Youth Pastor Ken (or: On Being Uncool in Youth Ministry)

Good morning, Reverend! Is this a busy week, or what?

Here in my neck of the woods, we’re getting ready for Homecoming Sunday. I am hard at work prepping my sermon, trying to recruit that final leader for seventh-grade Sunday school (why is it always the hardest position in the church to fill?!?!), and counting the days until I get to see my beloved high school youth group kids again.

I have two words about high school youth group: GIANT JENGA.

Actually, I also have a little story. Consider it a pep talk as you launch into this crazy time of year, at least if you are resolutely uncool like me.

Back in my early youth ministry days, I had a colleague who did everything better than me.

I first got to know him because he worked at a church down the street from mine. You could have used him as the model for a youth-ministry action figure. Or a new make of Ken doll.

I’ll call him Youth Pastor Ken.*

I could spend days telling you stories about him, but here are the only two things you really need to know:

1) He was still a virgin at age twenty-eight.

2) He made this seem cool.

Youth Pastor Ken was an evangelical Presbyterian, a tradition not known for its love of fun, but he got away with all sorts of outlandish non-Presbyterian behavior because he was so darn charming.

I once caught him skateboarding INSIDE his church.

While I struggled to rally six or seven teenagers for Sunday-morning youth group, Youth Pastor Ken routinely had six dozen kids at his Wednesday-morning prayer breakfast.

At 6:30 AM.

Youth Pastor Ken was always surrounded by kids. He was GREAT with kids. He exuded confidence and cool.

He was dudely, but also sensitive. He was good at drawing and good at sports.

He talked openly about his love for Jesus, and he knew all the lyrics to “Awesome God.”

Even the verses.

He had a soul patch, and he could play the guitar.

Although I was barely out of college myself, I thought he was a little bit “immature,” which was my subtle code word for “cooler than me.”

Nonetheless, it was hard not to like him.

Against a considerable set of odds, we slowly became friends.

Each of us had something to offer the other.

I teased him about his soul patch.

He teased me about being so serious all the time.

When I argued that “virginity” was a complex and highly problematic social construct that had changed considerably over the last several centuries, and asked if he wanted to borrow Hanne Blank’s then-new book on the subject, he rolled his eyes and said, “You are SO SMART.”

When he argued that the Word of God through Scripture and sermon was at least as important as the Eucharist, and complained that my church skimped on preaching, I rolled my eyes and said, “You are SO PRESBYTERIAN.”

And as I got to know him better, I came to respect a fundamental, if obvious, truth:

I am not Youth Pastor Ken.

I am bad at drawing and worse at sports.

My relationship with Jesus has profoundly changed my life, and yet I struggle to describe it, at least in words that will resonate with jaded high-school kids.

I will never be a magnetic draw to a Wednesday prayer breakfast.

I spent a long time beating myself up over things like this.

I had forgotten Paul’s handy directive to the Romans:

As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

At age 20, I did not appreciate these words at all.

I was on board with the whole body-of-Christ thing, but I wanted to be a cool member of the body.

Maybe the soul patch.

Youth Pastor Ken had all kinds of gifts that I did not: Throwing Nerf footballs in perfect spirals, in proportion to hand-eye coordination; talent, in singing; enthusiasm, in working a crowd.

The more we worked together, though, the more I realized something else:

I had some complementary gifts.

You know, according to the grace given to me.

And I came to believe that quiet, unhip types have a place in youth ministry, too.

While Youth Pastor Ken was a magnet for good-looking athletes, I noticed that I had become the favorite of a very different group of teens: The anxious and awkward ones, the loners, the kind who carried around little notebooks and filled them with sad poems.

Kids told him their best funny stories, and found me when they were hurt, scared, or sick.

This is not to say that kids didn’t trust him. To the contrary, plenty of teenagers who were in real trouble — who were facing abuse, or depression, or pregnancy scares — went straight to Youth Pastor Ken.

But you know how I know?

Because when Youth Pastor Ken wasn’t sure how to help them, he came straight to me.

He’d send me one-line text messages:

I have a girl who I think should talk to you.

Can’t get CYS [Children & Youth Services] to call me back.

What do you know about cutting?

I would glance at the words and then call him, because these were the days when text messaging was still a relative novelty, and it drove me crazy to peck out an answer on the flat plastic buttons of my ten-key phone.

Tell me what she said to you.

Let’s find him a place to stay tonight.

Do you know the caseworker’s name?

I didn’t know it at the time, but Youth Pastor Ken was helping me find my calling.

Now, a little older and maybe even a little wiser, I have accepted that no amount of prayer, no sudden insight, no workshop or magazine article or trance state is going to give me a different personality.

I will never be a standout football-thrower or praise band leader.

And I would look silly with a soul patch.

I can, however, cultivate my own little garden of gifts as a problem-solver, thinker, and listener.

I can be a comforting presence on an adolescent psychiatric ward.

I can sit quietly beside a student until they have cried every last tear and are ready to talk.

And I can build the relationships that enable me to do these things just by enjoying the kids in my ministry: playing Giant Jenga with them, laughing at their jokes, and remembering that I don’t have to be entertaining all the time because they bring plenty of entertainment by themselves.

I still have my days when I wish I could ride a skateboard or dominate a pickup football game.

Here’s the thing, though:

The world doesn’t need another Youth Pastor Ken.

It already has one.

And, all things considered, being me is pretty good too.

*Youth Pastor Ken is a composite of many fine youth workers I have known, though each element of this story is true.

Note: This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on The Goodness of God.

Spiritual Strengths Inventory (for when your faith is down in the dumps)

Hey there, Reverend! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. If you ever choose to go public with your thoughts about sexual harassment or sexual violence in the church, I suggest building in several months off afterward to deal with all the mail.

On a not wholly unrelated note: I don’t know about you, but I found my seminary training to be a bit lacking in the pastoral counseling department. I did take one class on something called “spiritual care,” during which I learned a great deal about the love lives of my classmates and very little else. If I am ever again in a position to counsel someone who is heartbroken after desertion by a paramour from the back row of Old Testament II: Histories & Prophets, I will be ready to roll.

Somehow, though, I had a feeling that my friends in the mental health field were developing skills a bit more sophisticated than “mirroring” and “active listening.” They were learning to notice their clients’ thinking errors and challenge them, directly but kindly. They were learning how to help people name their struggles and — even more important — start to imagine being able to overcome or endure them.

I wanted to be able to do those things too. So, this year, I started reading the books they were reading and trying out some new strategies in pastoral counseling. What captured my imagination the most was the work of Dennis Saleebey, a social work professor who popularized the model now known as strengths-based practice. You can read all about this in a surprisingly interesting book called The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. (Alas, I cannot do anything about the price. Get it from the library or borrow it from a social worker friend.)

Saleebey’s idea, no doubt shared by many others, was simple and brilliant:

If you want to help people make positive changes, help them build on positive things.

