"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 22, 2019

Bill Mills on the Lights and Shadows of Parish Ministry

I have previously interviewed my friend, the Orthodox priest William Mills about his various books; you can read those interviews here, herehere, and here.

Now he has a new book out, Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding (Wipf and Stock, 2019), 170pp., and it is a corker. Forgive the hackneyed expressions, but they are true: You will laugh; you will cry; you will wonder that, except for grace, nobody would put up with the stuff parish clergy do and persist, but persist he has. This is a book that belongs on the reading lists of every seminary in the country for it shows plainly in an unvarnished light the sorts of things one will encounter. It is also a book that clergy, especially married Eastern clergy, should read and will enjoy if and when they do for doubtless they can relate to its many struggles.

As is my practice, I sent Bill some questions about the book, and here are his answers.

AD: Tell us about your background.

WCM: I attended Millersville University in Millersville, PA. After college I attended Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary where I received two degrees, a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology and then eventually received my Ph.D. in pastoral theology from the Union Institute and University in Ohio where I focused my studies on the intersection of both liturgical studies and pastoral ministry, eventually writing my dissertation on Alexander Schmemann’s thoughts on pastoral theology.

AD: You've written a number of other books--more traditionally theological and academic type books--that we have discussed on here over the years. But this one is quite different--much more personal and autobiographical in nature. Your subtitle calls it a "memoir of faith and finding." Tell us, first, how you use the concept of "memoir" in this book. Isn't a memoir something old people write before they die?!

I never set out to write a memoir. One day my therapist asked if I was planning on writing a book about my experiences. I responded, “No way.” First, I was in too much pain to write my story, too many emotions and feelings were bubbling up to the surface. Secondly, in reality, I’m a nobody:  I’m not Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr., I’m just boring guy who has a small parish in North Carolina: who in the heck wants to read about me?

After my therapist suggested the book idea I began keeping a journal. The floodgates opened and from the journal came a few chapters, and the few chapters turned into more chapters which eventually became a book. It was a long and painful nine-year process.

A memoir is a slice of life, it’s not an autobiography. A memoirist creates his or her narrative within a specific context. It’s certainly not, “everything but the kitchen sink” type of project, which some poorly written memoirs turn into, usually due to a lack of editing.

AD: Your book has already attracted a good bit of attention from very prominent Christians across the spectrum. Why do you think you seem to have struck such a nerve among Christians of all traditions?

I’m thrilled that my story has garnered such attention from such a rich and wide spectrum: Episcopal, Reformed, Methodist, and Orthodox. I think because my story is universal it rings true to a wide range of people. I also think that many clergy memoirs focus only on the good parts, on how wonderful parish ministry was: the baptisms, weddings, building campaigns, and the numerical growth.

While writing my book I read numerous clergy memoirs. I was hard pressed to find a radically truthful and human story about being a minister, so I decided that I need to write one! In many ways I wrote my story as a way to show new clergy the various pitfalls and people to keep an eye out for. I wrote it to a younger me, a book that I wish that I had when I was a new pastor.

AD: Your preface mentions a number of stereotypes or assumptions people have about what you do as a priest, but you note that much of your time is spent quite simply and regularly drinking coffee and listening to people. Was this a big surprise to you when you began parish ministry? 

At first, I thought my job--besides leading the services of course--was to convert everyone whom I met, to make sure there was money coming into the collection plate each week, and that I had to always talk about God and the Church. In othe words, my job description consisted of what I call the four B’s: butts, bucks, buildings, and budgets. The more butts in the pew the more bucks in the collection plate so that you can build your new building and have a great big fat budget. But when reading the gospels we see that Jesus’ wasn’t interested in the 4 B’s which should tell us something. Along the way the Church got it wrong and we are suffering today because of it.

Over time I realized that when I met with parishioners they did all the talking and I did all of the listening. I also realized that most folks just wanted to share their pains, problems, sufferings, joys, hopes, fears, and stories with me. They just wanted someone to listen and affirm their stories. Occasionally I would say a few words and then leave. After time, I realized that I had to be myself. Too often clergy, like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals overly identify with their role, and in the end they loose their true identity--hence the title, Losing My Religion.

AD: While in seminary, and thinking about and preparing for ordained ministry, what were your expectations about parish life? Do you think in general people in seminaries have realistic visions and ideas about what parish life really entails?

