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 1

Hello, everybody! I hope you’ve been having a fabulous summer. I’ve been offline for most of it, first for an incredible two-week seminar at Canterbury Cathedral and then preaching on this island you can reach only by boat and then serving as a summer camp chaplain at this awesome place. But now I’m home again, snuggled in with my wife and the cats. It feels pretty darn good.

And somehow it’s August, and the start of school is around the corner, and I’m remembering the all the excitement and dread I felt in the last weeks before I began seminary. Overall, I had a positive experience there. But there are a handful of things — mostly nuts-and-bolts kinds of things — I wish somebody had told me beforehand. The next few posts here on Rock That Collar will be a messy roundup of just those things. If you’ve gone to seminary yourself, do comment and let me know what to add.

And if you’re just about to start seminary? Hooray! This post is for you.

For starters …

Everyone else is just as nervous as you are.

When I started seminary, I was twenty-six and had been out of school for five years. This doesn’t seem like such a long time in retrospect, but at the time, I was terrified that I had forgotten how to be a student — how to sift through journal articles, write research papers, speak up in class. You know, student stuff.

Of course, once I got there, I found that my classmates came from an enormous range of backgrounds and age groups and that we were all nervous about something. Some people were returning to school after a forty-year hiatus. Some were doing academic work in English for the first time. Others were coming directly from undergrad and had never paid bills or rented apartments before.

We all had some kind of learning curve. And you know what? We all did just fine.

The most competitive CPE sites fill up way before their posted deadlines.

Clinical Pastoral Education, better known as CPE, is an intensive chaplaincy internship (most often completed in a hospital setting) that is a required component of training for most clergy and chaplains. If, like most full-time students, you want to complete CPE in the summer, you are probably checking out sites whose application deadlines are in mid-November. Does that mean you should wait until mid-November to apply? NO! CPE deadlines are rolling, and if you mail your application on the due date, your top-choice site may be long since full.

Now, competitive CPE applications are not like competitive college applications. Three things make a CPE site competitive:

  1. Desirable location. Are you hoping to complete CPE in a big city, or in the town where you and 8,000 other seminary students now live? Get that application in early.
  2. Popular supervisor at the site. Excellent CPE supervisors are treasures in their own right, and they tend to attract a following. If your seminary classmates speak of a certain local CPE supervisor in hushed and reverential tones, getting a spot at his or her site is going to take some extra work.
  3. Terrible supervisor at a site down the street. What’s that you say? There are only two accredited CPE sites in your town? And one of them has a supervisor who is infamously abusive? So you’re hoping for a spot at the other one? Huh. Better get writing.

Submitting your applications six weeks before the deadline is not a bad idea at all. You deserve every chance to get your top choice so that you can be as traumatized by CPE as the rest of us.

Do not ever say anything mean about anyone in the church to anyone else in the church.

Anything.

Anyone.

Ever.

I actually did know this before I went to seminary, but only because I started out as a lay religious professional. Christendom is not as big as you think. Your denomination, especially, is very very small. Whatever unkind thing you say will, if it doesn’t get back to the person you said it about, at the very least get back to someone else — a potential employer, or perhaps that extremely attractive colleague you are always eyeing at church conferences. How were you supposed to know that they are best friends with the person you called “a cosmic void of self-absorption” when you thought no one could overhear?

Nasty gossip is bad for your career prospects, but it is even worse for your spirit. Just don’t do it. When conversations among church friends turn in that direction — as they inevitably will — abruptly change the subject by pulling out your phone and showing everyone a video of a screaming goat.

Screaming goats are hilarious, but I am not joking.

By the way, if it doesn’t go without saying that this principle applies extra hard to your text and email habits, it should.

Career Services has no idea how to help you find a job.