If someone’s goal is to stop drinking, it’s easy to focus on the problem of drinking. But what if we shift our focus to the desired solution of non-drinking? Has this person had a time in her life when she was drinking less? What was different then? Where was she living? Who was she hanging out with? Would it be possible to grab onto any of those protective factors now and put them to work again?

If someone’s goal is to stop losing his temper and hitting his toddler, the problems are violence and anger. But the solutions we want are nonviolence and calm. Does this person ever react to frustration more calmly or nonviolently than he is doing right now? What is special about those moments? If the answer is “quiet” or “getting a break” or “my kid being less of a pill,” could we work together on finding some noise-canceling headphones or some respite care or some new behavior strategies to help?

It’s usually not too hard to see the patterns in our destructive behaviors: We get cranky when we’re tired or eat too much when we’re sad. Saleebey’s insight was that positive behaviors also follow patterns, and if you can coach people in learning to spot those patterns for themselves, they might just start to trust in their own power to change.

I’ve been thinking about how pastors can put this philosophy to work in our own approach to counseling. I am a parish priest, so the problems people bring to me are most often spiritual in nature: How can I trust that God really loves me? Why can’t I concentrate when I pray? What should I do if the wellspring of my faith is all dried up?

Saleebey came up with different types of questions that can help people identify their own strengths — support (who has helped you?), esteem (what makes you feel good about yourself?), motivation (why do you want to change?), exception (what was different when things were better?), and more. I cribbed shamelessly from his secular work to come up with the following list of questions. I’ve since been trying them out in pastoral care settings, to startlingly good effect. Lest you think I am trying to nose around in everyone else’s spiritual life without tending to my own, I’ve been working through them in my prayer journal too.

SPIRITUAL STRENGTHS INVENTORY

Click here for a printable PDF of the Spiritual Strengths Inventory.

Support Questions

  • Which people have supported or inspired you in your faith?
  • What places, objects, songs, or experiences have made you feel especially close to God?
  • Who are the people upon whom you can depend within your faith community?
  • How do these people support you? What do they do that makes you feel cared for and loved?
  • What faith communities have been especially helpful to you in the past?
  • What was special about these communities? Is there a way for you to find a similar community now?

Esteem Questions

  • When God looks at you, what do you think God delights in most?
  • What is it about your life and accomplishments that gives glory to God?
  • How do you seek to do God’s will?
  • What gives you a genuine sense of peace?

Meaning Questions

  • How do you find meaning in your vocation or daily work?
  • What are the sources of transcendence in your life?
  • When do you feel most fulfilled?
  • What do you think God is calling you to do?

Motivation Questions

  • How do you want your prayer life or your relationship with God to change?
  • How do you want your relationship with your faith community to change?
  • What steps do you think you need to take to begin these changes?
  • What is the smallest step you could take to initiate one of these changes?
  • How can the people in your support network help you with these changes?
  • How can God help you with these changes?

Survival Questions

  • How have you managed to hold onto your faith thus far, given all the challenges you have encountered?
  • How has your faith helped you rise to the challenges set before you?
  • What was your relationship with God like as you faced these challenges?
  • What have you learned about yourself during your struggles with faith or vocation?
  • How have the challenges in your faith journey given you special strength, insight, or skill?
  • What are the qualities of God upon which you can rely?

Exception Questions

  • When your relationship with God was stronger, what was different?
  • When your spirit felt more nourished, what about your life, beliefs, relationships, or community was different?
  • What parts of your faith would you like to recapture, reinvent, or relive?
  • What moments or incidents in your life have given you special understanding or guidance from God?

Possibility Questions

  • What do you want your relationship with God to look like now?
  • How do you like to pray? How do you know when you are connecting to God through prayer?
  • What are your special talents and abilities? How have you already used them in service to God? How could you use them in service to God in the future?
  • How will you know when your relationship with God is stronger? How will you feel, think, and act?

I’m all about the strengths perspective these days, so do let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for further reading. And I would love to hear if you get any use out of these questions yourself.

General Ordination Exams: Online Resources

Hey hey, Episcopal seminary seniors! Around the world, Christian clergy are breathing one big collective sigh of relief and thinking, “Now that Christmas has passed, I finally get a break.”

But not you. HA! Oh, not you.

Just an hour from now — maybe a little more than that if you are lucky enough to live on the Best Coast — your travails with the General Ordination Exams will begin.

Before I continue, I should note that my wife frowned when she read my last GOE post and said, “You’re a little too cavalier here.” So if you’re reading this right now, I just want to take a moment to thank you for putting up with the bossy, know-it-all attitude I’ve cultivated on this blog. In real life I’m actually pretty shy.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the final throes of exam prep and are sneaking a peek at this site, here’s a quick roundup of useful links that may come in handy while you’re taking the GOEs. Bookmark this post and you’ll have them all in one place.

Holy Scriptures

Church History

Christian Theology

Christian Ethics and Moral Theology

Christian Worship

Practice of Ministry

… You don’t need any extra resources for this one. Just write from your heart. The practice of ministry, in the end, is what this is all about.

May God bless you and keep you, GOE-takers. I’m gonna be praying for you all week. Good luck!

How to Pass the General Ordination Exams

I try to write this blog in an ecumenical spirit, because I view all Protestant denominations as basically interchangeable we all serve one Lord, profess one faith, and share one baptism. But I have to take a moment here in cyberspace to give a shout-out to my fellow Episcopalians. Specifically, those who are in their final year of seminary and preparing to square off with the General Ordination Exams.

Hey, friends! You’re feeling a little down lately, huh? Seminary is not nearly as fun as it was two years ago, am I right? You’ve been reading all those depressing studies about gender-based clergy pay discrepancies, haven’t you?

And now, to add insult to injury, you have to spend Advent getting ready for the GOEs.

Life truly is unfair.

For the uninitiated, the GOEs (usually pronounced “G.O.E.’s,” rather than “goes”) are a set of six-formerly-seven essay exams required for ordination to the priesthood in most dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Each exam lasts three and a half hours, is scored on a pass/fail rubric, and covers one of six-formerly-seven canonical areas: Scripture, history, theology, ethics, worship, and ministry.

Why six-formerly-seven? Where did the seventh one go?

Good question, young grasshopper! For various reasons, all profoundly theological in nature and totally unrelated to how frigging expensive it is to administer and grade these things, two canonical areas of the GOEs have slowly collapsed into one: “theory and practice of ministry” and “contemporary society” are now bundled into “theory and practice of ministry in contemporary society.” Try to keep up.

There is no doubt that the GOEs are a big old pain in the neck. And yet!

And yet, there is no reason to be afraid of them.

Look, here is some full disclosure for you. I passed all seven GOEs — yes, grasshopper, back in my day we had to sit through seven of them — and, unfortunately, I can assure you that this was proof neither of my dazzling theological genius nor of my robust and well-rounded preparation for ministry. In fact, an ungenerous observer might even suggest that I had an unusually slipshod and scatterbrained preparation for ministry. I never took an ethics course. My background in liturgics is kind of weak. Please don’t ask me any detailed questions about the formation of the prayer book.

