Friday, June 28, 2013

The Aftermath of Ministry

I have a friend whose family moved from Virginia to California when she was young. For at least 5 years after the move, her mother introduced herself in this way: "Hello, I'm Lesley. We just moved here from Virginia."

These days I'm tempted to introduce myself like this: "Hello, I'm Adam. I used to be a pastor."

I haven't been in professional ministry for 4 months now, but life these days mostly feels like pastoral aftermath. Historically speaking, D-Day gets all the recognition, but there was still a year of fighting to go until Germany surrendered. I guess D-Day for my ministry was February 27th, but the great battle continues.

I didn't expect this. I thought I had already done most of the work of transition in the year leading up to my last day. I didn't leave because of disillusionment or controversy. I left because my dreams and my vision for the future changed. I had a big dream of moving to wine country, training to be a sommelier (French for "wine douche") and writing about wine, place, the idyllic countryside, and the transition from big town urban to small town rural.

Currently, I divide my time between two places: wine country on the California central coast and Los Angeles, the two parts of my life united by the 101 freeway. And that is exactly how my life feels: divided.  Detaching from an old life is not as simple as driving 3 hours north on the freeway, as much as I wish it were, but I also don't feel as though I'm returning to that old life when I drive south. If anything I feel most at home now on the 101, in that in-between place. I guess you can get out of the wilderness in one day, but it takes much longer to get the wilderness out of you.

Part of why I was ready to leave ministry is that I didn't want my job to change the conversation. I didn't want my handshake to communicate "I'm different from you." I want to be thought of first as a human being, a man struggling to find happiness and love and meaningful work, just like every other person in the world. And that is happening, but you know what? A little part of me misses the reverence. When I was a hospice chaplain, people would literally hush when I walked into a hospital room. It made me stand out. It made me feel a little bit special. It made me feel like people recognized I had a contribution to make. People don't do that anymore. My role and position no longer distinguish me. Now people don't immediately start opening up to me. I have to prove to them that I am a good listener first. 

The hospice analogy works, because I am grieving loss. A few weeks ago, I sold most of my biblical commentaries. I had around 100, and now I have about 25. It's not because I don't care about the Bible anymore, but it's because I don't have the drive or interest to read a 20 page excursus on a Greek phrase anymore. I used to stay up late reading the New Testament in Greek. Now my Greek New Testament gathers dust as I read fiction or Wine Spectator. And I feel guilty and a little lost about that. The "shoulds" are still there. I should be translating Greek and Hebrew. I should be reading all the latest theology books. I should be able to converse easily on the New Perspective on Paul. I should be devouring all the blog posts.

But the desire just isn't there, and I believe in listening to the actual desires that we have rather than trying to tell ourselves what desires to have. I am detaching from old desires and attaching to new ones, exhaling the old version of me and inhaling the new one. Adam the pastor is being replaced by Adam the sommelier, or better, Adam the human. My vocation is changing. But the process is painful and it feels like a war.

Sometimes when I tell people I used to be a pastor, they ask, "So are you not a Christian anymore?" That response always takes me aback, but I can't deny that my faith is changing, and sometimes it really does feel as though I am losing my faith. For the last 15 years I expressed my faith through the exercise of pastoral ministry. That was the primary medium for my discipleship and spiritual formation. It no longer is. And when you untangle your faith from your professional role, things start to unravel.

I'll be honest: right now I don't know how to participate in church. I don't know what to pray for. I don't know what questions to ask. I don't even always know how to talk. And this sounds dramatic, but I have lost some sense of the meaning of life. What is my purpose? What do I get up for every morning? What am I trying to accomplish? God was relatively easy to find in church work and campus ministry and hospice, but where is God when I'm pouring wine and talking about soil type?

Fortunately, God has been in wine ever since Jesus said "this is my blood," and that is largely why I am doing this new work, but my identity, my understanding of work, how I practice my spirituality, and how I relate to people are all changing dramatically, to the point that I have stopped recognizing myself. 

I'm Adam and I used to be a pastor. I don't know yet who I will be next.