Happy New Year, friends!
What better way to kick off the year than by celebrating the amazingness of our RevGal friends and their great ministries? This month I am SO excited for you all to join me in celebrating longtime RevGal ClayOla’s ordination to the diaconate, as a way to kick off the party!
Without further ado….
1. Tell us something about your journey into ministry
Have you ever had a really big dog sit on your lap when it knows it’s not supposed to? First it sits by you, barely touching your leg. Then it leans on you. Then there’s one buttock on your lap, while the dog looks studiously the other way. Next thing you know, you have a lap full of really big dog, with lots of slobber and fur and happy.
Being called was like that for me. God just kept leaning on me. It didn’t happen in a sudden flash of light and changed reality. I have friends who can tell me the moment they knew they were meant to be ordained. For me, that wasn’t so. God just progressively leaned on me with the idea, a heavier and heavier weight, until I found myself engulfed by it.
I was in my early 20’s the first time I explored the possibility, before all that “leaning”. Newly returned to the church, and in a graduate program in social work, I sensed God wanting me to move forward in a new way. So I made an appointment with my priest (as we do in the Episcopal Church—the rector of one’s parish mentors one through the process) and talked with him about the idea. “Oh, no! You aren’t being called to ordination! Girls don’t do that.” (I’m sorry to say this is a direct quote.) And then, seeing the devastation on my face, “You’re probably confusing it with the urge to have a family.” The Diocese of Fort Worth didn’t ordain women at that time, you see.
So I married, and had a family, and over time discovered: no, that’s not it. As the years went on, things changed in the church around women’s ordination, and God leaned on me ever more. Finally, I gutted up and went to my priest, a different one this time. “I just really, really think God is telling me to explore ordination,” I said, with fear and trembling. What if he said “no” as well? I was afraid I would be unmade. But he said, “Oh, I think you would be a fabulous priest!” And off we went, into the new adventure.
2. Tell us something you remember about your ordination
My diaconal ordination was like getting suddenly married in the Elvis Chapel. One Friday, Nedi Rivera (my ordaining bishop) said, “Listen. We’re ordaining some candidates here next Saturday. You come too, and we’ll ordain you here.” After a long struggle, we still hadn’t been able to get permission to do my ordination in Fort Worth, where they were in the thick of schism. Their former bishop had left, taking 80% of the people and property with him, and no other bishop had yet been consecrated to work in that territory. With no one to give permission for Nedi to come in and act as a bishop, we were in limbo. Upon hearing Nedi’s words, I packed up, flew out on Thursday, and was ordained on Saturday, in a place I had never been, with people I had never met. There was even a server with an Elvis haircut! It was crazy, and fun, and more than a bit scary—and then it was done! Unlike many weddings at the Elvis Chapel, I never regretted it for a single second.
3. What advice would you give those being ordained this month?
The main advice I would give is to be completely and firmly committed to keeping the Sabbath—not in terms of a regular day off, but in terms of the rich, fruitful spiritual practice that invites you into delight, as outlined in books like Sabbath: The Ancient Practices (Ancient Practices Series) by Dan B. Allendar, PLLC. (There are other, even better books about it, I’m sure.) This advice is somewhat in the vein of “do as I say, not as I do” but I have learned that when I am keeping Sabbath faithfully, my ministry is better. So often, we clergy are quite willing to break this commandment, but when we keep it, life is more joyful and full of delight, and we become more resilient and wise. I commend anyone about to be ordained to this faith-filled practice.
4. Many people don’t understand about being both a deacon and a priest. What is the transitional diaconate? Can you tell us more about that?
In the Episcopal Church, priests are ordained as transitional deacons for about a year until their priestly ordination. There are also vocational deacons, that is, people who are deacons all their lives without seeking priestly ordination. What a mess! Like a lot of things in the church, this situation of having two sorts of deacons represents an evolution between two ways of being church. In times past, a deacon was sort of a “junior priest” waiting to fully hatch. Now, the vocation of a deacon is understood as its own end; it’s not a pause on the way to another ministry.
Deacons speak to the church for the world, challenging the church to understand and engage the issues of the larger world. It is a prophetic ministry in the Episcopal Church, often telling the truth no one wants to hear. This is a contrast to the priestly ministry, which is one of spiritual nurture and care to the people of the church. Deacons work independently of the parish, and are assigned by the Bishop rather than hired by the parish.
In addition, deacons have certain liturgical duties reserved to them: reading the Gospel in the midst of the people, leading the Prayers of the People, calling the congregation to confession, and dismissing the gathered people into the world. These are specifically identified as being for deacons, not for lay people or the priest.
Together, the priest and deacon are one entire ministry team. The priest nurtures the people in their spiritual lives so that they go out to serve the world; the deacon leads their service until they are tired, when they return to be nurtured again. It’s almost a praxis/reflection cycle, similar to that identified by Paulo Friere.
The Episcopal Church continues to be a mish mash, ordaining people first as deacons, then as priests, yet also ordaining people to the vocational diaconate. At some point, I hope we will catch up and structure ordination in a way that more closely reflects our current understanding of the Orders. In the meantime, I am humbled and honored to do diaconal duties in the rite if there is no deacon present, and I try to build understanding of the diaconal and priestly vocations working together. I often say that a congregation that does not have a deacon is as impaired as a congregation that does not have a priest. May we grow in that understanding!
5. You have experience with ministry as a person with “invisible” disabilities. What can you share about that?
This is a difficult subject because, on the one hand, I feel like most of what I would say is trite, and on the other hand, I really don’t know what it’s like to minister without my physical challenges. They are part of who I am. (I have diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and hypothyroidism.) I remember when I was diagnosed with the hypothyroidism, I asked the doctor, “What does that mean?” She said, “It’s a chronic condition…” and I interrupted her. “You can stop right there. Give that diagnosis to the next patient. I have accepted my quota of chronic conditions, and it’s someone else’s turn.” It can be a real juggling match to deal with all of these at once.
But it is what it is. The effects of these illnesses can vary day to day, and some days are a real dance between them. But I do think they have made me a better minister in some ways. One reason is because I am sometimes full of myself. Just about the time I start thinking I’m a superhero, one of my illnesses will kick up and remind me of my real size. Another reason is that I am able to understand what it is like to live with pain, and I accept that some things people do are a result of that. So if someone is behaving badly, I am more likely to cut them a break (after I judge them for a while, of course) and I am able to have more compassion than I would if I never had to deal with certain things myself. A third reason is that I am really good at sitting with pain—yours or mine. I do it 24/7 and there’s no fixing that. In ministry, sitting with someone’s pain without trying to fix it or diminish it can be a wonderful act of love. These are ways that my life is positively impacted by the illnesses I have.
These are not “blessings” of having a disability. I hate that whole idea! It takes really good boundaries to defend myself against people who want to manage my illnesses for me, or talk about them when I don’t want to, or reframe them into things that are somehow bright and happy. Fie upon all that! This is even more complicated when the people doing it are parishioners. I’m very good at setting boundaries, but sometimes in doing so I leave rubble behind me. Lovingly, pastorally setting boundaries? That’s harder.
I do look forward to the Christian vision of the world as a place where, finally, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (Rev. 7:17 and 21:4). Then we’ll all be free of the burdens we’re working with, and it will be as though they have never been. That is my hope; that is the hope of all of us.
Thanks ClayOla! Now for the rest of you January Ordiversary peeps, tell us about yours!
Teri Peterson is a minister in the Church of Scotland, and she is sharing this party with you from a sidewalk cafe in Miami, getting ready to go on the RevGals Big Event, with friends she has met through this incredible organisation.
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