BUT.

I nailed those exams right to the wall.

And so can you.

I am here to tell you everything I know.

Let us begin.

Tip 1: Make a plan for how to use your exam time.

For each essay, you have three and a half hours to write 1,000 words. That is a preposterous amount of time. You could probably hammer out these exams in half that time, if you were forced to.

But instead, you have a long, luxurious stretch of several hours, and with any luck you have volunteers from your seminary quietly circulating to bring you coffee and snacks. How will you use these amazing gifts of treats and time?

My plan looked like this:

  • Preparing (30 minutes): Reading the question, sketching the rubric (see below), drafting an outline, gathering sources
  • Writing (2 hours): Writing the essay
  • Editing (30 minutes): Reading over my work, comparing it to my rubric, spell-checking, fine-tuning, submitting
  • Relaxing (30 minutes): Tooling around on the Internet, eating snacks, eating more snacks

Yours might look different. Perhaps you will want more time for writing, or more time to eat snacks. But do start with a plan.

Tip 2: Before you start writing, take a minute to sketch out the grading rubric for the essay question.

Update: I was delighted to learn from a past examining chaplain that GOE candidates are now given the actual grading rubric at the time of the exam. How wonderful! Also, how startling that the church has implemented a widely accepted pedagogical best practice! However, I still think the following tip is a useful exercise, so I’m leaving it in. –Ed.

I know I’m going to draw some ire for saying this … but …

The GOEs are just another standardized test.

Okay, okay, they’re not JUST another standardized test. You should approach them more prayerfully and so on. But still, don’t get so caught up in the mystical spiritual qualities of the GOEs that you fail to see them for what they are: plain old essay exams, graded according to a plain old rubric.

Let’s take that last point apart. The GOEs are anonymized and graded very quickly by the nice people of the General Board of Examining Chaplains (GBEC), who have just a few days to crank through 200 sets of exams. This means that, when they read your work, they are a bit short on the time they would need to truly appreciate the following:

  • Lyrical composition
  • Sophisticated reasoning
  • Theological imagination

They would surely be looking for all of those things if they were hearing you preach a sermon, or blurbing your first book. But on the GOEs, what they need from you is somewhat more pedestrian:

  • Intelligible sentences
  • Cited sources
  • Answering the damn question

Use this knowledge to your advantage: Before you put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard to tackle a GOE essay, take a second to think about the rubric.

Want an example? Here’s part of the church history question from 2015:

The Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries affected the Christian church, as well as the Western world. Some of the hallmarks of Enlightenment thought include: the importance of individual autonomy rather than the authority of society and the state; the preference for human reason over received tradition; the importance of empirical observation rather than divine revelation; progress as a result of human achievement; and an optimistic view of the future. Write an essay of about 750 words in which you discuss changes that occurred in the church, as seen in the writings and ministries of Bishop William White of Pennsylvania or John Wesley, as the result of the Enlightenment. Select three of the five hallmarks listed here and give one example for each hallmark as exemplified in White or Wesley (choose only one of the two).

Let’s pretend we are on the GBEC and dream up our own grading rubric for this question. The prompt is pretty clear in telling us what it wants. Therefore, to give a score of “proficient” to an essay in response to this prompt, we should be able to answer yes to all of the following questions:

  1. Does the essay discuss three of the five indicated hallmarks of the Enlightenment?
  2. Does the essay relate those three hallmarks to the writings of either William White or John Wesley (not both)?
  3. Does the essay make reference to changes in the church, as seen in the writings and ministries of White or Wesley?
  4. Does the essay demonstrate sufficient mastery of spelling and grammar for us to trust that it was written by a human being, rather than a spambot?
  5. Does the essay more or less make sense?
  6. Does the essay have sources cited in some fashion? (The GOEs tolerate an astonishing amount of sloppiness in source citation, but you do at least have to say what your sources are.)
  7. Does the essay contain about 750 words?

Here’s what you need to do to pass: Check every one of those boxes.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at last year’s grading rubrics.

Note that, because these guidelines are so strict, it is possible to write a quite brilliant essay that still does not pass. If you only tackle two hallmarks of the Enlightenment, or if you get overambitious and weave together the works of White AND Wesley, or if you get so excited by writing about Wesley’s extraordinary vision or White’s political savvy that you forget to emphasize changes in the church, or if you assume that everyone has heard of Forty-Four Sermons and that you therefore do not need to cite it, you are cruising for a failing grade.

Tip 3: Do not let your ignorance of a topic scare you off.

William White who?

Look, I’m not going to go into extensive detail about my ignorance of church history because I’m pretty sure my bishop reads this blog. But I will say that the GOEs these days are completely open-resource, including open-Internet. Let’s assume you read this question and panic because you have never heard of John Wesley OR William White.* How, then, will you write 750 words about them?

Wikipedia, my friends! Who knows? Perhaps it has come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

Here’s how a person who doesn’t know John Wesley from a hole in the ground should approach this question.

  1. Don’t get all stressed out about the Enlightenment part. Even if you have never heard of the Enlightenment or could not reliably guess the millennium in which it happened, who cares? The prompt has already identified everything about the Enlightenment that it wants you to know. There is no need, in the time allotted to this essay, for you to learn about a sixth hallmark of the Enlightenment. The examining chaplains won’t care. I certainly don’t.
  2. Look up John Wesley on Wikipedia. You need to talk about his writings, so scroll on down to the Literary Work part.
  3. What?!?! He wrote, edited, or abridged some 400 publications?!?! That is too many! You don’t have time to try to figure out which ones were the most important. Don’t write about him.
  4. Look up William White on Wikipedia. Skim … skim … skim … okay, only one lone literary work is mentioned in this article. That one must be pretty important.
  5. Click the external link to William White’s writings. It’s a long list, but we’re going to trust that the pamphlet mentioned on his Wikipedia page, The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, is the most significant and start with that.
  6. We now have all the basic information we need about William White’s writings (from the pamphlet) and ministries (from the Wikipedia page). All that’s left for us to do is find some facts we can plug into three of those hallmarks of the Enlightenment.
    • He was a Church of England cleric who sided with the American Revolution? That’s a pretty darn optimistic view of the future.
    • He ordained the first African-American Episcopal priest? If that doesn’t reflect a belief in progress as a result of human achievement, I don’t know what does.
    • He was ambivalent about the function of bishops in Anglicanism? Holy cow. Look what he wrote in Chapter IV of that pamphlet: “There cannot be produced an instance of laymen in America, unless in the very infancy of the settlements, soliciting the introduction of a bishop; it was probably by a great majority of them thought an hazardous experiment.” OHHHHHH MAN WILLIAM WHITE THOSE BE FIGHTING WORDS. Also, suggesting that the church do away with bishops is a jagged break with tradition … so … he must have reached that conclusion not by consulting received tradition, but by relying on his human reason instead.

BAM. ESSAY ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.

