Let’s talk about giving up dreams.
I was somewhere around five years old when I first said I wanted to be a preacher. I think I liked the idea of delivering sermons, of being an expert in holy stories and wise advice. But fundamentally, my experience of ministers is that they were kind men. I wanted more than anything to be kind someday—I knew very well the damage that unkind men could cause. Having set my sights on a pastoral vocation, I committed to that path with single-minded determination.
On a Wednesday night in 1983 I preached my first sermon. There were no boys older than I was, and I had no model for what was expected of me other than the adult men. They took turns preaching during the midweek service, so I figured I should, too. Our little church, the East Side Church of Christ, was about forty people at the time, of which my family—little brother, parents, grandparents, great-aunt and great-uncle, constituted about a fifth. Most of those forty, like us, were thrice-weekly attenders, showing up Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night for services that were effectively identical in form, varying only in the degree of formality. I figured even a sixth-grader could preach on a Wednesday, the service traditionally reserved for encouraging the faltering efforts of those new to the pulpit. I asked; the elders agreed. I chose “confessing sins” as my theme. That’s hilarious in retrospect, as I was eleven years old, and I don’t think I’d committed any actual sins yet. Armed with the NIV Bible I had received from my grandparents on my tenth birthday, plus an article entitled “I Have Sinned,” from the latest issue of Teenage Christian magazine, I delivered my homily. “Wonderful, wonderful!” said Sister Lois, my great champion, afterward. The men shook my hand. “Well done!” The older folks were in general agreement that I’d “make a fine preacher someday.”
We met in a small, plain building off a side road, effectively hidden from society. I remember when we added carpet down the central aisle, installed ceiling fans, built a lobby. In the lobby were bathrooms, a glorious improvement both because of their relative luxuriousness and, more important, their location at the entrance of the building. Previously, in my elementary years, if one felt the urge to pee during worship, a trip to the front of the building was required—the original toilets were located on either side of the pulpit. In spite of a general unspoken agreement to let such trips take place without comment, one couldn’t help but feel the eyes of the congregation with each step forward—or worse, the eyes of the song leader or preacher. Perhaps the founding members found poetry in placing base humanity in proximity to the divine, but the next generation held a successful funding drive to restore some privacy to the privies.
When I was sixteen our little church remained between preachers for a long stretch, a year or more. We couldn’t pay much, so even though the preaching job came with the free use of the three-bedroom parsonage beside the church building, our ministers usually didn’t stay for more than a couple of years. As the search for our next official preacher dragged on, I was promoted to the Sunday morning rotation, and preached monthly. I’d collected a few public speaking awards by then and felt reasonably confident behind the pulpit. From my vantage point now, thirty years hence, I can’t picture what those sermons must have been like, and I can’t remember any of my texts or topics. I do remember, though, the continued encouragement of the congregation. For the first time, it looked like our little church was going to produce a preacher, and the gray heads were delighted. I took their pleasure as confirmation that I was on the right track.
So: Off to college for a degree in biblical studies. That was followed by a lingering bout of atheism, during which I went to grad school for communication studies. Then my faith rebounded (long story there) and back to seminary for a Master of Divinity degree, and eventually a doctorate in ministry. I did my best to shore up my weak spots, build on my strengths, learn how to serve the church well.
In my early 30s I landed at a reasonably healthy church that was having trouble navigating some key transitions. They had dropped from just over 500 members to barely over 400 and wanted someone to help them get back on track. Figuring out what was broken in the system and designing new structures, it turns out, is something I’m pretty good at. Three years later we were over 500 again. I started getting calls, a few a month, from other churches who were dealing with declines and wanted to see if I’d come help them grow again, too. “Thank you, but no, I’m happy here,” I said again and again.
I did leave, eventually, to go to a church that–rare, for Churches of Christ–opened up public leadership positions to women. My theology was increasingly feminist and I had a daughter by then, so an egalitarian congregation was able to get my attention. We made a cross-country move for that church. It had an outstanding reputation, came highly recommended, and had the most dysfunctional leadership I’ve ever encountered. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen my fair share of dysfunctional leaders, and this eldership was out to set some new records. I had never before watched church leaders stand up and blatantly lie to a congregation. Not subtle “maybe they misunderstood” kind of lies, but “we literally just agreed to something and now they are standing up and saying the opposite.” Sometimes the lies involved me. My favorite was “due to the recession, our church budget is getting tighter, and Kirk has graciously agreed to a salary freeze.” We hadn’t even discussed that possibility. But there was no point discussing it after that announcement. It was clear that my salary was frozen. I could be gracious about it, as advertised, or call the elders out as liars in front of the church and enjoy being fired. Not a great choice. The list of impossible demands and conflicting expectations got longer and longer. My job performance suffered as I got more and more stressed just trying to survive as an honest person in a system that rewarded deception. Again and again I was offered the choice to live quietly with lies or speak up and take my bruises. I lasted there 25 months, a tenure that was both (1) frankly amazing, given how miserable I was and (2) incredibly stupid, given how miserable I was. I should have been sending my résumé out by month three.