One hopes this will be untrue if you are attending a seminary affiliated with your denomination. If you’re at an interdenominational school, though, or if you’re an Episcopalian attending a Lutheran seminary (or a Methodist at an Episcopal seminary, or …), do not count on the Career Services office to have even a minimal understanding of how your polity works, how the hiring process happens in your tradition, or when you ought to start looking for your first call.

Does this mean Career Services is useless to you? Of course not. They can look over your cover letters and resume, suggest cool scholarships and fellowships that might suit your interests, and offer plenty of tips if you are considering a vocation outside parish ministry. (For example: Want to teach or become a chaplain at an independent school? Carney Sandoe is where it’s at.)

Find a spiritual director and a therapist BEFORE you need one.

I mean, I guess everybody always needs a spiritual director, but you might not need a mental health therapist right now. The thing is, weird stuff happens. There are the normal things:

  • Your loved one gets sick or dies unexpectedly.
  • You go through a horrible breakup.
  • You are in a scary car/bike/boat/ski/unicycle accident.
  • You just feel awfully stressed out and a little lonely and you’re not sure how to make it better.

Then there are the things that are a little more likely to happen in seminary:

  • Your ordination process hits a roadblock you didn’t see coming.
  • You start to have doubts about your faith, and corresponding panic about what those doubts might mean for your career.
  • A 19-year-old dies of a heroin overdose in the middle of the night at your CPE site and you’re the only person on call and weeks later you can’t stop thinking about it.
  • Your field education supervisor gropes you one day without warning and you really want to never see him again but you need the field education credit to graduate on time.

In my case, what ran me off the rails was a serious back injury that ruined my entire last year of school. I had been hustling through seminary as a reasonably high-functioning grown-up who could juggle marriage and family, a full courseload, and three different low-paying part-time jobs with ease; all of a sudden — thanks to a herniated disc, if anyone is wondering — I was a helpless blob who could not put on shoes unassisted or roll myself over in bed. The pain was excruciating, but the loss of independence was much, much worse.

I survived this brutal period of my life thanks only to the otherworldly patience of my spouse and closest friends, but what helped me hang onto a little bit of my sanity through it was the support of a very kind therapist. Talking to her (usually while lying on her office floor with my knees pulled up to my chest, which was still painful but slightly less painful than every other possible position) was an absolute godsend. Waiting six weeks for a mental health consult from my overtaxed seminary health center before I got to talk to that therapist, though, was less helpful. I wish I’d made the connection earlier and had somebody on call.

… And that’s all I’ve got for Part 1. After you read this post, maybe you can say a little prayer for people who are starting seminary this fall. I assure you they could all use it.

The Planner That Will Finally Solve All Your Organizational Problems

Like so many others, I feel a thrill whenever I wander through a store aisle full of back-to-school supplies. Even if I am just on a quick dash to CVS to buy ant traps, that intoxicating odor of fresh pencils and tempera paint gets me every single time.

I remember squeezing my father’s hand as we gazed together at shelves and shelves of spiral-bound notebooks. I remember carefully attaching those sticky multicolor tabs to the dividers in my three-ring binder. And, not least, I remember the enormous care I put into selecting the perfect day planner.

Every single year — even once the math facts and spelling quizzes had given way to college essays and problem sets, even once I was old enough to know better — I managed to convince myself that, if I only bought the right planner, everything else would fall into place. I would never miss another deadline. I would measure out my days in fifteen-minute increments, gentle but precise. I would finally be like the beautiful straight girls whose specters haunted me all through my twelve years of school.

I bet you had these girls at your school too. They had flawless handwriting. They had perfect hair. And, though even as a kid I suspected they didn’t truly have it all together, they had something even more potent: the ability to fake it.

I had none of those things. Not by a long shot. But I was sure, absolutely sure, that the right organizational tool would help me acquire them all.

Ha.

Ha ha.

AHAHAHAHAHA.

Just kidding. That was a dumb thing to think. There is no planner that finally solved all my organizational problems, and there is no planner that will finally solve all of yours, because there is no planner (yet) with the capacity to rewire your personality from the ground floor up.

