Editor's Note:This article is one in an occasional series called "All About the Benjamins," running this fall on Fidelia's Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we'll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the roles it plays in our ministries.
I realize that the occasion for my letter places me in great danger of being labeled with some of the least honorable epithets of our age: a whiner, a free-loader, and the most hurtful of all, lazy. But it is a truth that I cannot escape. I am unemployed. And though my husband isn’t (and yes, I realize that having a partner gives security that my single friends, and especially single-parent friends, do not have), I am dragging my family down this lonely path toward insolvency, despite my best efforts to prevent it.
Holding that truth in front of me, there are two options: to hide it with all I’ve got, or to tell it without shame. Since I feel no sense of shame for how I have arrived at the circumstances of this day, I feel myself in the company of those Biblical voices I have long proclaimed over the struggles of others. “How long, O Lord, how long?” I ask with the psalmist. “It would be better to curse the day that I was born,” I despair with Job. And so, with them as a chorus, I present my plight before God and you this day.
The facts are these: the severance money from the church my unhealthy body forced me to leave is gone. So are our savings, including the money given to our children, entrusted in our responsible care by their grandparents. Were the money not so hard to get to, my carefully saved retirement fund would have been ransacked long ago. We are carrying a balance on our credit card, for the first time in the decade in which I have used one.
And I am afraid. Fear is a mostly unknown emotion to me. I don’t worry about awful and unforeseeable things happening to my children. I don’t worry if my husband is out later than expected. But I am now deeply and deathly afraid that my unemployment is our new reality. And it has opened a gaping abscess in my soul that I thought had long ago been healed.
When I first heard God call my name, I was not even capable of dreaming that it could have been to pastor a church. And in seminary—where I went because I thought I would go into “para-church” ministry, whatever that is—I resisted that call fiercely because my imagination envisioned precisely this day. And now my worst nightmare has come true; my spouse’s salary is not enough for the family we felt called to bring into this world, and my vocation seems to be the first thing of so many impractical unbudgeted items to be cut out in our new family austerity plan.
I overcame my fear then with a massive dose of faith, reassurance that God was with me, that I mattered and was precious to God, and that God would not let me fall. Moreover, I believed, along with the supportive community surrounding me, that God had a special task for me in a denomination that has not made great strides in recognizing that God calls men and women to positions of pastoral leadership.
And now, it has happened. In a few weeks, I will be six-months-unemployed, and I know from the economic studies and the anecdotes that that period will mean the official beginning of lost opportunity, outdated skill sets, and serious lost financial ground.
Obsolescence is the only reward for long-term unemployment in this fast-paced world, a world from which the church is not exempt.
In my process-theology view of sin, I am the victim of so much violence that some days it seems hard to breathe. I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone, and that God is in this battered life with me. In my Calvinist view of sin, I recognize that I am not to be let off the hook entirely for my predicament. I may have made some bad choices along the way. But with my Julian of Norwich eyes on sin, I know that those mistakes were only made in my attempt to pursue God with such zeal and fervor that my human, flat feet could not keep me from stumbling, and landing hard, in this ditch.
The view from the ditch, though, is the saddest thing my heart has had to hold since my parents divorced when I was a child. It is the loneliest, coldest place to be. And for the life of me, I cannot see God anymore. I know the Divine Presence is up above me, but I cannot, for the first time in so long, see her!
In this dark night of my soul, my dearest sisters, I need your help.
1) Will you pray for me? Your unemployed sister in the cloth? And when you pray for me, pray for your sisters and brothers who are in this ditch here with me. I cannot see them all, but I know from the cries of desperation that I am not alone.
2) Will you re-member me? When you celebrate the elements of communion and look at your hands, will you think of mine and hold the bread and raise the cup for me? I miss it so much. You, celebrating for me, with me, will nourish me, I know.
3) Will you continue to think of me as a part of your Church? This is hard, because we never sit visibly in one another’s pews on Sunday morning, when we have our own pulpits to fill. But I would visit your church, if I could afford to get there, and I know you would raise your hand to bless me if you could remember to put me there, on your pew, somewhere near the new mother and the old woman with the cane.
4) Will you consider how your church, your denomination, your association, and your own giving helps ministers at the end of and in between calls? In addition to saving up your own emergency funds, will you think systemically about how the church treats its castoffs?
5) Will you be faithful to recommend me to open pastorates in your neighborhood? And to recommend that other churches consider women like me in their searches? You are a part of my network and I need you to be a part of this chapter of God saving my life.
6) Will you loan me your pulpit for a vacation Sunday or a revival sometime? Put me on your list, and put me before your people, and I will thank them for their faithfulness to you and through you.
7) Will you please refrain from judging me? Either when you offer me advise or ask me what went wrong, will you please search your tone for your own fear and insecurity, and assume that my measure of each is complete?
As I conclude this letter, I remain unclear about one small thing. Do I sign my name to its end or not? If I sign my name, you will be able to re-member me personally, think of me concretely, and Google me specifically. If I do not sign my name, no search committee will find these words and think the less of me. If I give my name, I am owning this place and time in the passage of my life, along with whatever it means for my journey of faith into the heart of God. If I do not, I allow you to think that I am any of your sisters, without a title after her name and without the security of next month’s paycheck. What would you do if you were in my shoes? I hope you never have to find out. I really do.
Your Sister In Christ,