10 Hard Lessons I Learning While Priesting and Adulting in 2015 (And 10 Things I’m Doing Differently Because of It)

Red Door Picture MGH

I don’t necessarily hold to arbitrary nature of “New Years” as this magical opportunity to bookend 365 days of living and start anew. Scripture says G-d’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23), so for me every day is an opportunity to reset and start fresh. However, it doesn’t hurt to take some time every now and then and take stock of life and make some conscious choices to try some things differently. New Year’s is as good a time as any, and since so many are in the mood of making resolutions and such, I thought I’d share with you some of my reflections.

Yesterday, I ran across a listicle reflection on Blavity.com where the author mused about the L’s (losses) he took this year while trying to be an adult. Can we pause here and just name how hard it is to be an adult? Adulting is hard. Really hard. The struggle is real. Some days I wake up and wish I could just go outside and play, or sit in my pajamas and watch cartoons (albeit adultish cartoons like “Archer” or “Bob’s Burgers”). Alas, ministry calls.

What I most appreciated about this reflection is that for every “struggle” he presented, he also offered a corresponding “adjustment” – some change in behavior that he was committing to in the New Year.

So, I’m going to borrow that idea and offer a reflection of my life with some adjustments. I am also going to borrow is first struggle (actually, I am borrowing more than a few)…

  1. I didn’t share my voice.

I am a writer. Writing is what I do. Frankly, writing is one of the few things I actually think I am any good at doing. And yet there were many times I wrote pieces this year and I did not share them. My number of unpublished (so-called “shadow”) blogs is astounding (I have thought about collecting them into a book to be published posthumously). Some of the fear was about how it would be received by folks who might disagree or lack understanding of the space from which my voice resonates. Some of it is my own hyper-functioning perfectionism that requires grammatically-pristine, syntactically-perfect, rhetorically-riveting work every single time. Whatever the motivation, the failure to share my voice is mine. It may not be right or perfect, but damn it, it’s mine. One lesson I learned a few years ago while sitting around the table with a bunch if Episcopal priest mentors is this – “say what you have to say and let the chips fall where they may.” I should write this down and put it on a notecard above my desk.

The adjustment: Write and share. Engage those who disagree in conversation, but not shy away from sharing for fear of offending or for fear of it not being “perfect.”

  1. I toned down my personality to fit in.

It is true for Jonathan Jackson who wrote “16 PAINFUL LESSONS I LEARNED IN 2015 WHILE TRYING TO BE AN ADULT” and it is true for me as well. Let’s face it – I am a black, queer man from the South serving a majority white congregation in the Midwest. We represent two very different worlds and worldviews. And. That’s. O. K. In fact, I believe it’s holy. Just a few decades ago this wouldn’t have happened for several reasons, and yet look what the Lord has done. My experience as a black, queer man has shaped how I view the world and how I live in it. It means something. However, this past year I have become an expert contortionist, bobbing and weaving through a space that wasn’t created for me. Like Jackson, I too was silent when I shouldn’t have been. I gave my power away in key moments when my voice could have made a difference. I have to learn to trust people (and myself) enough to “be who I be” in the space where I be, and if some are uncomfortable, well, this provides an growing opportunity for all. At the end of the day, this too shall pass.

The adjustment: I am going to be intentional about speaking and showing-up. The world needs that. I need that. The most revolutionary thing I can be is exactly who G-d created me to be in a world that often times would prefer me be something else.

  1. I tried too hard to please people.

This sounds trite, and it sounds like it would not be a struggle for a “professionally-religious” person, but I am part of the segment of the population who are people-pleasers. One of the worst feelings that a person like myself can experience is the feeling of trying your level-best to please someone, and for them to turn around and name the 20 ways in which you failed epically. Maybe this is an especially acute problem for priests who are too often viewed as ordained maître-d’s or holy concierges. Scripture invites each of us to serve one another, and sometimes the line between serving and enabling or serving and being taken advantage of is blurry and hard to distinguish. The point of serving one another is to support one another and help one another grow and become better versions of ourselves. I spent so much time this year trying to please people that there are times I am not sure I pleased G-d and I am pretty sure I violated my own integrity.