As a sign of how dysfunctional things were, I don’t really know if I quit or was fired. I was on my way out, anyway, and everyone probably knew it, but then the elders announced that the next week was going to be my last week, and so it was. I had planned to stay until I had a job lined up. They wouldn’t allow me that.
By the time we crawled away from the flames of that disaster, I didn’t have the emotional reserves to try to serve another church right away. So, hey–remember all that grad work I did in communication when I was an atheist? That was our lifeline to something else. I started teaching community college speech classes, first as an adjunct, but then full-time, after just a year. Pretty amazing, really, because you might not think it, but even community college jobs are pretty hard to get these days, and my résumé didn’t exactly scream “I long to work in academia.” It screamed, quite loudly “I trained hard for the ministry and then something went wrong.” I suspect a lot of people reading my application assumed I had had an affair.
So, I started teaching. Community college teaching is bizarrely low-stress. It’s amazing. I don’t have to submit lesson plans. I don’t have to deal with parents. If I’m not being overtly terrible, my chair leaves me alone and lets me run my class as I see fit. I’m pretty good at it, and I like my students, although I can’t really shake a sort of pastoral sensibility that communicates “I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.” To be honest, I communicate that more clearly to my students than I ever managed to do with churches. Students drop by my office and we talk about their life crises and college stresses, and sometimes I’m able to give some useful answers and sometimes all I can do is listen supportively, which I hope helps, too. Occasionally I get emails a year or two after a student has left my classes. One young woman, a military veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan, credited my public speaking class with helping her manage her PTSD and transition back into civilian life. One young man credited my interpersonal class with giving him the tools to save his marriage. As job satisfaction goes, one could do worse. And then there’s always “I thought I’d hate this class, but you made it interesting–thanks!” I get a few of those at the end of every semester. Those are nice, too. Not as nice as being a rich neurosurgeon who saves lives all the time–a career path I wish, in retrospect, I had taken up–but the notes are good.
After about four years of teaching, I felt sufficiently recovered from America’s Most Dysfunctional Church to start applying for ministry positions again. I had a doctorate, a record of helping churches grow, and five years earlier I was routinely fielding calls from interested congregations. How hard could it be to land a new ministry job?
Very hard, it turns out. It didn’t take long for everyone to forget about me. It also didn’t help that I was now way over on the far-left edge, theologically, for Churches of Christ. I did find some churches that really liked me—one in New England, and another in Salt Lake City. I could have uprooted my family and crossed the country for a church that looked like a good fit. But we’d done that once and it nearly killed us. I wasn’t keen on leaving Texas again. Maybe you could get me to a state that borders Texas. But Boston? Nope. I just don’t have it in me to do that again.
About three years ago I got as as close as you can get to a ministry job without actually landing it. I was on the job-offer runway with my landing gear down on a nice calm day, and then two engines blew up and a wing fell off. Nice-sized church, near a university. Had an absolute blast my interview weekend. The search committee recommended that the elders hire me. The church, overall, was clearly supportive. I was ready to move. But in the final interview the elders asked me a question on a particularly contentious point of theology. I knew they wouldn’t like my answer. It was one of those rare moments in life when you know that the next sixty seconds will determine the next six years. I could lie, and the job was mine. I could tell the truth, and it would go to the next candidate on their shortlist.
I don’t lie. I’m not sure that’s a moral strength; it’s more like a weird compulsion. I’m the exact psychological opposite of a pathological liar. I’m a pathological truth teller, even when it hurts me–even when it accomplishes nothing useful. I’m not proud of this fact. They asked me a direct question. I breathed out and glanced at Sandy. She knows how I am; she knew how this was about to play out.
I answered their question.
It took two weeks for them to call and say they’d gone with someone else. I’m not surprised—a lot of people were advocating for me, and it’s hard to go against the emphatic recommendation of the search committee. But they thought I was too liberal. By their standards, I guess they were right. Sandy burst into tears as I hung up the phone. It’s one thing to know what’s coming, it’s another to get the call.
They offered the job to the committee’s distant second-place choice. He had a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and hadn’t thought much deeper about theology than they had. I was perversely delighted when he turned them down, and they went another year without a preacher. They deserved to flounder for a while—not for realizing I wasn’t what they wanted, but for waiting until the final moments of a six-month process to spring a make-or-break question on me. They should have sent a checklist of their required opinions at the start.