BUT! Even if you are, like me, congenitally disorganized and chronically late, there is no reason for despair. There are plenty of tools out there to help you get your life — or at least your working hours — in shape. Everyone has a different style; my personal preference these days is to schedule meetings and appointments (not to mention professional development) in Google Calendar, but use a paper journal for to-do lists, reminders, and blocking out those long stretches in the office where I have to get fifteen small tasks done in no special order.

If you’re starting to shop around for a new planner as September approaches, here are a few that are either tried-and-true favorites or have sparked my interest (h/t the forum at Young Clergy Women International that tipped me off to several of these):

Church-Minded Planners

sacred ordinary daysSacred Ordinary Days. This is a favorite among the Young Clergy Women, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s now available in either an academic-year or a liturgical-year format.

Pros: Elegant design, 7.75×8.75″, with a hard cover and ribbon bookmarks. Pages are cleanly laid out and include Revised Common Lectionary readings, as well as room for daily goals and projects. There are also cool extras like a liturgical wheel calendar and a (fingertip-scaled) prayer labyrinth.

Cons: At 2.5 pounds, this planner is a serious doorstop. It is not a good choice for hauling around in your purse. It will also set you back $47. Several fans reported that they love using this book as a prayer journal but would never rely on it as a daily planner.

episcopal liturgical appointment calendarEpiscopal Liturgical Appointment Calendar. This was my day planner of choice before I switched to an online scheduler, and now I use it for daily devotions — when I read the Bible passages from the Daily Office, I make little notes of thoughts, themes, and sermon ideas.

Pros: Handy size (8.5×10″ fits in a purse but still gives you plenty of space to write); beautiful layout; includes Daily Office and RCL Bible passages (conveniently listed on each day of the planner so you don’t have to mess around with a chart), plus extras like art, quotations, and the liturgical color for each day. Luxurious two-page spread for each week. Also, the 2018 edition is PURPLE.

Cons: Starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which is very spiritual and so forth, but most people do not celebrate the liturgical New Year by breaking out a new planner.

calendar and workbook for church leadersCalendar & Workbook for Church Leaders. This one comes in both an ecumenical and a United Methodist-specific version (thanks, Abingdon Press!).

Pros: At 6×9″, this is a bit more portable than the calendars above. It also features extra space on Sundays so that you have plenty of room to write down worship details, and there are designated pages for the contact information of your church staff.

Cons: Not nearly as elegant-looking as the calendars above. RCL readings are squished into a teensy little chart instead of listed for each day, which would drive me insane.

Justice-Minded Planners

planning to change the world a plan book for social justice teachersPlanning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers. Includes lots of book recommendations and lesson plan ideas that would not be out of place in your Sunday school.

Pros: At 9×11″, this planner will give you lots of space to write. Also, there is so much cool stuff in it! (See sample pages here.) Full of interesting birthdays and historical dates of people and events that made the world better.

Cons: Not the most portable of the bunch.

justseeds-eberhardt-press-organizer.jpgJustseeds Organizer. There is simply no lovelier planner anywhere, and your purchase will support the worker-owned Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

Pros: Visually stunning, especially if you are a sucker for woodcuts like me. Art on the art pages and clean, unfussy design on the calendar pages. Available in two different sizes.

Cons: 2018 edition is not available yet (the link will take you to the 2017 edition). Two weeks on each two-page spread would cramp my planning style, especially given that the larger version is only 5×8″.

slingshot organizer

Slingshot Organizer. Feeling a little blue about your decision to become a tool of the institutional church? Keep your radical streak alive with the Slingshot Organizer (you can find it at Microcosm Publishing if you’d rather not buy it from Amazon).

Pros: DIY/zine aesthetic. I used a Slingshot for a year and really liked it, especially the inclusion of important dates in labor history and the list of key phrases in various languages (e.g., “freedom and mutual aid” and “Where is the library?”). Two-page spread for each week. Comes in a bunch of colors and two different sizes.

