It's been a year since I had my heart broken. After more than 20 years, I'm no longer a pastor.
Oh, I wanted to be. The course of my search lasted nearly three years. I sent my profile to searching congregations, very carefully chosen to increase the likelihood of a match.
There are "generic" pastors. I am not one of them. So I took serious stock of who I am, how the Spirit manifests in me, where I've been, etc. Then I read between the lines of every employment opportunity blurb, scoured websites and had countless conversations with numerous Conference staff persons to "pre-screen" in an effort to make for a more-effective search. I'm not stupid or naïve. I am not so much an optimist as a person who refuses to let hope die.
When I got my 73rd rejection, via yet another form letter, I wept until I laughed. Thankfully, I was at a retreat, with dear colleagues who wept and laughed with me.
A newsletter article I'd read just that week told another pastor's tale of 140 rejections before a call was found. We scoffed at my measly 73 no-thank-yous. I was only half-way there! I'm not sure what put me over the edge to tears. Seventy-two rejections? No problem. Seventy three? Something in me shriveled.
When a church I'd fallen in love with phoned to say no-go, I was up to 84. That's the one that took away my joy for 24 hours. And though I had six more rejections to go, from applications already sent, I knew I was through. Done. Kaput. Over. Enough already.
I've wrestled with questions like, "What kind of God calls a person to ministry, then slams the door shut after twenty-three fruitful years?" "Where is God in rejection?" "What did I do to contribute to my own unemployment?" "Where is Jesus in those search committees, besides (mostly) notably absent?" "Does the UCC national ad campaign extend to clergy?" "How useful is the UCC search and call process if gifted folks like me can't get a call?" And many others.
I have, of course, begun to make peace with myself, with the institution and admittedly, to a lesser extent, with search committees. Maya Angelou writes, "Bitterness eats the heart of the host." Enough said.
But I also know that if I don't share this story, I am responsible not only for my own silence, but for the resounding echoes of that silence in the life of the church. I want others who experience an inability to receive a call to know that they are not alone, as I often have felt. I want others to know there is no shame in rejection. In fact, we are in very good company with Jesus, whose presence has been a certain kind of buoyancy for me.
"Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life's tempestuous seas." I want others to know that the issues raised in all these rejections go far beyond me, or you, or any one individual. They are systemic, and they demonstrate the enormous fears underlying searches, and they won't be fixed anytime soon.
I'm fortunate to be employed in higher education, as a clerk. Writing 1,150 sermons gave me an opportunity to learn to type fast. And I have good phone manner. And I follow through. I earn $15 an hour, and that's a whole lot more than many people earn. So I am grateful. Truly.
But the church has been robbed.
The Rev. Jan Powers lives in Granby, Mass., and works part time as a self-described "music maven" at Belchertown (Mass.) UCC.