*Confession: I didn’t know a lot about either of these fine men when I took the GOEs, but I had indeed heard of them. I don’t want you to think my grasp on church history is THAT weak.

Tip 4: Do not let your expertise on a topic lead you off track.

The GOEs are notorious for candidates failing the canonical area they know the most about. Church historians fail the church history exam. Liturgists fail the liturgy exam. Theologians fail the theology exam. It happens all the time.

Why? It goes back to that first tip: The examining chaplains don’t have time to appreciate your subtle brilliance, they just need you to answer the question that was asked. Don’t show off at the expense of actually answering the question, and don’t waste your energy providing answers to questions that nobody asked. If you are asked to write a brief reflection on the Gospel passages for Advent in Year C, there is no need to go into tedious detail about the development of the Revised Common Lectionary. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Tip 5: Do not be a sloppy writer.

Note that I did not demand that you be a GOOD writer. If you struggle with academic writing in English, for any reason — maybe you have a verbal learning disability, or maybe English is not your first language, or maybe writing is simply not your spiritual gift — you can still get through the GOEs just fine.

Instead of fretting about the aspects of your writing that you can’t control, focus on the ones you can. You can definitely control your answers to the following questions:

  1. Have I started with an introduction and ended with a conclusion?
  2. Have I broken my essay into paragraphs so that it is easy to read?
  3. Have I started each of those paragraphs with a sentence that kind of indicates what the paragraph will be about?
  4. Have I clearly labeled my list of sources?
  5. Have I carefully read through my essay, perhaps out loud if I have an exam room to myself, in order to catch obvious grammatical errors or missing words?
  6. Have I used spell check?

Do these things and your essays will be just a little bit easier to read. The examining chaplains will thank you.

Tip 6: Don’t make yourself crazy with studying or resources.

I went to one session of a GOE study group and quickly realized that participating in it would just make me anxious. Back in the day when the GOEs were largely closed-book, it made a lot more sense to spend hours and hours studying. Now, though, everything is open-resource. If you need to come up with three Anglican writers to reference, you can just look at Wikipedia’s list of Anglican writers and take your pick.

Also, can we talk about books? While you are allowed to bring your own books to the exams, that does not mean you need to bring your entire personal collection. If it brings you comfort to drag two large rolling suitcases full of books to the GOEs (I had a number of classmates who did this), by all means go ahead … but also remember that the GOEs are entirely open-Internet, that you are probably taking them in a well-stocked theological library, and that a superabundance of resources can induce serious writer’s block.

I brought exactly two books with me to the GOEs, more as talismans than as anything else. One was The Episcopalians, by Hein & Shattuck, which I highly recommend but totally didn’t need to bring because the seminary library had about 80 copies of it. I don’t remember what the second one was because it stayed at the bottom of my backpack all week.

Tip 7: Expect something strange to go wrong.

Call it Satan’s wiles or Murphy’s Law, but something inconvenient will probably happen to you during the GOEs. Your hard drive will fail. Your bus will be late. You’ll forget your computer charger or spill coffee all over your lap.

In my case, on the morning of the last day of the exams, before I even left the house, I dropped my glasses on the floor and they snapped right in half. I am VERY VERY nearsighted and had no backup glasses or contact lenses, so I had no choice but to stagger around my blurry house looking for tape to stick them back together (note: this does not work), somehow walk the three blocks to the drugstore by my bus stop without getting hit by a car, ask the drugstore clerk for help finding the Krazy Glue, ride the bus to what I fervently hoped was my stop, and ask the first person I saw to help me glue them back together. (He was another examinee, now a priest, and I still owe him big time. Thanks, Eric!)

What I learned from this experience was: 1) If your glasses are glued back together in an even slightly imperfect way, you will get intense double vision and a blinding headache that lasts about half an hour until your brain figures out how to correct for the irregular distance between your lenses; and 2) always have a spare pair of glasses.

What you should learn from this experience is: Consider potential problems that could throw you off your game and think through a backup plan. Leave early for the exams in case you hit traffic. Borrow a library laptop if yours is an antique. If you are spill-prone, bring an entire change of clothes. What’s it going to hurt? The guy next to you is dragging two rolling suitcases full of books. Nobody is going to think your overpacking is weird.

Tip 8: Even if you fail several of the GOEs, probably nothing bad is going to happen to you.

Most people know this but get caught up in testing anxiety anyway, partly because it’s a rite of passage to agonize about the GOEs with one’s classmates and partly because it’s easy to think of them as a licensing exam. They’re not, though.

I repeat: The GOEs are not a licensing exam. You do not have to pass a certain number of them to get ordained.

If you’re feeling anxious about the GOEs, contact your diocesan exam coordinator — most often the canon to the ordinary or whoever handles the ordination process — and ask what will happen if you fail one. You don’t have to wail into this person’s voicemail inbox, “WHAT HAPPENS IF I FAIL THE GOEs?” Instead, send a brief, politely worded email: “Hello. I am preparing for the General Ordination Exams and am looking forward to completing them in January. I was curious about this diocese’s remediation process for exams that are scored ‘not proficient.’ If I receive a not-proficient score on one of the exams, what will I be asked to do to demonstrate proficiency in this area?”

Typical answers (which vary from diocese to diocese) include:

  • You will have a humiliating but short conversation with your diocesan examining chaplain.
  • You will be asked to write an essay related to the canonical area in which you still need to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Nothing, the GOEs are just a formality anyway.

Last year, more than 60% of GOE takers failed at least one of the tests. I assure you that your canon to the ordinary/Commission on Ministry chair/diocesan examining chaplain has encountered ordination candidates who do not have perfect GOE scores, and that your bishop has ordained such people to the priesthood. If anyone tries to make you feel like you are an outlier for failing some of the GOEs, that person is a jerk.

Hang in there, seminarians. A month from now you’ll be on the other side of these things. In the meantime, tune back in for a roundup of GOE resources that will be worth your time.

What I Need Men in the Church to Understand About Sexual Violence

Hey, everybody. Welcome to new readers, especially those who found their way here from Episcopal Café. It’s been humbling to receive such an outpouring of support in the wake of my last post (although awful to hear such a chorus of affirmation), and especially humbling to hear from those of you who have endured sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. You are not alone, even when the world conspires to make you feel that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last week over the culture of sexual violence in the church — or, more accurately, the culture of sexual violence in the world, which the church has enthusiastically supported for centuries — and what I most need men to understand about it. Not only because men are statistically more likely to be perpetrators and less likely to be targets (although this is also true), but also because, by no coincidence, men are more likely to be in charge.

Listen up, men. You are, overwhelmingly, our rectors and senior pastors. You hold, disproportionately, the positions of highest lay authority on our church boards. You are, with depressingly rare exceptions, our bishops. All the hashtags and social media campaigns in the world aren’t going to make one little dent in the church’s complicity with sexual violence unless you decide you want to do something about it.

Are you ready? Let’s go.

Women are programmed to fear sexual violence.

