It seems rare to experience prejudice in my situation: white, educated, an ordained minister, author of six books, university lecturer…
But the prejudice has nothing to do with any of those categories. Rather, it has to do with “The Big C.”
Cancer is something I’ve contended with since age 52. I’m now 61.
It began as colon cancer
was removed by surgery
then appeared six years later in my abdomen
was removed by surgery
then appeared again in the abdomen
was removed by radiation
then appeared again in four locations (abdomen, liver, colon and tailbone)
was removed by chemotherapy.
Today I have “no active cancer.”
But all this while I have been looking for a church, and getting turned down.
I’m 61–not ready to retire–still feeling the call to be a pastor. I have been ordained for 21 years, and have worked in three congregations.
But since major surgery in the Spring of 2013, I have been unemployed — two whole years now.
I needed half a year to recover from the major surgery. But thereafter I have been able to function even with the illness returning at times. I officiate four sports in the PIAA (the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) — baseball, softball, soccer and field hockey. That’s a lot of running and stamina!
I have been doing guest-preaching at churches here & there in the Pittsburgh area, and have kept an active blog site. With this blog today, I have done now 78 in 155 days.
I have had some close calls. Search committees have shown much interest — have done interviews with me — listened to sermon CDs — told me that my blogs are “fantastic” — but in the end, it has always been the same thing: The e-mail or the letter. As soon as I get it, I don’t even have to read it — I know what it says. Because if they want to continue with another interview or arrange a visit to the church, they normally don’t send a letter. They call.
The normal phrasing in these letters or e-mails begins: “After prayerful consideration” they’ve decided not to proceed with me. I’ve grown to detest that opening sentence: “After prayerful consideration…”
One time, however, I did get a phone call. That’s how close I was to being selected. I guess they figured they owed me at least a phone call instead of a letter. The phone call was from a member of the search committee — it’s called a Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).
I should mention that in theology, I am a progressive. I don’t take the Bible word-for-word, I believe much of it is myth (as in the creation stories and the Flood and the birth accounts of Jesus) and hyperbole (the Sun darkens when Jesus dies on the Cross). I am pro-gay, pro-science (believing in evolution rather than creationism)…So I have learned to apply only to churches that are progressive.
It’s easy to tell which churches are progressive vs. which ones are not. When I look up the churches’ profiles on the web site of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I look for words like “inclusive” (meaning they are open to gays attending and being church officers like elders and deacons) and “thought-provoking sermons.” By contrast, conservative churches use words like “family” and “Bible-based sermons.”
Sometimes a church just comes right out and says, “We are a progressive congregation.” Some belong to the More Light association of Presbyterian churches. “More Light” refers to a phrase written by a preacher who was afloat on the Mayflower, anticipating that God had “more light” to shed as believers entered a new world. The “more light” being shed today concerns — gender equality.
The progressive churches are the only ones I apply to. They’re the only ones that someone with my theology would have a chance of getting hired at.
But even the progressive churches have been turning me down. The one time I got a phone call instead of a letter of rejection, I asked the member of the Pastor Nominating Committee in complete surprise: “I thought things were going well. The chairwoman of the PNC sent me an e-mail saying that the interview went well. I got an e-mail from the presbytery saying I should anticipate a visit. What happened?”
She responded, “We thought you were too traditional.”
That’s when it became apparent to me. The reason they gave me wasn’t the real one. The real reason I was turned down was — the Big C. My medical history was scaring them away.
That’s when I realized that as widespread as cancer is — affecting one out of eight Americans — there is much misunderstanding about it. A person with cancer can still function. In fact, I have had cancer at all three of the congregations where I have pastored. I was able to do the work. If I hadn’t told anybody, I doubt if they’d have known I had the illness at all — except in the first congregation, where I had to take time off for surgery.
Indeed, I have been advised by a staffer in the denomination not to tell interviewers of my medical history. (My oncologist concurs.) I’ve been advised, if you can function without a problem, then it’s no problem — you don’t need to reveal it to the search committee.
But a pastoral position is different from other types of work. The calling is so relational with those in the congregation. Openness is expected in the interviews. The search committee wants to know exactly what they’re getting should they decide to recommend to the congregation that this person be hired.
So — I’m open. And no doubt it costs me. The normal process for getting hired by a congregation is that it takes 12 to 18 months. I passed the 18-month mark back in March.
Let’s go, people — I’m due!