Cons: DIY/zine aesthetic, which is not everybody’s thing. 2018 edition is not available yet (links will take you to the 2017 edition). Some of the art may startle your parishioners when you open your planner at the stewardship meeting. Also, at 5.5×8.5″, I found even the large version of this planner to be slightly too small.

Fancy Pinterest-Minded Planners

bullet journalBullet Journal. I understand that the “Bullet Journal” is, uh, not a planner but a movement. To me, Bullet Journaling just seems like an unnecessarily labor-intensive way of keeping a to-do list. However, if you watch the video and decide it’s a method that suits you, by all means go for it. You can spring for the fancy branded journal linked above, or just get yourself a nice plain notebook.

Pros: If you are naturally artistic, Bullet Journaling gives you lots of room for creativity. You can do it in any old notebook, rather than springing for an expensive planner. The little symbols seem to really work for a lot of people.

Cons: Did I already say “unnecessarily labor-intensive way of keeping a to-do list”? Also, if you are not naturally artistic, don’t spend too much time looking at Bullet Journal exemplars on Pinterest or it will give you the blues.

passion plannerPassion Planner. For keeping your staff meetings and your deepest passions all in one place, a concept which I find sometimes appealing and sometimes annoying, depending on the day.

Pros: Visually elegant. Includes space for reflection and dreaming about the future. Available in multiple colors and sizes, and in academic-year, calendar-year, or undated format. Again, if you are naturally artistic, the Passion Planner will give you room to go wild.

Cons: To me, this seems like a planner for someone who is already extremely organized. Between the “weekly layouts,” “monthly layouts,” and “passion roadmaps,” I would mix myself up and miss a dental appointment in no time.

plum paperPlum Paper Planner. The infinitely customizable planner for the modern age. If you enjoy scrapbooking, or perhaps if you enjoy the idea of scrapbooking but would prefer someone else to mess around with the scissors and glue, Plum Paper is for you.

Pros: Colorful and visually appealing. Available in many patterns and sizes. You can add seven custom daily sections, and there are various additional page packs available for purchase (e.g., wedding planning, baby planning, and fitness planning, not to mention homeschooling and direct sales if you are into such things).

Cons: The scrapbook aesthetic, especially in the workplace, is not to everyone’s taste. Also, customization is expensive. The 8.5×11″ planners start at $42, but can quickly double in price, depending on how much stuff you want to add.

erin condren lifeplannerErin Condren Lifeplanner. Not quite as customizable as Plum Paper, but another solid choice for clean layout and pretty designs.

Pros: Styles range from stolid boardroom (black and navy faux-leather covers) to fantastically girly (sparkly flowers everywhere!!!!). The calendar pages are available in three different layouts to suit your scheduling style. Also comes in a hard-bound edition, if you find spiral bindings annoyingly snaggy. Included are a pouch, folder, and one million stickers.

Cons: These things start at $55 and climb quickly in price as you customize them (unless you go for the academic-year student planner, which is not as fancy but begins at a more reasonable $25). I never use those pouch/folder/sticker extras, so to me they just take up extra space.

Whatever tools you choose for planning your new program year, I hope the year itself will be a really really good one. My goal for the year to come is to do all my boring administrative work as efficiently as possible so that I can devote myself to being luxuriously inefficient with the good stuff. Every hour of my workweek that I don’t spend in front of a computer is an extra hour I can spend hanging out at a parishioner’s bedside or quieting my mind to pray.

I’m shopping around for a new planner myself, but I no longer fantasize that choosing the right one will turn me into a different person. I will always have “distinctive” handwriting, unruly hair, and less than zero ability to fake it.

And that’s okay with me now. I have grown — or, more accurately, I am still growing — into exactly the person God made me to be.

Not to say becoming a slightly timelier version of that person would be all bad.