I discuss my seminary formation in a chapter called “Nirvana.” And for me seminary was Nirvana. You need to keep in mind that I had visited Saint Vladimir’s numerous times when I was young: Education Days in October, the annual High School Christmas retreats that were held during Winter Break, and other events that they hosted. My mother bought books published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press and she always donated money to the annual Saint Vladimir’s Foundation. Entering Saint Vladimir’s was akin to entering Harvard or Oxford University. In my opinion it was the crème de la crème.

I had a stellar academic education. I had very good professors and read a lot of important books and wrote research papers. However, many of the professors were not ordained and others had left parish ministry a long time ago and were out of touch with the realities, choices, and challenges, of parish life. We also lacked the practical preparation that I would eventually encounter in community life: managing and working with people, leadership skills, and financial and practical skills akin to leading and organizing a community.

I also realized that this problem wasn’t just for those of us in the Orthodox Church, but in every denomination. Over the years I met many pastors who have complained of the same problem. Seminaries often do a great job with the academics, but do poorly when it comes to pastoral and spiritual formation. Do seminaries have spiritual directors or pastoral counselors on staff as resources for seminary students? Do they expect seminarians to attend chapel services regularly? Do the faculty talk about the importance of self-knowledge, reflection, personal prayer, and sabbath? I fully realize that seminaries cannot do everything, but they can make some inroads in areas that are currently lacking. My hope is that my memoir would bring about a constructive conversation about these important topics.

I also hope that pastors in congregations seriously take my advice for maintaining self-care. Self-care is not selfish. It is essential if one wants to be a pastor for ten, twenty, or thirty years.

AD: You note a crisis point in your parish when, in a "public power play" a large number of people left. How did you survive that?

I owe everything to George and Gordon Jacobs and Tom O’Neal at the Davidson Clergy Center. They found me broken and beaten, lost, and discouraged, and put me back on the road to health and healing. The Clergy Center was a miracle just down the road from my house.

I also have to commend lay leaders in the parish for rising to the occasion. After the “exodus” as I call it, several key people rose to the occasion and took care of the community tasks that were left vacant from directing the choir, to organizing coffee hour, to cleaning the Church. We were very fortunate to have caring and compassionate people in our parish family.

AD: I've been reading the Catholic theologian James Allison lately, and he says (with reference to sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but I think the point admits of much wider application) that one of the last places you can find honest talk about our struggles is in the Church. You, commendably, seem to break that pattern with this book, opening up honestly about various struggles. Was that hard to do? Why don't we have more of that?

There are a few reasons for this I think. Firstly, people come to Church in their Sunday best:  suits, ties, dresses, hats, makeup and jewelry. Yet underneath all of that, behind the makeup and hair and dresses and ties are people, just people like you and me who have doubts, fears, stresses, strains, trials, and tribulations. They have broken families and failed dreams. But our ego, our pride, keeps us from really opening up. We want to put on the best face for our neighbors, while inside we are hurting. Now, not everyone is suffering all the time and not everyone suffers the same, but we all have problems. One of my hopes is that my story will give people the signal that is okay to open up and be vunerable in Church, it’s okay to share one's pains and problems, it’s okay to say that I’m hurting or that life isn’t always going well.

I recently was talking with a friend of mine who is a Jungian analyst who was reflecting on how someone can attend Mass or Liturgy on Sunday morning and be in the same room with a lot of people and barely talk to them, let alone make eye contact, or really share their struggles. And yet, this same person, on Wednesday night can go to an AA meeting in a dingy church basement and bear his or her soul as total strangers embrace them, cheer them on, console them, and confide in them! The Church community on Sunday needs to become like this community meeting in its basement on Wednesday nights! That is, the Church needs to become what it is supposed to be: a place for everyone to work out his or her salvation--and not just smile and say everything is fine when it really isn’t. The Church needs to be much more honest with itself and with the world around us.

AD: Your chapter "My First Date" is just marvelous--all the struggles of finding a first parish appointment, and many of the horrifying things you see along the say (a slop bucket!), but by the end you've been completely turned around, and turn the reader around, to show that your critical eye overlooked the one truly crucial thing: a loving community of normal people. You say it took you "a long while" to recognize this. When did you finally come to see that community in those terms? Was there a specific incident that led you to a transformed vision of them? 

A lot of people told me that that particular chapter is funny and also hard to believe, but as they say truth is funnier than fiction. Looking back it is hard to believe that they wanted me to live in a glorified shed!

I cannot say exactly when I realized this, but it came over time. There really wasn’t a specific incident, just small little epiphanies over the months and years serving the community.

