Monday, June 30, 2014

The (Clergy-Search) Dating Game

In case I haven't made this clear, I did actually graduate!  That particular part of the fool's errand that gives this blog its name is done.
Of course, that means that the challenging part -- the "becoming a Presbyterian pastor" part -- is where I am now.  And that means it's time for me to play The Presbyterian Dating Game.
Different denominations have different means of pastors being placed in churches.  On one end of the spectrum is the free-for-all involved in Baptist and other such denominations.  On the other, the strict placement practice of United Methodists, in which not only are you placed by a bishop, but you are subject to being re-placed four or five years later.
As is typical in just about everything polity-wise, the Presbyterian Church (USA) sits somewhere in the middle, with a system that leaves the choice up to church and potential pastor while centralizing the contact process in Presbyterian offices in Louisville (henceforth called the Mothership).  Without betraying confidence or otherwise giving away state secrets, here's a little of what it's like to be caught up in this process.
Once one has been certified by one's presbytery as ready for examination for a call, the potential pastor is called upon to summarize his/her life in a few pages via the Personal Information Form (PIF).  The PIF is, without too much exaggeration, your life essence, your core, your Patronus, your very being itself all digested and wrestled into electronic written form.  Beyond the practical details of your life history and education and experience the PIF also captures your response to a set of narrative questions that are intended to say something about you as a potential minister (or experienced minister if you're that).  It also includes references, like a more traditional resumé, and your contact information of course.  Completing this PIF becomes the Holy Grail of your existence once you're certified, even to the point of becoming a bigger deal than graduation (I got this wrong, therefore I'm a little behind many of my classmates who are already toddling off to their first calls).
Of course the seminary has an office to help with this kind of thing, but ultimately you've got to get it done and filled out on a PC(USA) website so it can be approved by your presbytery's appropriate committee, after which it is posted on the denomination's Christian Leadership Connection list of pastors and others seeking new calls.  Hundreds upon hundreds of PIFs are lodged there.
At the same time, the CLC is also gathering MIFs, or Ministry Information Forms, from churches seeking new pastors or associate pastors or whatever may be the case.  (In case you didn't guess it from the PC(USA) abbreviation, we Presbyterians love love love us some acronyms.)  Once your PIF is posted, it's time to start looking for matches, with the CLC functioning somewhat like the dating site eHarmony.  Your seminary's vocational office can help you out by finding those churches that match your criteria (i.e. are willing to take on someone with no pastoral experience or seeking a first call, in my case) and, possibly, going ahead and referring your PIF to the churches that match.  You can also refer yourself via good ol' email, though it doesn't hurt to have your seminary vouching for you, so to speak.
Then, you wait.  This is the part at which I am not good.
If things go well, churches start to contact you via the chair of their Pastor Nominating Committee (or PNC).  Often the first contact might simply be a query as to whether you're still interested in that church, or it might be a request to see a video of you preaching a sermon, particularly if you're seeking a solo or head pastor role.
I assume all the seminaries have some means of helping you get such a video done; Union does, and so I was off to preach a sermon to a video camera.  Such is the essence of strangeness.  In this case the video is hosted by UPSem's media services, so the PNC can simply go online and watch the sermon to see if you're a total incompetent or not.  If after this the church decides you're still a person of interest, the next step might be to set up an interview with you and the committee via Skype or old-fashioned conference call.  This is as far as I've gotten; I've now completed such interviews with two churches, the second just earlier this evening.
There is one other potential step, if you choose.  This year PC(USA) offered a face-to-face interview opportunity running concurrently with its General Assembly a couple of weeks ago in Detroit, on the premise that elders or nominating committee members or presbytery executives were likely to be on the premises and could sneak out of meetings on occasion to interview either newbies like me or, in some cases, currently employed pastors who were seeking new calls.  It is the latter that causes the face-to-face interview room to be placed in the most remote part of the meeting facility, I assume (seriously, the interview room was practically in Canada).

See? There's Windsor, Ontario, seen from just outside the interview room!

