by Stephen Toth • Sunday, October 11, 2020
I have been feeling rather uncomfortable lately, and I choose to blame it on Pastor Vance. It really isn’t his fault, but don’t we blame everything in the church on the pastor? I have been taking part in the MCC Discovery Class online and the last part was a Spiritual Gifts Inventory and then a private meeting with the pastor to discuss the results and how those could fit into the life and ministry of St. John’s MCC. While I was not surprised by the results of the Inventory, I guess I was hoping for something a little different since I had convinced myself and grown quite comfortable with the idea that the Spiritual Gifts I once had as a pastor in South Carolina in the United Methodist Church were somehow magically given by the Bishop when I was ordained and given the title Reverend had just as easily vanished, and I was no longer required to have them when I surrendered my credentials in 2010, but now suddenly here they were staring at me again, and I had already sent an email to the pastor saying if I can help in any way, please let me know. Now here is the pastor, with my spiritual gifts inventory, looking at me, and reminding me of one of my former priests just before confession time, and me wondering how much trouble have I gotten myself into this time?
I have long learned in my spiritual life that when I am uncomfortable in my spirit it is because God is trying to get my attention and it usually means things are about to change, and change can be very uncomfortable for any of us, but our best growth takes place in times of discomfort and change. Of the many times in my life, the one that I remember the most because it changed my entire understanding of how I approached ministry was in 1997 when I was preparing for my journey to become an elder or a full member of the South Carolina Annual Conference. One of the requirements was that you have to complete a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Since I was serving two churches already in Abbeville County in the Anderson District of the UMC, there were really only two choices to do this requirement while still serving a local church; either at Anderson Area Medical Center as it was called then or Patrick Harris Psychiatric Hospital.
I was sitting in a District Meeting where the two chaplains of those Hospitals had been invited to give their speech as to why you should do your CPE with them and then those of us who needed the credit were required to choose one that evening. I had already planned to choose the “safe option” that everyone had already told me to do, which was Anderson Area Medical Center. Just like normal visitation in a hospital really, no difference in and out, and soon the summer will be over and you can get back to “real ministry” so I had been told. Suddenly the moment came and the Chaplain from Anderson Area Medical Center was giving his speech and I smiled and listened thinking yes this will be easy and comfortable sign me up for this one and then bless his soul the chaplain from Patrick Harris had his turn and I thought lots of luck with your speech. As he began, suddenly I realized I was feeling uncomfortable and troubled in my spirit and as clearly as I knew I could hear God’s Spirit speaking to me and saying this one, this is where you need to go. Excuse me God? You want me to do my CPE in a Psychiatric Hospital? Do you know what I may find there? Yes, God said, you will find me already there ahead of you. And God reminded me of my cousin Geoffrey who had recently been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. This had caused quite a stir in the family and no end to issues for his mother as she struggled to come to grips with this. Geoff was quickly labeled by his illness and referred to as a “schizo” or simply as a schizophrenic as if he ceased to be a human and now defined by his disease. As I was arguing with God in this moment, I suddenly realized a fellow colleague and friend of mine was trying to get my attention next to me, I leaned in to hear him and he said to me, I am nervous because I think that is where God wants me to do my CPE. I took his hand and said well hold my hand friend because I think God is putting in some overtime in this corner right now with both of us. So that night, while the other candidates went to the safe route, myself and my colleague signed up for Patrick Harris Psychiatric Hospital to do our CPE.
I won’t lie. My first few days there I was terrified, but suddenly I realized that what made me most uncomfortable was exactly what I needed the most. In that summer I learned more than I ever thought I could learn. I realized how we label people by their illness rather than simply referring to them as someone who is struggling with mental illness. They become their disease and seem to lose their humanity with our labels. I learned how much the church seems to shun those struggling with mental illness and at least at that time made it a don’t ask don’t tell sort of thing and so people and families struggled in silence yearning to have the support and help of their church family and pastor. I learned to be angry at politicians who use mental illness as a wedge issue and who cut funding for mental illness services, leaving persons and families struggling to figure out what to do. I watched treatment teams where the only option was to “treat them and street them” which meant they would be dropped off at the local homeless shelter with a bag of medicine to get them started and a prescription that they knew would not ever be filled and instructions on the regime required to manage their illness. The team knew that in less than a month the person would be back in the Hospital to start the routine all over again, but there was no other option as the state funding was not there. I watched as persons in the hospital struggled to stay in touch with families and their church families because both of them didn’t want to visit them in that place. I remember having a very difficult conversation with a pastor who simply told me that when he was “cured” he would be happy to deal with his member again but not before then. I bluntly told the pastor that he would not ever be dealing with him then because there was no “cure” for the young man’s mental illness; only managing it and finding a supportive family like a church to keep him going.
In that summer I changed as a pastor for the better, I learned that I was too busy playing it safe and wanting to move on up the ladder in the Church rather than allowing God to call me to sometimes make churches a little more uncomfortable. I had learned and been taught that pastors who rock the boat don’t get moved up to better churches with nicer salaries. Please understand that in the United Methodist Church, you are appointed to your church by the Bishop and not by being called by a congregation, so sometimes it came down to who was making the best impression on the Superintendent and the Bishop. Whose numbers in attendance and finance were looking really good and who perhaps had led a building program or even merged two congregations. Those were the ones that got noticed. Not the pastor that called out systemic racism or homophobia in the church or society, and when you are a pastor in rural South Carolina, it was everywhere. I realized though in that summer that God didn’t call me to play it safe but to dare to call myself and the churches that I served to actually follow the teachings of Jesus to work with the least and the marginalized to call out racism and to call it by name and not just ignore it or give a gentle admonishment about it. As some of my churches will probably tell you, Stephen didn’t rock the boat; he flipped it right over at times, and I would have to say guilty as charged. I was told by more than one Superintendent that I would probably never make it that far in leadership if I kept up this reckless attitude. Now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I enjoyed confronting churches at times. It made me uncomfortable and it made my congregations uncomfortable, but we also discovered in that discomfort some of our best transformational moments as God worked to bring new life out of that discomfort. I watched a Trustee who I dismissed because I discovered that he was the leader of the local KKK group come to me a year later having realized what a life of hatred and bigotry had done to him and helping him to find a new way to live. I watched a congregation embrace helping and feeding those who were in need rather than hoping those people would just go away. And I learned that I had to be true to who God had created me to be as a Gay man and that led me to leave the church and to assume that all of this was over.
But God has a way of saying, oh so you thought it was over? Get ready to get uncomfortable Stephen … but rather than run … I have learned to say:
Make me Uncomfortable, Lord. Make me Uncomfortable Today. Amen.