Saturday, April 04, 2009


The following came in as a comment. I edited it a little.

The reality that I am facing now is going through Div School for UU ordination. To be quite honest I am terrified of the financial burden this is taking on my very new one year old marriage. My husband is extremely supportive but it weighs on me. I love school and I love the challenge but I simply cannot decide if it is still worth it, and not even just financially. I am hoping to do hospice chaplaincy and it seems that that is an even more difficult field to pursue with many more years of "internship" status and CPE hours than parish ministry. I wish someone could just give me a YES- it's worth it, or a NO- get out! I know you can't provide me with that answer but I find myself writing you none the less. Maybe it is your frankness I am drawn to?

Okay, then I’ll go right on being frank. I’m a harsh counselor.

First, at Meadville we had an ongoing debate about whether seminary was a place where one went to discover whether one had a “vocation,” as the traditionalists call it, or whether one should go to seminary only AFTER becoming fully resolved and totally dedicated. Neither side ever won. Maybe you’ll recognize that in the earliest day of Christianity the question was whether the people should be allowed to take Communion only AFTER they were fully converted and convinced or whether the experience of taking Communion might bring them into the fold. Neither side ever won. In short, it’s a human dilemma. Ya gotta accept that, though the people around you might not.

If you are married one year and your husband is supportive, he knows what he’s getting into and is sharing the experience. You need to talk to him a LOT. Is part of the worry that if you decide NOT to be a minister, he won’t love you? Some guys love being the Consort of the Queen and that’s how they interpret the husband of the minister. Be sure you keep him aware of how much the Queen is likely to have to do very unqueenly exhausting things. Or might he be thinking that he can sort of be a minister-by-proximity without the struggle of ministerial credentialling? (This is a common female pattern.) Hard, hard questions. What DOES he do? I pray you never have to make a choice, but do not dump ministry in order to save marriage or vice versa. Negotiate. Find the boundaries. Think of trade-offs. Share good times to “put in the bank.”

A “hospice minister” I take to be something like a Clinical Pastoral Care chaplain. They WILL pay you a pittance after you get started, or they did when I took beginners CPE. In terms of jobs, there will be MUCH need as the population ages and becomes more and more afflicted by the environment, but the truth is that when budgets crash religion is the first to go (after the arts), which they are. It’s mostly hospitals and government that would fund a chaplaincy. In my experience both institutions (ANY institution) like chaplains because they keep order. They frame things in terms of conscience and rectitude (works on you, doesn’t it?) to put people on their best behavior. This can pressure patients hard, so you might have to fight the institution. That means risk being fired. The good news is that by the time you graduate, the world economics may be in much better order and include national health care in the USA.

The best way to find out the most about CPE is to sign up for CPE as early in the project as possible -- like now. Look around, investigate, enlist your counselor and upper classmen for advice. You can be a natural hospice counselor, completely suited, but stumble into a bad situation and get curdled. On the other hand, it can be such a break-through experience in such an exceptional context that nothing will ever match it in the future. Eyes open. No shame in a do-over.

You don’t have to do everything at once in a tight three-year schedule. Take a leave of absence to earn money for a year. Or if I were aiming at hospice chaplaincy and doing it all over again, I’d take a Certified Nursing Assistant job for a year or so. They are hungry for help, offer courses that are only months or weeks long, and give you a VERY true picture of what it will be like. If you are imagining yourself on downy wings, softly cruising from bed to bed, sprinkling comfort at you go, it will be a revelation. Death is about physical bodies. True grit in dealing with defiant, filthy, demented, unintelligible, terrified, fragile people might be exactly what suits you and precisely where you are effective.

Talk to people. Go visit hospices, as many as you can find, as different as you can get access to. Collect the stories. The bitter ones might be more help than the uplifting bliss tales. Talk to rabbis. Talk to Buddhists. Talk to militant atheists. Talk to the parents of dying children. Talk to old people -- or maybe listening is better. Most of all, talk to nurses. Forget doctors. They live in their own world. And search through the denominational people -- not all are wonderful but some are.

You need to look around for ministers, esp. among the Unitarians and esp. the female ones. See what you can find that’s written by Judy Urquhart, whose name changes and who sometimes serves English Unitarians. I recall a famous essay about a terrible week when a teen attempted suicide with Tylenol, causing a ghastly long coma and freaked-out parents, there were a couple of other serious illnesses or traumas, and then trouble in her own family. She just about went under and certainly learned about herself.

Money is a problem. Do the Obama: talk to people, negotiate, don’t let it paralyze you, find options. Find options. Money is only money.

Classical ministry is a congregation-based pursuit. That’s who validates and supports you because they believe in you. If you don’t have a congregation already, go find one even if it’s not Unitarian. But ministry, esp. hospice ministry, is not limited by denomination or institution. I’ve got two dying neighbors at the moment, a couple of friends with major health decisions to make, and my own old-lady-hood to manage. Ministry is something we also do in our everyday lives, not just done by ordained persons.

So is seminary worth it on that level? Hell, yes. Erm, heavens, yes!


Art Durkee said...

I have to agree with you on all that you say here.

There's no education like being a hospital worker. What I went through, and what I observed, as my cancer-ridden father's live-in caregiver, and decider of care when he was unconscious in the hospital, was very un-pretty. It all has to be done. And in my mother's final collapse, a half-year after my father died, when she developed diabetes and could not be cared for because of her Alzeheimer's, I had to stand in the emergency room while the nurses and doctors tried to help her, and listen to her screaming that they were trying to kill her, screaming so loud that heads turned all the way across the huge ER chamber. I've got marks on my soul from hearing those screams.

Death is extremely messy, and people should and do take it extremely personally. It's a blessing to have Hospice, to ease the transition, and both of my parents did. They both died in Hospice care, in the last few days or hours. And I believe the Hospice people to be angels.

But what really helped me, one of the survivors, was the counseling services Hospice provides to the living. Their grief counseling is not to be underestimated, in how it helps us go on, even when the world has come to pieces. In this Hospice is even more important. MORE important to the living than to the dying—because the process of dying is a transition not only for the patient, but for the patient's family and friends.

My father was a doctor all his life, too. So I've seen hospitals and ERs and the dying all my life. It can be a messy process, but what I've noticed is that it's most messy when it's denied or deflected or unacknowledged. Repression of death as the natural last stage of life (and probably first stage of another life) does more harm than anything else I can name. Acceptance comes from understanding, not from denial. I've seen some good, peaceful, beautiful deaths, too, in all this; I view my father's death this way, even though I still grieve over my own loss—and grief is very selfish at times, and should be accepted as necessarily so. There are good deaths, and there are horrible deaths. Ask anyone who's ever worked in an ER, and they'll tell you.

prairie mary said...

Deep thanks, Art.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

Mark Vernon, who I read every day, just posted about this topic, too:

In praise of hospital chaplains

Obviously, great minds think alike! :)

Diggitt said...

Hi Mary! Maybe fifteen years ago, you and I were on a Unitarian listserv. This morning I was searching for readings for my congregation's "Easter" service, and saw your name. I am so pleased to find you. I often wondered who Prairie Mary was and didn't dream that you might be a minister or that you might be blogging. This is my lucky day.

I am now a student at Meadville-Lombard myself. It took only 50 years or so for me to accept my vocation!

Going through some of your postings, they are exactly what I remembered you might write. Pulling no punches, wise, gentle when it's needed, and suffering not fools. I look forward to taking some time to read through several years' writings.