If the CLC website is eHarmony, this face-to-face is a speed-dating event.  I barely got into the interview room before I had two different potential interview groups coming after me.  The whole week wasn't quite that hectic, but I did stay busy, which I take as a good thing (one of the two interviews I've done resulted directly from this face-to-face program, so I am required to go on the record saying it's worth doing).  Still, it was odd being right there as all the difficult and controversial overtures before the GA were being discussed and debated and knowing less than the average person sitting at home following on Twitter.
Anyway, that's as much as I can say because that's as far as I've gone.  There may be more churches yet to contact me for sermons or interviews, or something more might happen with one of the interview churches, or the whole business could suddenly freeze up and leave me stranded.  I have some self-referrals I need to do, and I need to go back to the CLC to see if there are any new churches that match up with me.
And that, in a really long and winding nutshell, is my life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

We have only a witness

I spent part of my week in Detroit.  This was primarily part of the "next stage" of my fool's errand, the part where the seminary education and general seeking to discern gets (hopefully) translated into a vocational calling as a pastor somewhere in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  That denomination is holding its General Assembly, an every-other-year orgy of polity and overtures (not the operatic kind, regrettably) and amendments and amendments to amendments and such by which the church seeks to set a path forward as a (more or less) unified church in a world that (more or less) doesn't care what we do, except when it does (and GA is often the time when it does).  The GA made a bit of news this week; you may have heard.

I was there not for GA proper, but for the oh-so-secret face-to-face (I'm apparently into hyphens today, big-time) interviews that take place between churches and those seeking a call.  Since I'm just about the only person in my graduating class (almost three weeks ago now) who hasn't already secured a call at BigCity Presbyterian somewhere out there, it seemed worth a shot.  I guess it went well; I stayed busy enough that I really didn't know much at all of what was happening in GA proper.  I'd know more today except I can't follow the live feed of the floor proceedings; my connection doesn't seem to be up to the challenge.

After a bit of hunting and pecking I did finally find out what happened on one issue with which I was particularly concerned.  On an overture to move forward on divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, the GA did something at which it excels.  The headline of the linked article, "Creation Care PC(USA) looks to long-term efforts, not immediate divestment with fossil-fuel companies," is what I shall call generous; it might as well and more honestly read "GA punts on fossil-fuel divestment just like it does on every mildly contentious issue that comes before it, at least two or three times."  (I suppose I'm required to be fair and note that the GA has plenty of other contentious issues before it on which it can no longer punt, so I'm probably being unfair in my snark.  I don't really care at this point.)  In theory the divestment issue can be revisited in two years, but more likely we will get around to divesting only when a major US city is leveled by the explosion of a Bakken-crude oil train or pipeline along the lines of the unfortunate city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, or a major river/water source is befouled by such an accident.  (I'm exaggerating.  I hope I am, at least.)

Is this what it will take?

While I could easily go on on this particular subject, as anyone who follows my Facebook or Twitter feeds could tell you if they haven't tuned out already, that's not where my current ranting is directed.  No, it is instead a perennial argument found in all manner of previous punts on divestment issues in this and other denominations.  It is the concern, voiced in the PC(USA) GA article linked above in so many words, that we will somehow lose our influence with fossil-fuel companies if we divest from them.

I am sure that those who voice such concerns are sincere, and believe that they are somehow making progress with Exxon or BP or Shell or whatever companies my future retirement is sunk into.  However, when I continue to see a steady stream of stories like this one, in which states go so far to protect the fossil-fuel industry as to forbid residents sickened by the activities of the fossil-fuel industry from saying so, I am hard-pressed to see where that progress is.  When I continually see stories about the poisonous water that the fracking process pumps into the ground -- that will eventually make its way into our groundwater -- and how said industry won't fess up to what they are (with the aid of the state governments again protecting them), I'm a bit unsure about what influence we're having.  When I see the Gulf coast still struggling with the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this many years later, I don't quite see how my future retirement money is changing much of anything.

Here is the thing; the church does not have influence.  The church has only a witness.  Here it is again, pardon my shouting: THE CHURCH DOES NOT HAVE INFLUENCE.  THE CHURCH HAS ONLY A WITNESS.

And here's a corollary to the above: when the church tries to wield influence, it usually ends up failing to be the church.

Look to history.  Is there any historical case where the church, in any of its manifestations, has been particularly Christlike or godly when it has thrown its weight around in world affairs?  Do all those crusading armies particularly recommend the faith all that well?  Is England particularly nostalgic for Oliver Cromwell's Puritan types?  Oh, it might look good for a while.  I dare say Southern Baptists got a little bump from their culture-war turn, but that denomination is now well into its fourth decade as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, and look what's happening to their membership and baptism numbers; it's still a slow decline so far, but the bloom may just be off that rose at the last.  (Let's be clear, it wouldn't have mattered which party they sold out to; it would still have constituted a selling-out of witness in favor of influence.)

Corporations are give-me-your-money-and-shut-up outfits; unless you're at the Big Boys Table (and that's usually a pretty accurate description, but I digress) you opinion does not matter.  Political parties, or their upper-level types, are that way rather often as well.  I'm trying to come up with a time when a church's money actually moved a corporation off the time and towards more just business practices, but I'm getting nothing.  Anyone?  Seriously, if you've got an answer I want to know.