You know how when you buy a new computer it comes bundled with a bunch of “free” antivirus software that you can’t figure out how to uninstall? This software does nothing but make your life harder. It runs in the background all the time, using up memory and processing speed. It is always pestering you with pop-ups. Its one job is to scan for threats, and boy does it do that job with gusto. Sometimes it tries to protect you from threats that aren’t even there.

But once in a while, maybe one time in the entire life of your computer, it protects you from an automatic download of something very very bad. This time, the threat it alerts you to is real. And suddenly you understand why the computer came with that software in the first place.

This is how the fear of sexual violence works for most women. It is programmed into us from an early, early age, and it warns us of potential threats. So when I get a hug from a parishioner, for example, that lasts just a second too long, a little pop-up message appears in my head:

sexual violence warning graphic

Is this person likely to attempt a more extreme act of sexual violence against me? Probably not.

Probably not.

… Probably not?

But from now on, I’m going to take some extra precautions around him, just in case.

So if you, as a man, do not react this way, does it mean that women are overreacting? No. It means that you are running a different operating system. If you are a Linux user (congratulations; I do not want you to tell me about it) or if you have a Mac, you simply don’t have the same vulnerability to viruses as those of us who are typing away on our Windows PCs. You don’t understand why we’re running so much antivirus software all the time. It takes up memory. It slows everything down.

Trust me. We know.

Less severe [sexual] violence carries with it an embedded threat of more severe [sexual] violence.

Let’s take the “sexual” part out of the equation for a minute and think about nonsexual violence instead. If you are a man, imagine that you are meeting your new boss, Bill. Gosh, Bill is tall. Also very muscular. He towers over you like the Incredible Hulk.

“Good to meet ya!” Bill says loudly. He uses his right hand to shake yours and his left hand to clap you on the shoulder. Except, instead of your shoulder, he gets you right on that soft part of your upper arm. And he hits you hard.

Ow!!!!! That really hurt!!!! What’s with this guy? Bill must not know his own strength.

But then you meet his gaze and realize that’s not what’s going on at all. Bill squeezes your hand with an iron grip, smiling right at you with a gleam in his eye. Anyone looking on would think he was just giving you a friendly handshake, but you can feel bruises from his fingerprints beginning to bloom under your sleeve. And you are pretty sure you’re not misinterpreting that gleam. It says:

Try messing with me. I dare you. I can do much worse than this.

Sexual violence at the less severe end of the spectrum — here I’m talking about things like suggestive comments and creepy hugs — works the same way. It lets the target know that the perpetrator is in control, and that the target better stay in line. People who make a habit of behaving this way know exactly what they are doing, especially if they persist after being asked to stop.

There are reasons women don’t report this stuff.

You can’t do anything about Bill’s aggressive handshake, right? If you were to report it to HR (this is assuming either that you work in a secular environment, or that we are in a fantasy world where the church has functioning HR), they would think you were oversensitive and crazy. That incident report is going right into the circular file.

And maybe Bill will never do anything else physically aggressive toward you. Maybe just knowing that he could will be enough to get you to do everything he wants.

But if he did do something just a little bit more aggressive than last time — maybe he grabs you by the shoulders and gives you a shake, leaving fingerprint bruises on both arms — how would you handle it? How would you decide if it were bad enough to say something about? Would you feel weird bringing it up, when you had never said anything before?

Would you be willing to talk to Bill about it directly, or would you be too scared?

Would it be worth feeling victimized? Would it be worth feeling weak?

Would it be worth living with the threat of retaliation from Bill, and the knowledge that without a good reference from him it will be awfully hard for you to find another job?

Oh man, Bill is very highly respected in your field. Would it be worth the firestorm of accusations that you’re trying to ruin his career?

Maybe. Maybe it would be totally worth it.

But maybe, by the time you decide your career and reputation and sense of self can handle the fallout, this violence from Bill has been going on for years.

Maybe it’s gotten really bad. Maybe it’s starting to make you feel crazy. Maybe Bill is slick and charming and nobody on the outside can tell.

Maybe, when you finally speak up, people will say, “Well, it couldn’t have been that bad. Otherwise, why didn’t you speak up before?”

Just something to think about.

Different people experience the same actions differently.

In my last post, I told a story about how the same unwanted physical affection that triggered moderate annoyance in me triggered traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks in my female coworker. Neither of us had the “right” or “wrong” reaction. There is no single appropriate way to react to an instance of sexual harassment. We’d had different life experiences — she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I was not — and so, even when we encountered the same situation, we did not experience it in remotely the same way.

Crucially, this principle holds even if the intentions of your action are completely innocent. This is why Safe Church and sexual harassment prevention trainers are always going on about “intent” and “impact.” Let’s say you are a male pastor with three female associate pastors (wow! good for you! that is a big church!). You are in a great mood because you’ve just learned that this year’s stewardship (fundraising) drive has been successful beyond your wildest dreams. You announce this news to the team and give each of your associates an exuberant hug.

One is an exuberant hugger herself. She hugs you right back and goes on her merry way.

Another finds getting hugged by her boss a bit unsettling. You’ve set off a little pop-up from her antivirus software. She will quietly make sure not to be alone with you from now on. But she will never ever say anything to you about it. That would be weird.

The third is having a panic attack in the bathroom right now.

How can you avoid this scenario? I don’t know, how about waiting for your female colleagues — and especially your female subordinates — to hug you first?

People of any gender can perpetrate sexual violence, and people of any gender can experience it, BUT patriarchy is predisposed to punish women and exonerate men.

Of course women sometimes commit acts of sexual harassment or assault. Of course men are sometimes the victims.

But privilege works in mysterious ways.

Female perpetrators are more likely to be punished; male victims are more likely to be believed.

Perpetrators of color are more likely to be punished; white victims are more likely to be believed.

Disabled perpetrators are more likely to be punished; able-bodied victims are more likely to be believed.

LGBTQ perpetrators are more likely to be punished; straight victims are more likely to be believed.

Should I keep going?

Do I really need to keep going?

Being dismissed, disbelieved, or silenced about sexual violence can be more traumatic than experiencing the violence in the first place.

This is true along every part of the violence continuum. My encounters with sexual harassment have been relatively mild — limited to the occasional inappropriate comment or unwanted touch. They were upsetting, but not traumatizing.

What DID feel traumatic were the instances where I tried to ask a superior for help and found myself blown off, or, worse, told to shut up and drop it. When you are under attack, especially if you’re worried that more serious attacks are going to come, there’s nothing more terrifying than feeling like no one is going to step up to help you fight.

Don’t appoint yourself as the arbiter of what “counts” as sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. Remember, as a man, you are not running the same operating system. If your female colleague or subordinate says a certain behavior is a problem, treat it that way.

You have to have a plan.

This is for all of you who enjoy the enviable task of being the boss. Sexual harassment will happen on your watch. Sexual abuse and assault might too. Your homework is to sit down, by yourself or with your most trusted church leaders, and talk your way through the following scenarios. No, for real. What would will you do?