There have been a few other near misses. I had an open door in another denomination, but as much as I loved them, ultimately, I wasn’t up to learning a new ecclesial language and acclimating to a new culture. I could have gone to a dying church with no children left, but I wouldn’t do that to my kids. And while I think I’m well-equipped to turn faltering churches around, I can’t raise the dead.
Four years out of ministry became five, then six, then more. It’s now been nine years, six months, and three days. The fact that I know that without having to think about it says something. I really only ever had one dream. But I’ve realized that the odds are getting smaller. My network was never big, and now I’ve been out of the loop a long time. I can’t get away to ministry conferences and networking events. I’m a has-been. I had a few good years. It looked like I had potential. I could have made a fine preacher. And then it was over. The math looks like this: as my years out of ministry grow longer and longer, the list of churches I would be willing to leave my low-stress college life for grows shorter and shorter, and so does the list of churches willing to offer me a job. The odds of a match shrink inexorably. It’s not impossible that it could happen, but it doesn’t seem likely.
And here are some more truths. I’m the only one in this little five-person family who has any interest in going anywhere else. My kids are quite happy with their friends, their schools, their church. They aren’t interested in giving any of that up. Sandy’s happy to stay, too. The only one with bouts of restlessness is me—restless to give up these nice notes, this low stress, to do the thing that I felt (feel?) designed to do; the thing that nearly killed us.
In some lights, what I’ve been doing the last five years—sending out résumés, calling churches—seems equal parts stupid and selfish, with no room left for “wise” or “loving.” A small town on the outskirts of Houston is, for me, about the ideal place to live. This community has everything I want. The little Bible Institute where I first trained for ministry at age 19—fifteen heartbreaks and two major faith crises in the past—has invited me to teach their communication-focused classes, one a semester. I cover preaching, Bible teaching, leading small groups. I get to pass on a little of what I learned to a diverse group of men and women who will, I hope, put those skills to use in churches longer than I did. I get to preach often enough, at our home congregation or elsewhere, that I haven’t completely forgotten how. I taught this year at the Christian summer camp I grew up in. Those ministry degrees aren’t completely wasted. And I know I wouldn’t be the father, the teacher, thepersonI am without all those years studying theology with wise mentors. Young Kirk had a lot to sort out, and it might have taken three degrees and a few thousand books to do it, but I think it got done. I think, most days, I am a kind man.
My department chair and I recently talked the powers that be into approving me to teach Intro to Philosophy. Adding philosophy to the mix has raised my job satisfaction enormously. I love my students, but public speaking is the worst thing to teach. It’s terrible. No intellectually stimulating content, and you have to listen to hundreds of poorly-prepared speeches from anxious pupils every semester. I’m good at teaching speech, but it bores me. Philosophy, though, is fun. I’m reading ancient texts with students and talking about how we should live. We’re tackling the big questions of life. What does it mean to be good? Is there a god? What are our ethical obligations? Three days into my summer course a student told me that he had illegally downloaded a PDF of the textbook, but after our first discussion of ethics he ordered the book and paid for it. That feels like something is happening. On paper, I’m not the most qualified person to teach this class, but I defy you to find someone who loves teaching it as much as I do.
If this is how things are going to be—philosophy with students during the week, practical ministry classes a few Saturdays a year, being a happy church volunteer on Sundays—I think I can maybe stop updating my ministry résumé.
Would I rather be on staff at a church? Yes, almost certainly. But that’s, like, 8% more satisfying. It would be an improvement, but I’m not going to ask my family to give up their connections here for an 8% bump. And the kind of church that would give me that bump isn’t interested in talking to me, anyway.
This is the dilemma of mid-life isn’t it? When do you admit something just isn’t going to happen again? What’s the dividing line between giving up and wising up? When should you learn to say “I had something once, and it was lovely, and I wish I been able to hold onto it longer, but life didn’t work out that way. And this–this life, this place, this moment—it’s good, too. This is the kind of life someone else desperately wishes they could have, the sort of life a man ought to appreciate, instead of clinging to a gossamer vision from his kindergarten year.”
There’s a line from Jessamyn West: You make what seems a simple choice: choose a man or a job or a neighborhood- and what you have chosen is not a man or a job or a neighborhood, but a life. I believed that I was on a ministry hiatus, a sort of extended sabbatical. I believed that I was actually a pastor, biding my time until the right church came along. My kids don’t know that, though.Theythink I am really a college teacher. They believe this is actually our life.
It has taken me almost a decade, but I understand now. They are right.