Discerning my way out of seminary
Note: I wrote this in Summer 2006, on my decision to leave seminary
One of the words I will leave seminary with that I didn't have when I got here is “discernment.” Discernment is a great word. It's a much better way to describe an organic, unpredictable process than, for instance “deciding.” I didn't really “decide” to come to seminary. In one sense, of course, every step along the way between first hearing “the call” and coming to seminary, then, most recently, deciding to leave seminary, was a decision. But the word “decision” has a two-dimensionality to it. “Discernment” seems to enclose in it a richness, depth, and dimensionality that speaks to the unpredictability of the process.
I decided, for good reason, to take the summer off – to unhook myself from projects, or responsibilities, to give myself room to take in the year's experiences, and to spend some time at “home” in Western Massachusetts, which is where I'd spent the largest chunk of my adult life. Unhooking left me open, and a surprising number of things came out. I finally wrote a science fiction novel that I'd had in my head for at least five years. I reconnected with my home, and with friends I'd left. I thought deeply about what the year in seminary had given me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I felt about what was following me after seminary. I spent time avoiding church.
One of the things that I realized this summer was that I loved seminary. I loved learning, I loved exploring spirituality and theology, and being with people who were doing that exploring too. But I wasn't all that excited and engaged by what was supposed to follow. There were four basic threads that came together for me by the end of the summer, and when they came together, they spelled the end of my seminary career, and the beginning of the rest of my life.
The first thread has to do with the framework of living life I was given by my parents. When I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer, and pursued my own odd combinations of things (first, an academic, then a technology consultant) I thought that I'd tossed out their framework for life completely – I hadn't fulfilled that ideal to be monetarily successful, or in a highly respected profession. But in fact, I'd completely bought the framework of being “something.” Michelle “the scientist” or “the business owner”. So I was going to become Michelle “the minister.”
When I disassembled my life last year to come to seminary, it was, primarily, to find a way to center my life on the thing that mattered the most to me: my spirituality and spiritual journey. I assumed that in order to live in that way, I had to become a “professional spiritual person” - a religious professional. What I learned last year in seminary, and this summer was that I didn't have to be a religious professional to center my life on spirit. I know for some people, that seems self-evident, but it took the disassembly of my life, and the time in seminary to figure that out. I just wanted to be Michelle, with no attached professional title, no identity other than my own.
The second thread has to do with institutions and my place within them. Institutions and organizations always fail me. I idealize what they are, and what they can do, and, of course, they never live up to those ideals. And I am never able to feel myself able to fit completely within them, because of the natural limitations of organizations, and because of the boundary-crossing nature of my own life. Each step I took in settling myself within a denomination, or structure, or institution, which are necessary steps on the road to ordination, made me more and more uncomfortable. First, it was the Unitarian Universalist movement, and the UUA, which failed me. Because, for one thing, I realized that it would be unlikely that I'd be able to get a job as an African-American Christian-leaning person that I was. Also, because I might be more theologically at home in a general sense, the worship life of many UU congregations was different than what I had come to find I really loved. Although in many ways the UCC fit me much better, I began to see the ways in which I was having to contort myself to fit it, and would likely have to contort myself to fit any congregation I might serve. I came slowly to realize that I really didn't want to answer the question “Is Jesus God?” I didn't want to have to find theological metaphors to explain my answer to the question, or my uncomfortableness with that question. I didn't want to explain my way out of that question. I didn't want to write sermons explaining why, for me, this should just remain a question – that the question was more important than any answer I could come up with. And, in the panoply of theological questions in my heart, it was kinda low on the list.
The third thread had to do with how I experience worship. Ever since I was involved in that first service at my old UU church several years ago, I noticed that I felt different in front of the pulpit than I felt behind it. I was in touch with God and myself sitting in the pews, being quiet, or singing, or listening. Behind the pulpit, God was about as far away from me as I could imagine her being, and I was nowhere to be found. And every single time since, that feeling grew. I tried meditating before being involved in a service. I tried to bring to bear my many years of contemplative practice. Nothing worked. I started avoiding situations where I would have to be involved in services. And, as I came closer and closer to taking on leadership roles (like field ed.) I found myself avoiding church more and more. I couldn't bear the thought of leading worship when I felt so distant from myself, and from God.
The fourth thread is the thread that I am weaving with this essay – it's the threads I weave as a writer. I have explored all sorts of different kinds of writing in my life, although I never before really considered myself “a writer.” However, the way that I communicate myself to others, and to the world at large has almost always been best done through writing. I have come to find that I love to write. And this summer, I wrote a novel, and had more fun writing it than I've had doing just about anything in my life (with a few notable, and likely obvious, exceptions.)
I finally had to really listen to all of those voices, to discern what they were telling me about my life, and about its future. I will emerge from the wonderfulness that is seminary with a Certificate of Theological Studies that I can hang on my wall, and greater clarity about what the center of my life is, and how to live in a way that is consonant with that center.