AD: Your chapter "Into the Depths" was just agonizing to read, but I think very necessary to show people who the Church has no shortage of nasty characters often trying to manipulate people over money and issues of control. These are "clergy killers" and "alligators" as you call them in a later chapter: why do you think every parish seems to have a few? Is there something unique to the dynamics of parish life that brings out such people and such behavior? 

Power, power, power. It’s always about power. Over the years I have heard many similar stories. Stories of parishioners stalking their pastor at the grocery store, intentionally saying nasty things about the pastor in front of the pastor’s children, or trying, like Walter did, to remove me from the parish. Since the publication of my memoir I have heard from pastors who have shared with me some of their tragic stories as well.

Some of this has to do with the social dynamics of a community. A healthy community, one which has mutual respect and openness towards one another, which invites people to be vulnerable and open with one another, and who respect their pastor, wouldn’t tolerate a Walter or Linda. The community would treat them like a virus or bacteria and either ask them to leave or not give them free reign.

Alligators or clergy killers survive when there is dis-organization or dysfunction in the community, and where there is weak leadership. Strong leaders, smart leaders, healthy leaders, will quickly pick up on the various signs and signals that the alligators and clergy killers give off and respond accordingly. By the way, alligators and clergy killers also exist in the business world too, but often a large company has levels of authority and a system of checks and balances which often--when working well--will prevent someone like Walter or Linda from causing too much harm.

My problem was that I was too young, too inexperienced, too conflict avoidant, and was overwhelmed by the situation. I was drowning before I could even ask for help.

AD: The effects of these alligators--whom you dub Walter and Linda--were really deep, and you needed the help of others to work through some of the pain and suffering. In doing so, you seem to be in a minority among clergy, who generally try to tough it out. What led you to realize you couldn't just tough it out on your own, and that there was no shame and no problem in seeking the help of others? 

Well, when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, when you don’t want to visit with friends or neighbors, when you can’t sleep at night, when you’re not eating, you know you have a problem. After a few months of this I knew that I needed help. A few days before finding the Davidson Clergy Center I was contemplating seeing a psychiatrist or checking myself into a hospital. I hit bottom. I mention this in one of the chapters, but I had typed up a resignation letter to my bishop which I never mailed. I’m sure, however, he wouldn’t have accepted the letter, but it felt good writing it.

AD: I laughed and laughed when you told the swimming instructor you hated her for making you get in the deep end. But then I cried at the end with the story of the cake. That seems to be the dynamic of the book--hilariously unexpected things, and deeply moving ones, too. It's a real triumph of grace, and I think clergy everywhere, and seminarians now, should all read it. Having finished it, are you at work on other writing projects just now? 

I’m always working on something. At the moment I have three writing projects going. When I get bored with one I turn to another. 

I’m finishing up a book called "Paul The Pastor: Metaphors for Ministry for the 21st Century Church," which takes a look at several metaphors that Paul uses in his letters: pastor as soldier, pastor as gardener, pastor as architect, among others.

Then I’m editing a collection of my sermons called "Bread for the Journey," which I delivered over the course of several years.

Finally, I just started work on a book focusing on Scriptural images for ministry, "Called to Lead, Called to Serve," which weaves Scriptural reflection with personal anecdotes, using some stories which never made it into the memoir but will make it into this book. A good writer is one who uses all their material in different places.

A few people asked me whether or not I was planning to write another memoir. I said no. But since then I had a few ideas, we’ll see. The memoir took a lot of emotional energy and I will need some more time and space to think more about it.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book. 

I really hope, as John Breck says in his endorsement that, “every seminarian should read it.” However deep down I know that they won’t. Some may not feel comfortable with my radical honesty about parish ministry or the pastoral life, others may think that they know it all. That’s okay. Let them think that. Eventually some of the naysayers may come around, especially when they, like me, hit bottom.

My main hope for this book is that it creates a space where both pastors and people in general can speak about what it means to have a genuine faith in God, stripped bare of all of the idols that we carry around with us; idols of Church, idols of ministry, and even idols of spirituality. It’s so easy to cling to the externals: icons, prayer ropes or rosaries, church buildings, cassocks, crosses, and clerical attire, titles, and so forth. Jesus called Peter and the disciples into the deep waters of the Sea of Galilee, away from the safety and security of the land, to walk in faith. It’s much easier to stick with religion rather than with faith. In the end I opt for faith.

My other hope is that my story will show people in the pews that clergy are just like everyone else, fallen and fallible, hurting and hopeful all at the same time. We rise, fall, sin, ask forgiveness--just like everyone else. We’re human.

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