by Ben Gosden*
Spring is the time of year when new things come to life and we’re reminded that our hope for warmth and restoration can, in fact, be a reality even after a cold winter.
However this is also the time of year when Conference Boards of Ministry all over our connection are meeting to evaluate candidates in the ordination process. And all of this talk about spring and new life and hope doesn’t carry much weight if you’ve just received the hard news that you have been deferred in the ordination process.
For some, these first days of spring are tough because you’re now learning to live with the sting of rejection. You feel like one who has failed in your calling to ministry. Your emotions range on a scale from anywhere between frustrated and devastated. You’re trying to pick up the pieces of your shattered ego in order to find some way to faithfully serve and pastor during the rest of this Lenten season and into the glory of Easter . . . and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
I know exactly how you feel. Last year I was deferred in the ordination process. I know how much the news stings. I remember how I felt when all at once my heart started pounding and my stomach started sinking. If you were told the news in person or on the phone, it was hard to even put words together in response. If you found out by way of a written notice, you probably stared at the page and read it over and over just to make sure it was real and not some sort of trick your eyes were playing on you. As one who was where you are just a year ago, I can tell you that I know just how much this hurts.
But I’m writing not just to affirm your feelings and remind you that you’re not the only one who’s ever felt the brunt of this devastating news. I’m also writing to let you know that new life is, in fact, possible even when you’re deferred in the ordination process.
As I prepared for my interview a few weeks ago (where I would come back and face the same committee that deferred me the year before) I realized that even though I did not want to sign up for another year in the wilderness of deferral, I would not trade the previous year for anything in the world. As I’ve thought on it, I realized that I learned several lessons during my year of deferral.
First, I learned the value of what it meant for pastors to be pastored by others. In the immediate aftermath of our board’s decision, the members of the church I’m serving rallied around me to express their care and even their frustration over the news. Their warm words served as a balm for my wounded soul. If I knew nothing else, I knew the next year of growth would be spent with people who loved me and believed in my calling to ministry no matter what.
Secondly, I now know that seasons in the wilderness can actually be the grounds for new life to spring forth. God just has a way of speaking life into the most barren of circumstances. So I use the term “wilderness” on purpose – being deferred places you in a position to question and grow in ways you may not have imagined before. While I worked on the specific areas for my ordination work, I also experienced the grace of growing personally as I turned especially to the spiritual writings of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I look back and see this past year not only as a year of growth professionally or vocationally, but also as a year of personal growth. And for that gift of grace, I’m very grateful.
Finally, I learned that while being deferred by the board of ministry can be devastating, life beyond deferral is possible. And by life I don’t mean pretending as though this never happened or that you’re perfectly okay with being deferred in your process. I mean it’s possible to find new life in light of this setback. There is hope in a Risen Lord who carried scars with him. Life and ministry have a way of helping us learn to live with scars, and sometimes we even find those scars are beneficial to our sense of compassion and love for others. So please know that life after deferral is not only possible, it is at the heart of what it means to be called into ministry by a crucified and risen Savior.
As you spend the coming days and weeks healing and growing remember a few things: First, let people love you and pastor you. Merton reminds us, “We do not find the meaning of life alone – we find it with others.” Let others help you heal and grow. Second, as you address the shortcomings of your ordination work, be open to the work of God in your personal life. The work of transformation in your life is even more important than your ordination work that you’ll turn in next year. Let yourself be open to personal growth through grace. And third, live into the mystery of this growth knowing that you will come out on the other side a new person. Listen for those who have gone through this before you. And know that you’ll be able to help those who will come after you.
Oh and one more thing…know that you’re not alone. God is with you and is still calling you as part of your baptismal identity. And the Church is longing for your presence and willingness to serve even (and especially) when setbacks happen. For that mysterious hope all we can say is, “Thanks be to God.”