, being rubbed the wrong way.
Part of the reason I was delayed was my inability to handle the bully in the Church. I was the youngest pastor they could remember serving them, and I was also the seventh pastor in fourteen years (many of my predecessors had related their early departure to the bully). Maybe I was destined to be unable to handle the situation.
When a candidate for ordination is delayed, they receive a letter with affirmations and tasks to aid growth before return the next year. My delay paperwork said that a growing edge was “A need to claim pastoral authority,” in other words, to better realize my place as the person in charge. Also, the paperwork required that I connect with the Conflict Transformation Office, to write an SPRC Covenant, and to write an essay about how conflict can further the ministry of the Church.
With nearly a decade to reflect on this situation, I find it both frustrating and a source of joy. How frustrating it is, that we as a denomination have a hard time ordaining people who are being rubbed the wrong way, like a splintered hand on rough wood. How it adds to the stress of new, young, and minority pastors who have to walk through the many rigors of the ordination process while also navigating the challenges of congregational leadership. The process does add strain, stress that can either build up or tear down.
I know many people who have been torn down in the ordination process, but it built me up. While at first I was frustrated by these many tasks given to me, I came to be grateful for them. Fr. Richard Rohr writes about how, in the Global West, we do not have many rites of initiation into adulthood. Initiation, in a cultural sense, is a process where young people are brought to the end of themselves, wrestling with their mortality, and having to realize that life is not all about them. For me, the ordination process accomplished this, although this was not its stated goal.
Because I had people to guide me through the many experiences of being bullied, to guide me through the trauma of my family feeling threatened, and to stand with me when I felt like my back was against the wall, I grew. I grew a lot. My mind goes back to a verse from Ecclesiastes that my Dad used to quote, “Pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”
Even larger than the challenges I had with a bully or in the ordination process is the challenge that I know many people and especially pastors face – that they have fallen and they can’t get up. For me, one of the reasons I tell my story is because I want to speak to later listen when others feel like they have fallen and do not have anyone to help them up.
If that is you, and you need a non-judgmental ear to listen to you or give you a hand up, I am not perfect, and I am a part of an imperfect church that grasps at God’s perfect Grace, and I will try to help you up, showing the love that was first shown to me when I was down in the dust.