  • You overhear two female choir members joking to a new singer that she shouldn’t give her cell phone number to the choir director. Something about the conversation raises a red flag, and after their rehearsal, you pull the two of them aside to ask them why they said that. They fidget and stare at the floor but finally say they thought everyone knew that the choir director is infamous for sending sexually explicit texts, sometimes with pictures, to women from the choir. (Let’s be real: Probably everyone did know except you. What pastor ever really knows what’s going on in the choir?) Let us assume that your choir director is also the organist, that your church is in a small town where a vacancy for this position would be hard to fill, and also that it is the Thursday before Palm Sunday.
  • Your seminarian asks to meet with you. With obvious discomfort, she tells you that a parishioner has been making “suggestive comments” to her. When you ask her for an example, she hesitates before writing some of them down and handing you the list. You read what she has written and go pale. This man cannot possibly have said such graphic things, in church, to an intern his granddaughter’s age. He is a successful businessman, a pillar of the church, and your largest individual donor. He is also the chair of your capital campaign, which you just kicked off, with great fanfare, last month.
  • A female parishioner tells you that a man in the congregation has repeatedly invaded her personal space. The man is a longtime parishioner who has major mental illness and has been living on the street for more than a decade. You pride yourself on fostering a church community that is welcoming to people who are homeless or marginally housed, and you have cultivated a good relationship with this man. While his behavior is sometimes erratic, has never behaved inappropriately or threateningly toward you. When you ask the parishioner if she has told him to stop, she says that she is afraid to. You wonder if her fear of him is really because of his behavior toward her, or simply because he is obviously homeless.

Think it over. Talk it over. I repeat: You have to have a plan.

If a woman extends her hand to you, shake her hand. Do not hug her.

She is offering you a handshake, not a hug.

Shake her hand.

DO NOT HUG HER.

Had to be said.

A Taxonomy of Creeps

Reading through hundreds of #metoo stories this week, I caught myself thinking that I was lucky.

“Lucky” that I have never been sexually abused or raped. “Lucky” that my experiences of sexual harassment have been relatively minor. “Lucky” that I can tell stories about those experiences without traumatic flashbacks or the threat of harm.

If you are a clergy woman or femme reading this blog, you don’t need me to tell you that sexual harassment and assault are problems in the church. You probably got a fresh reminder of that last Sunday, when someone gave you a hug in the receiving line that lasted just a little too long.

And yet.

And yet, I feel kind of like the Ancient Mariner: I have been working in the church for a decade now, so even if no one wants to hear them, I have my own set of stories to tell. I’ve picked a handful to share with you here, and included the details I always want to know when I hear these stories: what I did and whether it worked.

Note: Some identifying details in the stories below have been changed to “protect the innocent,” by which I mean “protect me from the guilty.”

The Powerful Guy

The situation: I was 21 and working in my very first post-college job — yes, a church job. And there was this (older, male) guy on a powerful board of the church who would always come say hello to me, every time he was at my workplace for a board meeting. He would do that thing where he stood a little too close, and he would take hold of my forearm, and hold onto it for a little too long. It’s been a decade and I don’t even remember this guy’s name. But I still remember how creepy it felt.

What I did: Nothing. I was afraid that if I told him to stop, or asked my boss for help, he would tell the whole board — and, because this guy knew everybody, God knows who else — that I was “bitchy” or “sensitive” or “high-maintenance.” Word travels fast in the church, and I had no idea what the career repercussions might be down the road. So I did my best to grin and bear it.

The result: I got real good at scheduling out-of-office appointments when I saw board meetings on the calendar. If I forgot to do that, I put up with the close-talking and forearm-gripping. I used up untold mental energy on avoiding and/or dealing with this guy, once a month, every time that board met, for my entire tenure at that job.

The Predatory Guy

The situation: I was at a clergy thing that featured a cocktail hour, which was unfortunate in itself because giving free drinks to two hundred clergy is never a good idea. I was chatting with a (young, female) friend of mine when an (older, male) priest shouldered his way into the conversation and started talking at me — only me — taking up all the airspace. My friend and I exchanged miserable glances, but we didn’t want to be rude.

The dinner bell sounded, and my friend and I said farewell to this creep and headed downstairs to the banquet hall. When we found a table and took our seats, I was startled to see this guy dropping into the seat on the other side of me. He had followed me to dinner.

“I thought I’d join you,” he said. “You seem harmless enough.”

Then he leered at me. “I’m not.”

What I did: I decided that if there was ever a time for rudeness, I had found it. Without another word, I turned my back and ignored him.

The result: He gave up and wandered off to a different seat before the food arrived. I never had to think about him again … until a more recent clergy event, when, mysteriously, I found him sitting at my table a second time.

The Immature Guy

The situation: Through youth ministry, I got to know an (older, male) guy who had somehow managed to get ordained as a deacon in my denomination. This surprised me, because this guy was … uh … not that smart. He seemed kind of childlike to me, so although I thought it was weird when he always wanted to greet me with a big grabby bear hug and a kiss on the neck, I figured it was because he didn’t understand socially appropriate physical boundaries, not because he was trying to be a creep.

What I did: I treated him like a damn child, and it seemed to sort of work. When he tried to hug and kiss me, I would push him away by the shoulders and say, “It is not appropriate for you to kiss me. You can greet me by shaking my hand.” He was always apologetic, but somehow, the scenario repeated itself every time we met.

One day, I mentioned his name to an (older, female) coworker at my church. She started shaking. She was a survivor of sexual abuse, and she had suffered the same invasions of physical space from this guy, but she reacted to them very differently. For her, getting grabbed and kissed by a strange man slammed down on a big red trigger button, and sometimes caused her full-blown panic attacks. She said that she had even broken down and explained all this to the guy, and that his behavior hadn’t changed. If anything, it had escalated. It was almost like her reaction of panic and fear made him more eager to invade her personal space, not less.

Huh. That didn’t seem very innocent or childlike after all. In fact, it seemed kind of sinister.

Together, we decided to call this guy’s priest, an (older, female) woman who was quite new to the region from out of state. The pastor didn’t stammer. She didn’t cry. In a flat voice, she told us that this man had made her life a living hell since her first day on the job — spreading rumors about her to the congregation, consistently attempting to undercut her authority, and telling her that nobody had wanted to hire her, but that the church had settled for her because they couldn’t afford to pay what a male pastor would be worth.

Why hadn’t she done anything about it?

Ha!

Ha ha!

Here’s why: In our polity, priests and pastors can’t fire deacons. Only the bishop can. Our (older, male) bishop at the time was no friend to women clergy, and was, for some reason, a great defender of this guy (guess who signed off on his ordination even after he failed his diaconal exams?). This guy’s miserable new pastor was new in town, needed the job, and didn’t want to rock the boat.

