Monday, May 13, 2019

Book Review: Losing My Religion by William Mills

There is a common saying in ministry: is the parish your world or is the world your parish? My parish was my world. I lacked balance. Somewhere between college and my ordination I lost track of who I was. Yes I was pastor and rector of a parish, but I was also a husband, dad, gardener, cook, nature lover, bibliophile, writer, and friend. I was a movie lover and explorer. I put my life on hold because of ministry. I needed to embrace other areas of life that gave me joy, otherwise the parish would crush me.  - William C. Mills, Losing My Religion

Pastoral ministry is difficult.

To anyone who has spent any actual length of time in the vocation, this statement is an obvious one. To those who have only experienced church life from the vantage point of the pew, they may have some inkling, albeit just so. And those who perhaps have had a glimpse into the hard and ugly side of the profession are still intermixed with others who don't see what the big deal is, who believe their pastor "only works one day a week," who think that every problem in the church can be solved with a few quick fixes, if only Pastor Joe would listen to me.

Oftentimes, the real difficulty of pastoral ministry isn't in the schedule. It's not in the weekly grind of sermon and worship preparation or the extra obligations that a wedding or funeral brings. No, the true difficulty of being a pastor comes from the emotional energy that it demands. From "getting up" for leading worship to visitation to fielding complaints to helping preside over contentious discussions or meetings, the true drain on a person in ministry is less about time and more about emotional investment in the performance, personal interaction, and responsiveness that this profession entails.

In Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding, William C. Mills shares his own journey of emotional investment, and the toll that it takes on him during his earliest years of serving as a priest in the Orthodox tradition. He begins his story with his family of origin, slowly tracing his discovery of a call to ministry from his family's involvement in the church of his upbringing through his seminary years and into his first pastorate.

His stories of early struggles in his new role may be familiar to fellow clergy, as he discovers that the people of his church are less interested in the rigorous theological ponderings that fueled his seminary years and more in what kind of bagels to serve at an event. He details his experience of culture shock from academy to parish, grounding his account in how he feels and reacts to each occurrence of the mundane and trivial that often defines ministry on a daily basis, much more than the grand transformative visions that many new pastors bring with them to the job.

The greater happening that redefines Mills' experience comes during a congregational meeting during which they discuss the budget for the coming year. One gatekeeper of the church stands and argues against a proposed raise for the pastor, and is able to sway everyone to vote against that line item. This is the latest data point in a long line of small aggressions against Mills by this person and his wife, which leads to a confrontation and eventual splitting of the church.

Mills describes his own personal take on the fallout from these series of events, describing feelings of burnout, anxiety, depression, and a desire to leave ministry in favor of pretty much any other career. The emotional toll that this takes is devastating, leading him to seek counseling and, eventually, greater balance in his life where ministry is no longer his primary source of personal fulfillment.

Losing My Religion will sound familiar to those who have been in ministry, and it may be eye-opening for the average pew-sitter. It may be the wake up call that both sides need: for the latter, a greater realization that their pastor needs taking care of, and for the former, a greater need for balance and recharging.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)