Ordination & Seminary Graduation Gift Ideas

When I was getting ready to be ordained, my dad called me up and said, “So, should we buy you a chalice?”

I thought about it for a minute, trying to imagine what on earth I would do with my own personal silver chalice.

I said, “Is that a thing?”

He said, “I thought so. When I was growing up, if a guy from the neighborhood got ordained, the family always bought him a chalice.”

I don’t know whether the personal chalice is still a custom for Catholic priests, but I was pretty sure I didn’t need one of my own. This did not help my family and friends with ordination gift selection at all. Still, they managed to give me some killer presents, several of which I use every single day. If you are on the hunt for an ordination gift or seminary graduation gift, here are a few ideas that are all but guaranteed to be well-received:

Diploma/certificate frame. It is pretty awesome to be able to show off your hard-earned ordination certificate or seminary diploma, but good frames are expensive, so often these treasured documents just sit in mailing tubes for years. If you have around $170 to spend and want a gift that is beautiful AND useful, buy your seminarian a frame with that special UV-protective glass so that the diploma won’t fade. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Take your seminarian and her diploma or certificate to a custom frame store and pick out a frame together.
  • Buy your seminarian a gift certificate to a custom frame store (an especially good option if she is about to move and would rather just leave the diploma in the mailing tube until she gets settled).
  • Campus bookstores often sell diploma frames that are decked out with the school crest and stuff. Call your seminarian’s campus bookstore (or check out its website) and see if you can find one.

Magazine subscription. Now, there are some weird Christian magazines out there. I am not suggesting that you buy your new graduate a year’s supply of Above Rubies or Midnight Call. However, any of these could be a nice treat:

Wristwatch. There are many moments in ministry when you need to know the time, yet it is in decidedly poor taste to yank out your phone. (The graveside service that takes place immediately before the funeral, for example.) While it is possible to spend four or five or six or seven figures on a watch, you can also find plenty of elegant and professional options for much much less. Here are a few that I like, including a lot of Timex and Anne Klein at the lower end because neither brand has ever steered me wrong.

Options under $30:

  • Anne Klein Two-Tone (gold/silver-tone band, rectangular white face)
  • Timex Cavatina (black leather band, white face)
  • Timex Uptown Chic (white leather band, white/gold-tone face)
  • Timex Weekender (this version comes with a blue nylon band, but it’s easy to switch out bands to dress it up or down — my wife wears her Weekender with about half a dozen different watchbands, including black leather for dressing up and green-and-yellow nylon for Oregon game days. Go Ducks!)

Options under $50:

Options under $100:

Monogrammed stationery. My priestly life is one long heroic endeavor to keep the U.S. Postal Service in business. Thank-you-for-running-the-evensong-reception notes. I-enjoyed-seeing-you-in-the-school-play notes. Sorry-to-hear-about-the-death-in-your-family notes. The-confirmation-class-appreciated-your-tour-of-the-sacristy notes. Any clergyperson worth her salt is always going to have a use for nice stationery and a decent pen.

Bookstore gift certificate with a heartfelt handwritten note suggesting your favorite religious book, which the recipient may then purchase herself. Why not just give her the book? There are a few reasons, buddy. First of all, she already has three copies of Mere Christianity. Second, books are heavy and she might be about to move. Third, how are you going to feel if you learn that the book that changed your life is, uh, not quite to her taste? Unless you know the recipient and her preferences VERY well, just let her pick the book out herself. With one exception …

Denominational prayer book or hymnal (bonus for engraving!). In my tradition, this is the Book of Common Prayer & Hymnal 1982. It’s cheapest on Amazon, of course, but if you order it from Episcopal Bookstore, you’ll be supporting a small business with great customer service AND they’ll engrave the recipient’s name on it in gold for just $13. Note: This is also a popular farewell gift from church internship sites, so do discreetly find out whether your seminarian already has one.

