I grew up in my Church, that branch of the Body of Christ called "Episcopal." I wasn't six months old, and my parents brought me to the font at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Lansing, Michigan for inclusion into the Body of Christ in the sacrament of Baptism. I was a member of one of the founding families of St. David's Episcopal Church in East Lansing, and watched as my grandfather played the organ and led the choir, my father served as usher and my mother and grandmother serve as lay readers and as Eucharistic ministers. I was confirmed in the Diocese I would later be ordained in, Southern Ohio. I grew up, and when it was time for college I chose Kenyon-an Episcopal Church-related liberal arts school in Eastern Ohio. I know who I am because the people of God in the Episcopal Church accepted me into their midst when I had nothing to offer as an infant save my cries, challenged me to grow in spiritual maturity as I increased in physical stature as a young man, and the people of God in the Episcopal Church continue to form, shape and guide me in my formation as a priest even as I approach my twentieth year of ordination.
Sounds like a lovely story, yes? Those are definitely the high points of my formation, the summit moments of a long pilgrimage that I have been sharing with other Episcopalians and Christians for the balance of my life; but there are other places to note. There are valleys. Some of them were shaded glens, but more than a few were a lot more like the valley from Psalm 23...that one named "shadow of death." Both the high and the low mark points of growth...and in a larger context challenge us as the Church to get away from thinking that Christ-life is about being "good" and knowing "blessings" and "getting fed" when it comes to the real formation of leaders.
Some of those valleys that I have passed through?
- Seeing my mother and grandmother face vitriol and rejection for stepping up as women to be liturgical and parish leaders before women were accepted at the altar or vestry table. Lay or ordained, women were held at the margin, and I knew in my core that wasn't right.
- Losing my organist/choirmaster grandfather to his second heart attack, one that was in all probability exacerbated because of an acrimonious falling out with a new rector at his parish that culminated in his forced "retirement." Music was his life, and the mishandling of his exit remains a scandal and a likely seal on his passing.
- Learning how acrimonious institutional life can be when wounds pile up...my college called itself an Episcopal School...but the only indication was the inclusion of purple and the use of a crozier on the college seal . Almost since its founding, the College has struggled with the Church...even when both proclaim an ongoing "liberal" focus.
- Facing an uphill and difficult passage through the ordination process. I was too young, too unformed, too inexperienced, to ambiguous, often too arrogant...and it was only through God's grace and the supportive discipline of a Bishop and willing (and forgiving) mentors I treasure to this day that I was able to tap most of these weaknesses and use them to grow. For most, the very idea of taking an untried youth into formation was a scandal. It remains so today, despite efforts to get more young people into the ordination process.
- Learning that ordination is a crucible where your faults, wounds and weaknesses are very often your greatest strengths...and that we as leaders can do both great damage (when we lack mindful awareness of our "stuff") and great good (when we remember to BE human...when we mess up and then step up and with repentance seek to amend our wrongdoings). Few come to these realizations because of their excellent choices and wise natures...most learn how the crucible works the hard way, and sometimes even the best choose to ignore or repress the memory of that clarifying fire.
- Failing as pastor, priest and leader...both in what I was called to do, and in what people expected of me. Sometimes I have been able to make amends. Sometimes I have left wounds behind that another, or even Christ, would have to dress.
- Learning how to take being wounded and turn that trauma into healing light so that another might grow from what I experienced, and so that I might salvage enough of myself to be able to return to the work of serving the Christ I love in the Church that formed me.
What I am holding up is that I learned at an early age not to expect the Church to be a place where perfection is known and practiced. Instead, I learned early on that the institution of Church, like most human endeavors, is a messy, real, sometimes painful, risky place to live. Leaders called to the Church do not represent the cream of the crop...they are not the "best" people. They are just people, REAL people, who have been called to serve, and sometimes they get it right (even VERY right), and sometimes they get it wrong (even VERY wrong). The challenge of formation, then, is not to perfect the system or the person; but to allow that the system (or the person) is always breaking down and always in need of refreshment, rewiring and renewal. That becomes difficult, because systems prefer stasis and tend to reject moving targets. Tradition (meaning reserved expectations of restoring a better, earlier time) can too often dominate rather than inform.
I continue to learn the lesson over and over again, that the Church is not a pretty place, a perfect place or a place where all the good of the Body of Christ is reserved for the faithful to enjoy. It is a place where formation of the faithful is an ongoing labor (read "birth process" as well as "work"). At its best, the Church and its varied institutions are places where we can grow, be challenged, find joy, express sorrow, receive comfort, know discipline, deepen in wisdom, grace and faith. It is a place where institutional life needs to be very careful, as it too often allows itself to slip into existing for its own self and loses awareness that it is called to serve and build up the Body, and not to control or dominate people in a way that leads to needless wounding and destruction. It is a place that is vulnerable to predators and predatory behaviors by the very fact that it needs to keep the doors open and the welcome mat out for every one... It is a place where even the very worst can express repentance, receive absolution and practice amendment of life. It is the place that calls out the very best from people who don't think that they have anything of worth to give. It allows the very best of people to find humility and peace.
In all these lessons of formation, what is to be learned? Is there a reducible "take home" that we can find? There are a couple...here is one: The work of the Church (what WE are called to who are formed in it and by it) is more akin to birth than we like to admit. It's messy, dramatic, traumatic and life altering...and it is the way that TRUE life is made and comes into this world. When we forget that, we get into a lot of trouble. When we remember that, then the peaks and valleys we experience on our way each become gifts of formation, creating (and recreating) us into a people who live out the call of Jesus Christ to follow him, to make disciples of all peoples...to love his new creation into being by His grace. That is formation: imperfect, holy and life-giving.