I was kinda hoping to convince this bishop to ordain me to the priesthood, so I didn’t really want to rock that boat either. But my lay coworker wasn’t afraid of the bishop. Once we had the full story on this guy, she wrote it all up and marched into the bishop’s office. The bishop made a few phone calls to rally the guy’s defenders, but it turned out he didn’t have very many defenders at all.

The result: In the end, the guy was permanently removed from parochial status, but not defrocked. He still gets to attend clergy conferences, wear a clerical collar, and go by “Reverend.” Good for him, I guess.

The Unstable Guy

The situation: In my early twenties, I attended a church with a large presence of homeless and marginally housed people. Most of them were cool. One (older, male) was scary.

I never knew quite what was up with him, but I did know that his behavior could be very erratic. He sometimes wandered into the middle of the service, shouting at no one in particular. Occasionally he would stand on a pew. None of that was too unusual in this church. More troubling, though, it was really hard for me to get him to leave me alone.

He always wanted to sit up close next to me, or “help” me carry things out to my car by grabbing them out of my arms. He was a whole lot bigger than me, and I had seen him yell at and occasionally threaten other members of the congregation, so I was — as mentioned — pretty scared.

What I did: I decided this was not the kind of situation I should try to handle alone. Instead, I asked my (older, male) priest for help. He was a proud feminist and a father of daughters. I figured he would be willing and able to help me handle it.

What I did not expect was for him to say in a patronizing tone, “Have you talked to him about it?”

NO, YOU ASSHOLE. I JUST TOLD YOU WHY I HAVEN’T TALKED TO HIM ABOUT IT. I AM SCARED OF HIM.

I said something approximating that. My priest answered patiently, “Just talk to him. It’s not fair to complain about it if you haven’t talked to him first.”

The result: Did I mention I was too scared to talk to this guy about setting appropriate physical limits? I went to church a little less often and otherwise just lived with it until the guy was finally asked to leave the church. What triggered that, you ask? Well, he loudly threatened to kick the ass of the (older, male) senior warden/board president one morning during coffee hour, and the senior warden insisted that he not be allowed to return.

Good to know the priest was willing to listen to somebody.

The Very Affectionate Guy

The situation: Oh boy, this was way back in my first-ever church job, when I was still a college student! There was an (older, male) guy there who was a hugger. That’s what he would say, every time he swatted away the hand I had proffered for a handshake and instead went in for a long, intense hug: “I’m a hugger.”

When the holidays rolled around, I went to the staff holiday party, which included the entire church staff and a handful of volunteers who did staff-like things. This guy handled the payroll or something, so he was there. I arrived a little late, and it was clear that everyone had already been drinking for a while. Mr. Hugger Payroll Man strolled up to me and said, “Catherine! It’s so good to see you!” And then he gave me a long, intense hug.

But this time, he also grabbed my butt.

Right in front of all my coworkers.

In public.

At a party.

While his wife stared, curling her lip in disgust.

What I did: I took a big step back and said loudly, “WOW! I THINK THAT’S THE CLOSEST I’VE EVER BEEN TO A MAN!”

He turned bright red and jumped away from me. His wife snickered. Everyone around us giggled uncomfortably.

The result: That motherfucker never touched me again.

But wait, there’s more! The next week, I mentioned this encounter to the (wait for it — older, male) priest I was working for. He smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, yes. Mark, he’s a hugger.”

I was still in college. I was getting paid peanuts to run the church youth group for two hours a week. What did I have to lose?

“You’re right,” I said. “Mark sure is a hugger. Let me show you the hug I got from him on Friday night.”

I marched right up to my boss, wrapped my arms around him, and pressed my whole body up against his. I let my hands wander down his back and gave his butt a little squeeze.

He backed away from me, horrified.

“That Mark,” I said again. “He sure is a hugger. I just wanted to make sure you could experience one of his hugs too.”

The Pedophilic Guy

The situation: In that same first youth ministry gig, when I was living in Pennsylvania, I got to know another (older, male) lay youth pastor from a different church in my denomination. There were a few things about him that made me feel weird.

He preferred the company of children and young teenagers to that of adults. At youth events, he was always that one grown-up sitting at the kids’ table.

He volunteered with several different youth organizations, which any paid youth worker will tell you is strange. Even those of us who love kids enough to work with them for a living find them to be kind of a pain in the ass and want a break from them on our time off.

He sought out the children of isolated, overwhelmed single mothers. And I mean REALLY isolated. I remember one youth retreat in particular where I was assigned the task of organizing all the registration forms. I was surprised to see that several mothers from his church had listed him as their child’s sole emergency contact.

Then, one day, he started talking to me about the extraordinary attractiveness of some of the young teenage girls in his youth group. He mentioned that he had become “smitten” with a middle-school girl a few years before, but reassured me (and himself?) that these feelings were “normal” and “happened to everybody.”

That settled it. This guy was a pedophile out of central casting. Albeit not a very savvy one.

Imagine how you would feel if you had to deal with such a scenario now. Then, imagine how you would have felt back when you were nineteen.

What I did: I didn’t have a whole lot of power over this guy — I saw him only occasionally, and we didn’t work for the same church. What I could and did do was document every single interaction I had with him. I saved his emails. I printed screenshots of his Facebook profile. I happened to have a copy of his resume, and I called every employer he had listed. In each case, he had either been fired or left on terms where the boss was not sad to see him go. I asked all of these former employers whether I could share their concerns and use their names, and every one of them said yes.

Then, I assembled my packet of documents, went to my (older, male) boss, and said, “We have a problem.”

The result: I wound up having a meeting with my boss, my boss’s boss, and the priest and senior warden from the church where this guy worked. Just four fifty- or sixty-something men and teenage me.

The meeting — and this will shock you — did not go well.

I don’t remember much of what was said — something about why I was trying to ruin his career? — but I do remember the senior warden leaping out of his chair and shouting at me as he loomed over the couch where I sat. He was triple my size and triple my age. I knew, rationally, that he probably wasn’t going to hit me, but it sure felt like he might.

The other thing I remember about that day is that my boss and his boss sat there stone-faced, like they were watching the whole encounter through soundproof glass. They let this man raise his voice and insult me and physically intimidate me. And they just sat there and watched.

Everything else I’ve described in this post was more or less forgettable, but that is one I will never be able to forget.

That guy was eventually let go from his position, not because of my heroic efforts, but because a new (older, male) priest arrived at his church and instantly identified him as a risk to minors. I guess the senior warden didn’t push back against the decision too hard, because he still goes to that church. Maybe something about the new priest made the senior warden more inclined to take him seriously.

And the now-former youth pastor? As far as I’m aware, he still volunteers with kids.

The Next Guy

The situation: I don’t know yet. But I know there will be a next one. And a next one, and a next one, and another one after that.

What I’ll do: As I hope these stories have indicated, I’ll decide how to respond based on any number of factors: how much power I have in the situation, how I think the benefit of acting will stack up to the cost, how worried I am about my physical safety, whether I have a superior I think I can trust. This is a very detailed calculus that women perform in their heads all the time.

The result: Wish me luck.

