Monday, March 16, 2009


I’m listening to “the Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles” by Psalters right now , which is good for contemplating cognitive dissonance. I’m so glad I plugged in this CD instead of listening to Marty Haugen, who is way too serene to be really useful right now. If you haven’t heard Psalters before, check out their website. I really don’t know how to describe it, except maybe as Christian dada, except not really absurdist.

[Image: The Psalters, photo by meltingearth]

I spent two hours tonight walking around vacant parking lots on campus, wrestling with how to explain why I want to be a minister to my capstone class on Wednesday. We have to give an elevator speech (although everyone knows that you never explain your career goals while on a 30 second elevator ride), and I’m struggling to quilt together disparate pieces of insight about conflict resolution and ministry. I get close, but then my doubts burst the seams. How do I stand up in front of an intelligent, fairly liberal group of my peers and tell them that I want to administer the sacraments, dwell in ancient texts, and help people celebrate the presence of the One who binds Herself to humanity—and that this is how I plan to lead people in being more accountable to our neighbors, meeting people’s needs and doing justice? It’s absurd, really.

Which makes me question my desires to be ordained in the first place. If I want to lead Christian communities in social justice ministries (which seems to be what I want to do), then why not get my MSW and get to work as a lay member of a congregation? Why bother with the rest? And the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much of my desire comes from God (whose ways, if He exists at all, are not mine) and how much of it has been colonized by the forces of empire that provide a space for “progressive Christians” like me to do social “justice”—as long as I don’t interrupt the exploitative economic and social processes that allow privileged folks like me to live as I do. I don’t know… I just don’t know.

I wish I was less anxious about these things, like some people. Or maybe everyone’s a little anxious about these things.


  1. Hi Ben!

    I think everyone's a little anxious about these things! The fact that you're thinking it over so carefully is such a good thing: it shows that you're really serious, weighing your options thoroughly, and considering how to best achieve your goal of helping your neighbor.

    About a year ago (the last time we hung out :( ), you told me that you felt called to the ministry. And no, nothing about it sounds absurd at all, but you're obviously doubting how effectual at inspiring social justice you could be while being a minister.

    While, yes, it makes sense to get a MSW, as that is the most direct degree for working in social justice. But I wonder, and I guess you do too, if you would be spiritually fulfilled that way. And with both potential paths, I guess you have to grapple with not interrupting exploitative economic and social processes as well.

    This is obviously a really difficult decision for you, and I wish you the best. I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out, Ben!

    Question: Did you apply to seminary? If so, where? And if you worked as a minister, what churches would you want to work with?
    I ask partly because I'd miss having you in the greater DC area!

  2. I agree, not absurd at all! I think there will always be that tension, that we could and should be doing more. That we are so privileged and wealthy while others have so little. And we'll never really be able to justify that. And our goals will never be completely pure. And our actions will never be completely good. And that's where grace comes in. It IS tough, and I admire with you for grappling with it so earnestly, and I'm glad you're not like everybody else, like me even, and that you don't just shrug it off or set it aside. Be comforted though, that God can use you in whatever you choose and that even if you make the "wrong" choice, he can redeem that and use you still. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

  3. These are really good questions you're wrestling with, Ben, and hard as it is, it's really good, IMHO, that you're asking them - it means that you've not become numb, or "locked in" to assumptions, or closed-off to the Spirit - which are surprisingly easy things to become.

    I hesitate to presume to give you advice, especially since, as I mentioned, I have a bit of an ax to grind regarding "church institutions". Not that they're evil - they are used by God for great good - but more that they're a bit numb, "locked in" to assumptions, etc.

    In particular, I have a strong feeling that the whole "lay/clergy" idea is one that, over time, is going to make sense in fewer and fewer cultural contexts in the West. Being a part of a church led by people who are trained as systems engineers, nurses, software developers, poets, counselors, artists, administrators, librarians, teachers, naturalists, etc. - and, yes, even one or two trained as "ministers" - and being connected to a friendship network of other churches like that - makes me believe that we are finally living into that"great unfunded mandate of the Reformation", the priesthood of all believers.

    So my advice: get your training in whatever you feel called to bring to the table - whatever God is saying most clearly will be your gifts to bring to a faith community, and to the world - for now, anyway. And then whatever that is, find or form a church community where *everyone* owns their identity as priest, pastor, minister and brings their gifts of teaching, preaching, service, pastoral care, etc. to each other and to the wider world (not necessarily in that order).

    It's not that such communities don't have leaders - they certainly do - it's just that the leadership/pastoral/teaching/ministerial gifts of every member are valued *and exercised*, whether that member has a degree in theology, social work, music, industrial design, law, medicine, or business administration, or has never graduated high school. The gifts of folks with MDivs will certainly be valued in such communities - but this valuing will generally not take the form of the full-time-salary-and-benefits, overall-leader-in-all-things model that's prevalent today. (Meaning that folks with this background will be finding creative ways to put food on the table - and such ways do exist!)

    That said, not everybody is called to do church in that kind of context, and the traditional church models will certainly persist for the foreseeable future. But in case you're feeling called to the "priesthood of all believers" model of faith community - note that that kind of community needs leaders who are MSW's (etc.) every bit as much as it needs leaders who are MDiv's.

    Anyway, FWIW.


  4. Hey Ben,

    I was just logging in to basically say what Croghan was going to say, and I'm so glad he beat me to it because he did a much better job than I was going to do with my attention split into 5,376,264 pieces at work.

    I have gone back and forth and back and forth about seminary myself... seriously considered quitting the M.S. at ICAR and going to seminary at Eastern Mennonite, as a matter of fact. But my ultimate decision was that seminary = politics, whether I like that or not. I experienced enough unforseen expectations from having a scholarship at Covenant College (and then having the audacity to convert to Catholicism) to last me for a while.

    Going to a Mennonite seminary would make me a Mennonite pastor, and as much as I love the Mennonite church, I did not want to be identified with one denomination. I did not want anyone expecting me to "speak" for a denomination, or to bear the burdens of being identified with any identity group other than the ones I can't avoid being identified with (white, for example, which I HATE as an identity marker). I didn't want to place myself in the line of fire for threatened members of that denomination who sought to purify their tribe of any foreign elements.

    I suspect you'd also rather not be burdened with being identified with a certain denomination, and then (shudder) being tapped to "speak" for that denomination on queer issues. Because you know that would happen.

    Anyway, this is too long. I also wanted to say that you are the only person I know other than myself who owns both Marty Haugen and Psalters music, and who can move into both spaces for different reasons. You're my musical soul sister, Ben. ;^)