Monday, September 04, 2006

The newsroom vs. ministry (Year Two)

Having slain a number of mythical dragons this summer, I thought I was ready to return refreshed for my second year of seminary.

Not only was I ready, I was eager. Twice this summer I had reason to be on campus at CST, and both times I couldn't wait for classes to resume. I couldn't wait to be back in class and back in the commuter dorm, enjoying a weekly infusion of intellectual and social stimulation.

My stated goal was to have a semester end normally. My first semester in seminary, my father died unexpectedly. My second semester in seminary, my brother almost died. Statistically, I'm due for some normalcy.

I arrived on campus with a horrid cold that quickly progressed to a respiratory infection with a fever. I sneezed and coughed my way through four classes Thursday and Friday, my eyes constantly dripping but not from grief as they often did without warning last semester.

Driving home Friday was a challenge, but I had to get home because my son's 5th birthday party was the next day. I made it through his celebration with joy, and then I slept. With antibiotics and cough syrup and Tylenol and sleep, I gave in to illness, waking periodically to clean the kitchen, do some laundry, help set up our Sunday service, even read some homework assignments.

It was in this mode of recovery, feeling nothing but the need for physical rejuvenation, that I was hit unexpectedly with a giant wave of doubt about my sense of direction.

At the end of the spring semester, I was an exhausted, grief-ridden mess. I felt alone and, in some ways, abandoned. And I was ready to run back to the newsroom, a place I had not really missed at all since I left. Wise friends in both the journalism world and the church world persuaded me that I was in no shape to make major life decisions, and they were right.

Over the summer, I experienced a welcome healing, though even the healing was not without pain. And I also had several experiences of affirmation of my ministry. And that is how I came to be eager for the start of school.

So, I count myself as truly surprised that the overwhelming sense of doubt showed up again Sunday evening as I read -- of all things -- my vocational discernment homework.

My major concerns fall into two admittedly selfish areas:

First, finances. My family is now living fully and realistically into the financial impacts of my decision to leave my journalism job, take a part-time church job, and go to graduate school. This time each month, we monitor the checking account for the double hit of the Mastercard bill at the end of the month followed by the mortgage at the first of the month. We are in a very different financial reality than we were when we were both journalists. A reality that means that when you show up at urgent care to get the much-needed antibiotics and learn that your fee for the visit is now $35 instead of $10, you make a note to yourself to stop using urgent care, even if it means waiting a few days to see a doctor. A reality that presents itself in sometimes sweet ways, like the day my husband and I both admitted that we needed new shoes but we had decided not to buy any because shoes are so expensive. And we're not bad off, we're just careful with our money. We don't have any consumer debt, and we don't want any. And we'd rather spend our money on our son, who needs new shoes with some frequency. So, we're living in this reality, and we still remember the previous reality. And we know that the likelihood is that my pay prospects in my new field will never reach the levels of my journalism salary. So, the first doubt, which has remained a constant doubt, is whether it was a good idea to so dramatically change my family's financial circumstances. Should my family have to sacrifice for my sense of call to ministry? (And I can hear one of my mentors saying in answer: What about what your family gains?)

Second, isolation. I don't think I realized until recently how much I thrived on the hyper-activity of a newsroom. I tended to be someone who could quiet myself among the chaos and concentrate on my work despite other conversations going on around me, despite televisions blaring overhead, despite the newsroom equivalent of instant messages popping up on my computer, despite phone calls and other interruptions. I got my intellectual stimulation from the work itself and from my colleagues. And there was social interaction, too. As we grew older, the social connections tended to stay in the building rather than spill over into a bar or a movie theatre, but we knew each other's stories and shared each other's joys and sorrows. But we did so somewhat efficiently, because, well, because that's the way the news business is. I get some of that same sense of intellectual and social stimulation at seminary and I have it with some of my church colleagues, too. But here's my biggest revelation, which might also be my biggest fear: I find ministry itself to be rather isolating. Perhaps that's because my largest responsibility right now is visiting the hospitalized and homebound. And these visits are often meaningful, but they are also isolated. Perhaps it's because, even in a big church with lots of pastors and staff, the work is still more individual than collective. I liked that collective sense of accomplishment that came in journalism. No one person can put the paper out, it's impossible. You have to rely on others, and you have to do your part well because others are relying on you. I wish ministry were more like that. I wish Sundays ended with a collective sense of joy at all the possibilities for worship or prayer or relationship with God that we as a team helped foster. And, in a quiet moment, I have even wondered if I was just feeling all this isolation because I missed worship this Sunday, and I thrive on worship. And I missed Vespers on Wednesday (and will likely miss Vespers all semester) and Vespers is the most life-giving service I attend. Vespers restores me.

But I have to admit that my doubt so surprised me, that I decided to take it seriously. I decided to engage it in conversation. And, if I'm brave, I'll bring it up with my senior pastor when I meet with him tomorrow and my candidacy mentor when I meet with her on Wednesday.

Here's what's different about this doubt. It feels real. My sense of urgency to return to the newsroom in the spring was my own creation and it was an over-reaction to some real but not insurmountable challenges. I was grasping for a solution to problems that needed to be faced rather than fled. But now, having returned in earnest to seminary, I find the presence of these doubts startling.

Is this the sophomore slump of recording artists and baseball pitchers?

Is this the fear I didn't let myself feel as I made the leap of faith last fall?

I choose to acknowledge the doubt, but I have not yet discovered how to face the fear.

1 comment:

molly said...

I'm praying for lots of Vespers for you, wherever you find 'em.