What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 3: Field Education and Internships

Field ed: the best and worst part of the seminary experience. I completed three field education placements while I was in divinity school — Clinical Pastoral Education at a big hospital, a very traditional seminarian internship at a church, and a not-so-traditional case management internship at a teen health clinic. Here’s what I learned, or in some cases watched my classmates learn, in the process.

Field education is like a real job.

This will not surprise you if you’ve ever had one. However, it did surprise some (not all) of my classmates who had come to seminary directly from undergrad. So, at the risk of insulting your intelligence, I am here to tell you:

Treat your field ed placement like a real job. Dress professionally. Show up on time. Work hard at the tasks to which you are assigned, and accept that there will be parts that are boring or difficult, because that is how having a job works.

And yet …

Field education is not like a real job.

Not only because you get paid basically nothing, although that is one depressing reason. But the more important reason is that, unlike the primary function of a real job, the primary function of field education is to educate you.

Yes, if you are any good, the organization you serve will benefit from your presence. However, in exchange for your almost-free labor, you are owed constructive supervision, adequate support, and a portfolio of tasks that will teach you something.

This is not to say you won’t have to take your turn making coffee and emptying out the paper shredder bin. But if you find that ALL you’re doing are mindless office tasks, or conversely that you’re being asked to do work for which you are underqualified and untrained, bring this up with your supervisor. That’s not what you’re there for.

After you’ve completed your required placements, get creative if you’re in the mood.

The ordination process in my denomination required me to complete CPE and a church internship, but I had room for one more field ed placement after that. I wanted to get some experience with case management, and I found a match at an LGBTQ teen health clinic. My year there taught me so many skills that have come in handy in my life as a priest — everything from how to schedule a free consult with an immigration attorney (spoiler alert: it is a huge pain in the neck and you will have to wait months) to how to accompany a scared patient to a doctor’s visit (spoiler alert: just be a calm presence and discreetly offer to take notes, especially if the doctor is delivering bad news).

Is there some local organization doing the work of your dreams? Reach out during the spring prior to the academic year when you want to intern for them, and ask if they’d consider taking on a seminarian. The worst they can say is no.

If you intern at a federal work-study site but are not federal work-study eligible, you may not get paid at all.

Religious organizations (churches and some church-run nonprofits) CANNOT be federal work-study sites, which is good news for you if you’re not eligible for work-study. Health care facilities and secular nonprofits can usually pay interns with work-study funds, and may decline to pay you if you’re not work-study eligible.

If this is confusing to you, make an appointment with your school’s financial aid officer to talk about it. Just trust me.

Choose your field education site based on the quality of the supervisor.

Sure, every site is unique. But let’s be real: the way you will experience your site as an intern is not that unique. At a church, your tasks will involve liturgy, preaching, maybe education or outreach. At a hospital, you will visit sick people. At a nonprofit, you will sit under fluorescent lights and try to print reports from a computer that is running Windows 3.1.

What will make or break your experience is your supervisor. A great one can make even a tough experience positive; a bad one can make an otherwise great experience miserable. Before signing any contracts, always meet with your prospective supervisor in person and see if you click.

If your supervisor is inexperienced, you will need to work harder to get the most out of your time in field education.

Your new supervisor might be a truly excellent pastor/chaplain/executive who has never supervised a seminarian before. The odds are good that this person also has the potential to become a truly excellent supervisor. But it won’t happen automatically. Someone has to be the guinea pig. Oh boy, is it you?!?! Lucky you!

Here are a few examples of things you may need to communicate — gently — to a brand-new field education supervisor:

  • Your school expects you to commit X number of hours per week to field education, including travel time to and from the site. This means that your (e.g.) 15 hours are actually more like 12.
  • If your supervisor is late with certain items of necessary paperwork, they can really screw up your life (for example, you find you cannot apply to graduate because your seminary has not received your final evaluation for field ed). *
  • Weekly supervision meetings are, in most cases, not negotiable. You must have them, and they must last an hour. If your supervisor has to cancel a meeting, they need to find a time to reschedule.
  • You are a seminary intern, which means that supervision is a time for theological reflection. If your new supervisor is not a religious professional (or sometimes even if they are), they might be uncomfortable talking about the spiritual dimensions of your work. If you would like supervision sessions to open with a prayer, or if you want to talk about how God is using you in your field education work, you may have to bring that up yourself.

* Should you find that your supervisor is a little spacey, suggest that you devote an hour of supervision time to sitting there with your laptops and completing your respective evaluation forms. That way, you can make sure everything gets done.

If you find that things are a bit rocky with your supervisor, or at your site generally, go to someone in your seminary’s field education office. Because …

Your field education office is there to help you.

Anyone at your school who’s ever had a bad field ed experience is bound to smack-talk the field ed office, which means that field ed offices are subject to a lot of smack talk. Don’t take it all at face value. In that office, there is almost definitely someone who will listen to your concerns and help you solve your field ed problems.

Some examples of good times to get the field ed office involved include:

  • Your supervisor is laid off or goes on an unexpected medical leave.
  • Your supervisor has no-showed three supervision meetings in a row.
  • You spend a lot of time at your field ed site sitting around the office with nothing to do.
  • You were promised that your placement would include preaching opportunities, but it’s the end of March and no such opportunities have materialized.
  • A parishioner/client/staff member at the site touched you in a creepy way, and your supervisor blew you off when you brought it up.
  • Your paycheck has been “in the mail” for two months now and you’re starting to get suspicious.
  • You’re being pressured to work way more than your contracted number of hours per week.
  • You’re being pressured to ignore standard safety precautions (e.g., always having two adults in a room where children are present, or wearing gloves and a face mask while visiting contagiously ill patients), which I wish I could tell you never happens.

This bears restating in bold font:

When you have a problem at your field ed site, get the field ed office involved BEFORE you reach a crisis point.

Not after you’ve gone four months without a supervision meeting. Not after you’ve contracted TB because “it scares patients when we wear face masks.” Not after your grades have started to suffer because you’re spending 30 hours per week at your site instead of the contracted twelve.

BEFORE. Reach out to the field ed office BEFORE you’re in crisis. If you don’t get a good response from the first staff member you speak to, make an appointment with a different one. If you truly have bad luck with every single person in the office, talk to your academic advisor or (when applicable) your Title IX officer. Rally those troops. These kinds of problems are not made for you to solve alone.

But take heart, because …

Field education can be the most transformative part of your seminary experience.

I’ve already forgotten a lot of what I studied in seminary, including everything I read by Gregory the Great and most of the timeline of the authorship of the letters of Paul. But I have not forgotten how to plan a worship service, or help someone apply for a bus pass, or sit quietly with a person as they die. All these things are things I learned from field education.

Field ed is all about real people and real problems, which makes it sometimes frustrating, but also infinitely valuable to your formation for ministry. I hope your experience of it is wonderful. If not, drop me a line, and we can commiserate.

Or, really, talk to someone in your field ed office. I swear they know what’s up.