The adjustment: Jesus said it best – “seek first the Kingdom of G-d and its righteousness…” I am called to seek after the things of G-d, and if people are pleased because of it, so be it. If people are angered or put-off because of it, then I am presented with a great opportunity for conversation and relationship building. After all, I have a charge to keep and a God to glorify… (my Baptist saints will know the rest of this song).

  1. I didn’t pray enough.

Confession is good for the soul, they say. So here goes: I run about 75% when it comes to saying the Daily Office. Lord knows I’m running, trying to make 100, because 99 and a half (or 75) won’t do. I do take time for other moments of prayer throughout the day, but not nearly enough. I have found that the days where I am most centered (despite the furious storm of meetings, pastoral calls, sermon and liturgy preparation, Christian Ed. programming, and parish crisis du jour) are the days where I make prayer the most important thing on my calendar – it happens even if other things don’t. The reality is this – prayer connects me to G-d whose presence empowers all that I do (or hope to do, or fail miserably at doing). Without that lifeline and connection, everything I do is pointless. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

The adjustment: Pray. Without. Ceasing. It’s funny, I wrote a piece about this years ago, but it’s helpful to remind myself of what is important – prayer. I am going to return to putting “Prayer” as an appointment on my calendar (with Jesus and Mary), which leads me to my next struggle…

  1. I gave the power of my calendar away.

Time is the one resource we can never get back, as such it must be guarded fiercely. If money is power, then time is the nuclear facility that generates the power. Truth be told: if this struggle is anyone’s fault, it’s mine. Sometimes I think people are mind-readers. Perhaps I just assume people know priests (should) pray in the morning, or that I don’t particularly function well with bumper-to-bumper meetings, or that come Hell or high-water, I am watching “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Some of those things sound trivial, but self-care is important (that’s the next struggle I will highlight below), and my calendar provides the boundaries I need to function and be well. I have to learn to pace myself, to give myself time in between meetings to take notes, make a to-do list, or just decompress (depending on the meeting’s content). I have to put the things that are important to me on my calendar and to hold the boundary as if my life depended on it – because it does.

The adjustment: I will make appointments on my calendar to do things: read books, take notes or decompress from meetings, study scripture, enjoy #TGIT (Gladiators UNITE!). I am also going to get really good at saying “I can’t meet at that time, can I suggest we meet…”

  1. I didn’t do self-care and Sabbath well.

This will surprise some people who know I guard my Monday’s with a flaming sword, but I don’t think I did self-care and Sabbath well this year. True Sabbath-keeping takes preparation and most weeks I am crawling to Monday. Like prayer, Sabbath and self-care help me be my best me for the sake of the work of the Kingdom. I am not like those who think overworking and over-functioning are spiritual virtues (they may actually be symptoms of a spiritual vice – pride). I have to prepare for Sabbath and actually discern self-care that is life-giving.

The adjustment: I will set aside a day (leading into Monday as the day to prepare for Monday – sort of a Pre-Sabbath). I am also going to get real clear as to what is life-giving and I can live without.

  1. I didn’t read enough.

A few months ago I was so happy to be done with my thesis for my Master of Sacred Theology that I couldn’t wait to take a break from reading. What I forgot was that I am an academic at heart – I love learning and having conversations with great writers, some of whom I will never meet – W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Borg, Audre Lord, bell hooks, Howard Thurman, Barbara Brown Taylor, Zora Neale Huston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Joan Chittister, and so many more. One of my closest friends says it best every time we walk into Barnes & Noble together: “Books are my friends,” he says with a twinkle in his blue eyes. Part of discerning what is life-giving is rediscovering what joy reading is. There was a statistic that named the percentage of American adults who graduate college and never again read a book cover-to-cover. I can’t remember it, but it was high. I am not in that bunch. I have read lots of books. I just finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. Before that I read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. I do read, just not enough, and certainly not enough fiction. I need new ideas. I need to hear new voices and experience new worlds.

