Stranded and exhausted in the middle of a lake is not, I found out, a good place for a full blown vocational crisis. As is the case with most meltdowns, there were signs that one was coming, and yet I plowed ahead anyway, and in a lake no less.
My memory goes like this: I arrived at the Collegeville Institute in the summer of 2012, eager to write and learn from one of the spiritual writing greats, Kathleen Norris. It was a sabbatical-activity-dream-come-true to be one of ten writers gathered to attend the Theology in the Real World with Kathleen Norris workshop.
During my week at Collegeville, however, I struggled to write much of anything. I was intimidated—wondering if I was a writing imposter. I was also experiencing what you might call high-level vocational anxiety. This sabbatical was turning out to be a three-month struggle over whether or not I was well-suited for congregational ministry. I felt (and still feel) bad admitting that, since sabbaticals are usually designed to energize and renew one’s ministry. Instead I was questioning whether congregational work was the best setting for me to live out my Christian vocation.
And so there I was at Collegeville, avoiding my writing assignments for the week and, instead, going on long walks and swims. And it was during one such swim that my vocational meltdown occurred. I waded into the lake and started to swim, with no particular goal in mind, other than to move my body and try to shake off the growing anxiety I was feeling. I kept swimming and swimming. Before I knew it, I was far from either shore. I had to decide what to do—keep going to the other, unknown shore, or turn around. And just like that I felt this aching, familiar indecision that has plagued me for so long—that parlaying and agonizing tug between wanting to explore new waters and staying put. I had long feared that this tug would eventually tear me apart. I had not imagined this occurring in the middle of a lake in Minnesota.
What put me over the top that day, other than feeling physically exhausted, was that when I finally stopped swimming I looked up and saw, there on the shore where I began, the Abbey church poking through the trees, looking beautiful and formidable at the same time. When I heard the church bells ringing, I figured it was best to turn around and head back, and yet I resisted. My whole life has been oriented around the church, maybe not a towering steeple, but a sanctuary with the sounds of organ, calls to prayer, and so on. The church has always been a compass for me.
That day in the lake, my own self-doubts, and my grievances and disappointments with the Mennonite Church and Christianity in general, could not be ignored. I wanted to swim away from, not toward the church. But what would I be swimming toward if I went to the unknown shore? There were only trees and a primitive looking building on the other side. What would I find on the shore of a new vocation? I feared what this choice would mean for me. And so I floated on my back for a while, tears falling in the lake.
Fortunately one of the lifeguards on duty had seen me go out and somehow sensed I might be in trouble. Before I knew it he was beside me standing on his Tom Sawyer-like raft. Who knows? Maybe he saved a life that day and he didn’t even know it. Seeing him come toward me allowed me time to catch my breath and stop sobbing. He made sure I was ok; I lied and said I was fine. “What’s on the other side of the lake?” I asked. “How about we find out together?” he said. “It’s the same distance either way. Your choice.”
So off we went, with me swimming alongside the raft. And when we got to the other shore, he dropped me off at the foot of Stella Maris chapel—an isolated place of spiritual retreat. After poking around a bit, I enjoyed a long walk back to campus through the woods of Minnesota, barefoot, alone, cold, and exhausted, but grateful to be alive and strangely content.
During that walk home and many times since, I’ve thought about all of the people, like that lifeguard, who have offered me a metaphorical raft, often coming alongside me at just the right moment when the various tugs threatened to undo me. Something even more profound happened on that walk home. I kept hearing the lifeguard’s words, “Your choice.” Thanks to his reassurance, I realized that I really did have a choice of whether I stayed or left congregational ministry, and that if I did indeed leave being a pastor, I would be ok too because people, like this lifeguard, would accompany me as I found out what was on the other side.
I ended up not leaving my job as a pastor. Actually, I returned to where I was serving more energized than ever before, with a new-found joy and freedom. What I left behind in that lake, along with my tears, was a sense of obligation and duty. And what I gained was a new-found confidence that I could actually choose this vocational path for no other reason than because I believed it had beautiful potential.
I won’t go so far as to say that my swim was a re-baptism, but it was an experience of reorientation and transformation that has had a profound effect on me, and that keeps me afloat even when so much still threatens to unravel me.
So hats off to you, Collegeville. I knew that eventually, even if five years later, some piece of writing would come from that writing workshop. More importantly, it helped launch me into another five years of pastoral ministry. I’m still afloat, thrashing around now and then, but looking forward to another five. Lifeguards everywhere, beware.
Jenni Ho-Huan says
Dear Ruth, thank you for writing this. As a fellow pastor who has also experienced hurt, I understand your crisis. In fact, when I look over my journals, I find that I revisit my vocation and need re-orientation, very often! This is perhaps what faithfulness looks like too. Bless you.
Marguerite Sheehan says
Thank you Ruth. As a writer, swimmer and pastor who is readying myself for sabbatical, perhaps even some time at Collegeville, I appreciate your testimony to the need to lay ourselves out; in the water, on retreat, wherever we find ourselves, and to accept help as we slowly redirect. Blessings and thank you!
Bob Carlson says
I have been deeply blessed by your ministry. Thank you for sharing your encounter with “the waters that surrounded and threatened you”! I celebrate your bouyancy! & consider that a gift to the rest of us at Rainbow!
Ruth Johnston says
Thank you for this beautiful piece. I resonate with your experience. As a Mennonite I strongly believe that what we do and how we live matters. However at one point in my chaplaincy ministry I found myself with a wilting sense of duty and the loss of the understanding that we never need to earn God’s love, it is freely given and precedes everything, including our choice of vocation. When I accepted that my vocation as chaplain was not “required” but a gift I could choose to accept or not, I was able to live into my ministry with love rather than duty. Thank you for a piece of writing that illustrates this struggle and the freedom God extends to us.