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MISTIR, Ch 12: Father Ne’er Do Well

“I’m going places,” I said to myself as I sat alone in a Las Vegas Pizza Hut booth, comforted by-then and now-a pepperoni pizza. I’d ridden my bike to the restaurant after my mother had asked me to absent myself from our home for a few hours so she could speak to my father about his drinking. She made other arrangements for my two younger brothers and so I sat there in the quiet dining room, an 8th grader, and for the first time experienced the nettlesome grandiosity which has nipped at my heels all of my life. Easier to fantasize about the success of my imagined life rather than consider the reality of my deteriorating family, I took comfort in what I hoped I would become. No specifics surfaced about how to achieve that which would transport me away, far away, from the small and empty life I thought I had. I contented myself with the thought then that though there was absolutely nothing remarkable about me then, that would change.

In seminary, my ambition emerged and in my first semester, though I was unhappy at the school, I did not let onto my struggle but tried to maintain a positive persona. Because I was young, straight, and a white male, a few folks in seminary suggested I might have a successful career-maybe even make bishop- because of my genetic traits. They did not realize, however, that even though I was hardwired for historical privilege and access to power, I also had genetic coding that produced debilitating worry and anxiety and the need, on occasion, to run for the hills straight into a psychiatric facility for a refresher course on sane living and some head meds. The first hospitalization came during my second year of theological studies and went a long way toward helping me back off my miter envy and give more attention to who I was as a follower of Christ and someone interested in the priesthood.

Most clergy become ordained relatively soon following the completion of their theological studies. My process was quite different and extended. After my graduation, I anticipated and even had a date for ordination, but the second hospitalization got in the way of that and my church ascendancy hit another snag. Finally ordained a priest some six years after the completion of my training, I still didn’t have a full-time church job and carved out a living as a youth worker, college chaplain, and bank teller. The several wake-up calls I had in my training and early career reminded me that the vocation was more about a willingness to serve than posturing for advancement.  Without those lessons, I would have been terribly distraught with my odd work trajectory. Still, when classmates and other colleagues landed good positions, salaries, or became bishops, I compared myself to them (for the record, a stupid thing to do) and pangs of dissatisfaction with myself and my lack of accomplishment pushed against the hard work I had done to accept myself and situation.

I arrived in Bisbee to serve the two small congregations and engage in ministry on the border. Even before I was on the clock, both the bishop and my future parishioners made their expectations clear that I would grow the congregations. When I complained about my starting salary, my bishop said that an increase in church attendance could increase my own compensation. So, with no earthly idea how to grow a church (my theological education ignored the topic) I put up a good front and said I would do my best.

Increased Sunday attendance, improved finances, the care and expansion of physical structures, these are the monikers of success in the Episcopal Church and the key stones for career advancement. A cleric’s effectiveness, more often than not, is measured by how much their leadership contributes to a new church building, a robust youth program that brings contributing families, or a strong mission commitment to those in need. Those who ascend to the higher pinnacles of ecclesiastical structure usually reach the best jobs and salaries because they built something from nothing, turned around a disaster, or didn’t fuck up a big church operation on their watch.

Approaching fifty, I possessed none of the above currency. The churches I had served treaded water or had only an uptick in growth. I had built no buildings nor founded anything important. I did my job but that job did not garner much attention. I was nowhere near where I thought I needed to be in order to occupy a position of influence and a higher salary. I preached to about fifty people a Sunday-on a good Sunday-and that was with two services. I earned not much above the diocesan minimum and I sat on no national committees to circulate about and get recognized as a potential church power broker. The psychiatric work I refer went a long way in helping me see that much of what attracted me to church power was external. When my eyes coveted the success of others I knew, I told myself I didn’t want the accouterments and big bucks. The fox who named his grapes bitter did the same thing.

I wanted my border work to be of import and influence but confess that I sometimes was more motivated by what others sad about the work rather than the work itself. Highlights of my work there included organizing a border conference for bishops, and, a couple of years later, hosting our Presiding Bishop for a visit to the region. But those were high-water marks and short lived. The economic development I attempted across the line failed, in part, because I believed I knew what was best for our border community and couldn’t wait to tell others around the church how much of a success I was.

Like the steel marble that bounces around in a pin-ball table, bouncing off blinking bumpers and twirling about in the Jackpot’o-rama, I struggled to stay centered in the midst of the need, poverty, and expectation I collided into. Rarely on time and sometimes even late for services I conducted, my stress level increased. I was not particularly successful, by the standards of those who could advance my career, and far away from the constellations of church power and higher salaries.

I held myself responsible for my poor performance and internalized my underachievement by blaming my OCD diagnosis and my father’s alcoholism. To reduce my self-criticism, I often told myself if I could avoid a third hospitalization, drug use, and the abandonment of my marriage vows, then I’m doing okay, even if the service register for church attendance stayed flat and I hadn’t created jobs in Mexico.

Other factors, however, contributed to my ne’er-do-well  ministry. Most of the time I worked in my position, I pushed up against some low-yield resistance at the diocesan headquarters in Phoenix by staff members not particularly thrilled with my border work. I also had consistent, but indirect struggles with parishioners who lacked direct communication skills and shared gossip and other  toxins amongst the faithful.

Those things are nothing new in Christian ministry. Probably the culprit most responsible for my seven stationary years, had less to do with triangulation and power-trips and more to do with the free-fall that is the Episcopal Church-and others like it.

Incognizant at the time, I’ve come to see that American Christendom, individualistic in nature because of great revival movements, morally outraged by slavery, that which fueled Manifest Destiny across North America, that which sanctified the covetousness of our expanding empire, blessed two world wars, and spawned itself into the growing suburbs of the 1950s has collapsed on my watch.  The Decades of Evangelism,  clever and expensive advertisement campaigns, plans to double church membership by 2020 have all failed. I sowed and harvested  not even in rocky soil where at least weeds have a chance. I gave my best effort in the evaporating fields of the Lord, in a context where shifting worldview and the belief system and values by which people raise their children no longer sync with preceding generations.

During my journey with marijuana I experienced my own shifting worldview, belief system, and values. Smoking helped me ignore both the sobering reality of the shifting sands and my own lack. In fact, when I did smoke, I became larger than life and surveyed my past, present, and future and beheld the Promised Land within reach. I wasn’t sure what was sick or broken, but stoned, I believed that I  was the remedy to cure what ailed my church and my country.

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