The adjustment: Make reading a priority. Maybe make a list of books I want to read (even some I’ve lied about reading) and work my way through them this year. Kind reader, are there any books you might suggest?

  1. I didn’t write things down.

I am a visionary. I see the world differently than some. I have ideas, plans, and goals. Some of them are huge. Most of them aren’t for right now. In some spaces vision will get you killed if you aren’t careful. Just ask Joseph. His brothers couldn’t handle him, so they threw him in a well and sold him into slavery. But G-d…

I have to learn to write down ideas, visions, and goals that I want to pursue and discern which ones are “now” and which ones are “not yet.”

The adjustment: I am going to start a journal to collect all these thoughts so that I can reference them in the future when “not yet” becomes “get ready.”

  1. I didn’t measure what success looked like for me.

I know ministry isn’t really about success, especially from a corporate framework, but everyone wants to feel like they’ve achieved something. This is probably doubly true in an environment where measurable outcomes are hard to quantify. It’s why the Church still measures “success” by attendance and budget numbers (even if we say we don’t). We struggle to name success in meaningful terms outside of that framework. On a micro-level, I have to get better at measuring what I am achieving and where I need to put more effort.

The adjustment: Name what I find important and integral to my ministry and pursue it.

  1. I was a bad friend.

2015 is the year of me being a bad friend. I allowed “work” to isolate me from long-term, life-giving relationships. I have a best-friend who lives in Connecticut whom I haven’t seen in over a year. Other friends live in New York and Virginia and if it hadn’t been for the Presiding Bishop’s installation being sort of a big deal for black Episcopalians, I wouldn’t have seen them in Washington, D.C. I have fraternity brothers scattered all around, and I’ve made no effort to reach out because, well, work. That’s an excuse (and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. taught me what excuses are). Work is demanding, but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Another part of discerning what is life-giving for me is understanding that these friendship’s anchor me in the midst of restless seas. I need them. They need me. I have to do better.

The adjustment: Clear off the couch because I am coming to visit. I am going to make it my duty to visit friends and tend to life-giving relationships because long after my tenure at my current parish is over, these friendships will remain.

So what’s next: I guess these are my New Year’s Resolutions, a commitment to making microscopic changes that I hope will make a big difference. I’m in this thing for the long haul. Benedictine spirituality calls it “stability.” Saint Paul calls it “perseverance.” Grandma calls is “keeping on keeping on.”

And every round in this journey goes higher and higher.

I’m sure 2016 will have its fair share of L’s, but I’m not about the life of making the same mistakes and missteps over and over again. I’ve got places to go, and people to see.

What lessons have you learned in the past 365 days, and what are you going to do differently because of it?

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5 thoughts on “10 Hard Lessons I Learning While Priesting and Adulting in 2015 (And 10 Things I’m Doing Differently Because of It)

  1. I love reading your ideas and sermons. I hope you know how many people you touch so spiritually and humanly. I am a retired teacher and Catholic. May your new year be blessed.

  2. Love this post! It gave me many things to think about. I made a resolution last year to read more and joined the Goodreads.com 2015 Reading Challenge. My challenge was to read 25 books by the end of the year, and I have exceeded that. Couldn’t have done it, though, without joining the challenge. Happy New Year to you!

  3. “Scripture invites each of us to serve one another, and sometimes the line between serving and enabling or serving and being taken advantage of is blurry and hard to distinguish. The point of serving one another is to support one another and help one another grow and become better versions of ourselves.”
    Typing this up in 48-point font and taping it to my bathroom mirror. And above my desk. Possibly on my car’s dashboard. Thank you.

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