Why not a Bible? See above. I have an entire SHELF of Bibles in my office, not including the two very nice ones I was presented with at my two ordinations (diaconate and priesthood). It’s a nice thought and the recipient will surely appreciate the spirit of the gift, but you can find something else that will be put to better use.

Stole! Everybody loves a stole! See the Rock That Collar vestment guide for tips on colors and styles. Some sources for clergy stoles (no promises re: taste) are:

Remember, when in doubt, look for quality fabrics and simple design. A stole like this might make a good wall hanging, but woe to the Episcopalian or Lutheran who tries to pull off such a thing at the Sunday morning service.

Clerical attire. For my ordination, my cousins and aunts banded together and bought me a clergy dress from Casual Priest. It was a wonderfully lavish gift, but darned if I don’t wear that dress at least twice a week, every single week. The cost per wear is plummeting fast.

If you don’t have $220 or an army of relatives to help share the cost, I highly recommend the made-to-measure shirts and dresses from Clergy Image. A gift certificate for any amount is not a bad bet.

Cross necklace. Who needs points for originality when you can give a gift that the recipient will wear every day? As I’ve said before, a good size of cross to wear with a clergy collar is generally 1.5″-2.5″. A few of my favorites (all sterling silver because the quality for the price can’t be beat) are:

Prayer manipulative. Is there a better term for “thing you hold while you pray”? Many world religions use prayer beads or something similar to help focus the mind during prayer. Depending on the recipient’s tradition, a rosary (with beads made from rose quartz, Connemara marble, Murano glass, lapis lazuli, or another pretty stone), Orthodox prayer rope, or set of Anglican prayer beads* can make a beautiful gift.

Almost every Christian tradition uses the cross as a symbol, so a simple wooden holding cross (sometimes called a “hand cross” or “palm cross,” not to be confused with a cross made out of palms) is also a good bet. One of my favorite ordination presents was a wooden cross from ByRon PalmCross, which I love to hold during daily silent contemplative prayer at my church. Rosary beads are too noisy for this purpose, although I confess that I sometimes say a decade of the rosary by counting on my fingers.**

*In my household, we refer to Anglican prayer beads as “the fake rosary.” I’ve never actually met anyone who uses these as part of a regular prayer practice, but I’m sure I will someday.

**I love to pray the rosary, provided I modify the Hail, Holy Queen to make it less depressing and the Fatima Prayer to make it less scary. More on this in some other post.

Travel Communion kit. I just bought a sterling silver necklace at our church rummage sale for $2, so I’m not sure why silver-plated communion items are so preposterously expensive. Almy has the nerve to call its smallest travel kit “economical” at $559. However, if you have an enormous amount of money or a LOT of relatives who want to chip in for a gift, some clergy like to have their own travel Communion kits. Engraving the kit with the recipient’s initials is a charming personal touch and will also prevent other clergy from mistaking it for their own.

Nice leather bag. To replace the ubiquitous grad-student backpack. My first pick will always be a black leather tote big enough to hold a laptop and a prayer book. Some nice choices (all under $200, some under $100) include:

Massage gift certificate. Because not EVERY gift has to last a lifetime. Most graduate students are very short on money or time or both, and small luxuries often drop way down to the bottom of the priority list. I assure you that the gift of a nice massage will be very, very, very much appreciated.

Did you receive a treasured ordination gift that isn’t on this list? What do you like to give to friends who are completing seminary or getting ordained? Let me know in the comments!

Rock That Collar: Featured on Beauty Tips for Ministers!

I’m a longtime fan of Beauty Tips for Ministers, a blog by PeaceBang, otherwise known as my fellow Massachusetts clergywoman the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein. She writes about clergy image and style, offering plenty of beauty tips but also so much more:

So you can only imagine my pure giddiness at being featured on BTFM.

Read the post here.

And don’t worry … Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged: Part 2 is on its way. I have a LOT of thoughts about how you should look in a cassock.