My dear friends in Christ,
Here is the next installment of my Spiritual Autobiography. As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, I’m sharing these details of my spiritual journey from childhood to priesthood and to All Saints Episcopal Church not (with all due respect to Walt Whitman) to celebrate myself, but in an attempt to begin (at least) to make up for time lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, time we would otherwise have been able to spend getting to know each other and building the close relationships that are so important to the life and health of a thriving parish. If anything here sparks your interest, if you have questions, or if you’d just like to connect and talk about something else entirely, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 920.266.9262. I look forward to hearing from y’all!
Discernment Process, Part 2
I had achieved a real clarity about my calling in winter of 2001, but by the time it got to be 2004, nothing had come of it. It seemed to me that I was going in circles. I would spend six or eight months participating in a specific series of meetings or workshops or “discernment activities” … and as soon as I was done, another six- or eight-month exercise would pop up, which I’d be told I had to complete before I could meet with the bishop. Everyone, from the diocesan level to the parish, from clergy to laity, said the discernment process was “broken,” but nobody seemed able to fix it. In fact, I could never get a clear answer as to whether I was even officially in the discernment process.
Something had to give. I decided to take some time off from church activities. To be clear, I never considered leaving the Church—especially not after having recognized a call to serve Christ with my life. But I needed to take a step back in order to reflect on where ~ and who ~ I was.
I’d been teaching freshman English full time at Spartanburg Community College (then Spartanburg Technical College) since the spring of 2002. After moving to Spartanburg in the fall of 1999, I taught part time at Furman University from 2000-2001, and I’d also been teaching as an adjunct at STC since the spring of 2001. Perhaps, I thought, my calling is to serve in an academic, as opposed to an overtly ministerial, capacity. Certainly, teaching freshman classes at a community college involves a great deal of counseling, if not outright ministering…
At that time, I was also dealing with several more mundane concerns: buying a new car for the first time, buying my first house, learning to handle the pressures of a career as opposed to a mere job) … Moreover, I found that, after my recent church experiences and the resulting frustration and confusion, quite frankly, I need to heal, emotionally and psychologically, before I could return fully to the question of vocation. I felt severely let down by the parish in which I’d placed my trust, and by the process itself, and I needed to sort those feelings out and let go of whatever negativity was there before I could proceed to anything else in that regard.
In the meantime, Fr. Rob, with whom I’d initially discussed discernment, had accepted the position of rector at another Episcopal church in Spartanburg: St. Matthew’s. In the summer of 2005, having been away from active church participation for roughly a year, I decided I needed to visit Fr. Rob in his new church. I did not, at the time, intend to switch my parish membership, much less to become actively involved again, but I quickly ended up doing both those things.
The atmosphere at St. Matthew’s was markedly different than what I’d known at my previous parish. This congregation, though just as divided politically, instead of focusing on their anger and fighting things out to see who “won” and therefore was “right,” primarily focused on worship of Jesus Christ, and I found that … rejuvenating. I jumped into music ministry again, joining the guitar choir that played and sang for the healing Eucharist on Wednesdays. I even considered beginning active discernment again in this new parish, despite the fact that I’d have to start over from scratch. Once again, though, life offered me an unexpected turn.
There was a young lady in the Wednesday night guitar group who was herself a new member of the parish, a music therapist working in the behavioral health unit of Spartanburg Regional Hospital. Anne and I became close quickly and started dating. And despite a brief moment of “cold feet” on my part at the very beginning (I had never connected so quickly and so thoroughly with another person as I did with her, and honestly it scared me at first!), our relationship deepened into an abiding love. In November of 2006, I asked her to marry me, and we were married on the 19th of May, 2007.
In the ensuing year, I began learning not only how to be a full-grown adult with a career, a car, and a house, but also how to be a husband, as well. All of which is to say that it seems clear to me now that God understood, back in 2004, that I had a lot of education to catch up on before I should consider going forward with any vocational discernment, even if at the time I hadn’t seen it that way.
As we began our second year of marriage, Anne and I began exploring the deeper, existential questions of life together, questions about vocation and purpose. We realized that where we were was not where we felt ourselves to be of greatest service. I discovered that I loved teaching, yet I had not felt fulfilled or fully devoted to what it was I’d been teaching for a while. I felt, and still feel, drawn to the academic study of religion, and I wondered if perhaps my call were to pursue a Ph.D. and move on to teach at a university. At the same time, that powerful sense of clarity I’d discovered back in 2001, being called to serve God and God’s people through the ministering of the Sacraments, still haunted me. I was at a crossroads, uncertain how proceed.
I needed help finding a way forward. That, and the powerful sense of call to sacramental ministry, drove me once again to engage in active discernment within a structured Church environment. I had to tell Fr. Rob … but how would he respond, given that I’d stepped away from discernment several years before?
To be continued...