In the book, co-authored by Mary E. Koppel and Laurie Brock, each woman tells her story of the church breaking her heart. Both Episcopal priests, they served in the same diocese as assistants in two different churches. Each one lost her position when she could no longer conform to the external appearance demanded of her. Each one is now working somewhere else. They also still blog at the wonderful Dirty Sexy Ministry.
I read Mary's harrowing account straight through without stopping. In her case, she went through six miscarriages, a failed adoption, and a divorce. As a single mother, she loses her church job. (Her rector says she quit; she says she was fired.) What happens next?! I truly couldn't put it down until I found out. Mary's story was dramatic, but her writing style beautifully spare. Watching her experience I simply wanted to know what happened. Would she be OK? I rooted for her from the sidelines and cheered for her success.
Laurie's story was different. She experienced a lot of grief, but also confusion - that crazy-making confusion where people around you tell you everything is fine while deep down you know something is wrong. I heard the ominous music start the moment she interviewed with the rector who told her, "We aren't just colleagues here, we're friends." Dun dun DUNNNNN!!! I knew in that instant that Laurie was in for trouble.
I read her story much more slowly, finding myself every so often stopping and staring into space. I was rooting for Laurie, but I was also reliving my own first church call.
It was over 10 years ago, but there are still moments that are indelible. My own "dun dun DUNNNN" moment was at my first meeting with the rector when he explained that "loyalty was important" to him, and that, due to the fact that we were in a very small town, I could not talk to anyone in town (whether they were part of the parish or not) about what went on between us. The next moment came soon after when the parish administrator asked what title I would like to have; when I said I wanted to be called chaplain, the rector explained that I should be called "Mother." I insisted on chaplain, to which the rector said, "Women never think about things like this." Dun dun DUNNNN!!!
He could be late to any meeting - or skip them entirely; I could not, even when I had a doctor's appointment or had gotten lost. My time belonged to him. My priorities were forever being co-opted. Any trespass, no matter how small, was a sign of my insubordination. It showed that I "didn't have the first idea of what it meant to be an assistant." Perfection was the only acceptable option, and perfection was not possible. This lasted to the very time I submitted my letter of resignation, which did not occur as he wished. He came into my office and said these unforgettable words. "You are my assistant. You serve at my pleasure. You will do what I say."
He's now the dean of a cathedral.
Thank God for several things: one, a very good spiritual director who, when it became necessary, directed me to professional medical help; two, a wonderful therapist and psychiatrist who prescribed anti-anxiety medication when the pressure became so much that I could not sleep at night; and three, a supportive group of friends to whom I had been writing a "weekly report," an email of the goings on, who could tell that things were not right and who knew I was not crazy. Thank God also for my bishop who did not let the rector set the date for my ordination to the priesthood as he had wanted.
So, yes, reading Laurie's story brought much of this back. It also brought back something much closer.
Just a couple of months ago, I had gone to have coffee with a new priest in a nearby parish, looking perhaps for a new colleague and friend. She, of course, asked about my history and I told her some of this story in what I thought was a light-hearted, "here's what happened" sort of way. She nodded and said, "It sounds like you're still grieving."
It made me furious. Rightly or wrongly, what I heard when she said this was, "and you shouldn't be grieving any more. It was a long time ago." Rightly or wrongly, I really didn't want her to put on the professional pastor voice at that moment. I just wanted her to talk to me like a normal human being, not like someone who is Offering Spiritual Insight. Rightly or wrongly, what I would have liked to hear was, "How rotten!" or, in my more selfish moments, "What a jerk!" I did not care to be told I was grieving. Still grieving.
Which is why Laurie's story was so freeing for me. Because rather than implying that my grief was some sign of spiritual turpitude, she writes,
My years in ministry remind me that grief is never a done process, however much we might like it to be. We do not easily slip through the stages of grief as if they are way stations that simply slow our journey through life. Grief is a part of our souls that is ripped away, and we spend our lives working with and around that part that is now absent. The longer we live and love and lose those we love, the more grief we acquire, so that each subsequent loss just adds to our brokenness. We don't get over grief; we somehow allow it to change us, hopefully for the richer. [emphasis mine]So, thank you, Laurie, for sharing your story. Let me just say, How rotten! And what a jerk! And thank you so much for reassuring me that I'm not somehow stuck in grief, that I'm not wallowing or victimized, but that it's part of me for better or worse. Hopefully for the better.