In short, I do not see where our money invested in such corporations (be they fossil-fuel corporations now or Big Tobacco backintheday) has ever had a whole lot of influence on those corporations and their concern for justice and basic human decency.

Now let me make this clear too: there is absolutely no guarantee that divesting from fossil-fuel companies will move them at all, either.  PC(USA) just isn't that big, for one thing.  For another, fossil-fuel companies are increasingly shielded by the states in which they do their damage, as noted above; until that changes, there is very little that can influence them at all.  Do you see any signs that BP is suffering in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill?  I don't mean embarrassed, I mean suffering even the tiniest ill effect on their revenues or sales?

We do not have influence.  We have only a witness.  And more and more I'm convinced that my future retirement money, such as it is, being tied up in the fossil-fuel industry of the 21st century actually harms my witness, no matter how fine my preaching is or how compassionate my pastoral care may be.  Is the sickening of the people of Fort Chip or the water deprivation of Texas o.k. for me to live off of in my dotage?

We have only a witness.  It requires us to speak up.  Speaking up requires us to live in a way that backs up our speaking up, which can get awfully inconvenient.  Speaking up might even require us to march, to (shudder) protest, to (*swoon*) do advocacy.  It might cause our neighbors to dislike us.  It might cause them to try to shut down our soup kitchens or homeless shelters.  It might cause them to decide we're too impure or sinful to be associated with.  But it is all we have.

Our money is pointless.

We have only a witness.

Friday, June 6, 2014

There are people

I did not get to go on the seminary's travel-seminar trip to the Middle East in May.  I wanted to, badly.  But about the time in the fall I needed to make a commitment and start trying to scare up some funding, my surgeon sounded an alarm about something suspicious-looking that couldn't be explained and might require surgery.  Of course, as it has turned out so far, that thing has not grown or changed or gone anywhere, and any apparent threat to block something or damage something has not materialized, and I'm in more-or-less normal health for now (as normal as ever after the kind of surgery and treatment I had).
So, I missed the trip.  The group traveled through Turkey and its significant sites, both Christian and otherwise, and then to Israel, with stops in (if I remember correctly) Tel Aviv, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.
I freely admit the site I would have been most eager to see was the site at Gallipoli, a World War I battle, more than most of the religious sites (although I was thoroughly excited about the various New Testament-related sites in Turkey).  In all honesty, I was a bit ambivalent about the Israel-Palestine part of the trip.  That wasn't because of any particular concern about the itinerary.  It was because people tend to get stupid about the "Holy Land."
Hear me out.  You might even get to witness an unbegun pastoral career going up in self-inflicted flames.
Leaving aside Jerusalem syndrome, it's just about impossible to get into a discussion of anything about the modern-day state of Israel without an awful lot of Christians starting to act, frankly, goofy.  (I would guess that Jews and Muslims also exhibit awfully strong feelings on the region, but I will stick with what I know most from experience.)  It might be a simple as a total change of vocal tone upon the thought of the "Holy Land", or perhaps some dreamy look in the eyes, or an uncontrollable urge to break out singing the old sacred-song chestnut "I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked."
To me, something of this kind of distractedness is evidenced by a blog on the Christian Century website with the title "An Open Letter to the PCUSA" concerning upcoming General Assembly debate over the question of Israel-Palestine conflict.  Maybe others read it differently.  Maybe the author is seeking something else and I'm missing it.  But as far as I can see, the author's sole purpose is to undermine any serious discussion of the conflict in the region and to treat the whole region as something like the song linked above.
Of course, there is the use of "politics" as an implied dirty word.  There is only a minimal amount of concern for any person involved in the conflict; indeed to read the article one might forget that there actually are people -- Palestinian residents, Israeli settlers, soldiers, etc. -- involved in the conflict, or indeed living in the region at all.  The "Holy Land," or the "Fifth Gospel" as the author names it, is an abstraction, virtually a theme park (and no, I'm not referring to the one in Florida, but at times in the blog entry I wondered if I might be) to which we are invited to wander and wonder and meditate for our own peace and contentment.
This I find appalling.  This is not about "our faith" as a historical artifact bound to a particular geographical region; this is about our faith as we are called to live it, discerning the will of the Holy Spirit in finding some way to a just peace in the region, or at the very minimum not being caught supporting the perpetuation of injustice.  This is a conflict between people.  Our sentimental attachment to the pictures we used to see in Sunday School class is not a basis for discerning justice.
There is virtually nothing I can add to the debate that will culminate at General Assembly.  I find it sad and pathetic that there are some who would treat the debate as an excuse for a low-grade case of Jerusalem syndrome.

It doesn't look quite like this anymore.