'... A Fragile Sense of Self' | Sojourners

'... A Fragile Sense of Self'

Some of you might be downright shocked to know that many clergy have to undergo a three-day battery of psych tests as part of the ordination process. If a significant issue is discovered, say, addiction or something else (perhaps the main reason these tests have become required), one's ordination process can be slowed down or halted all together. When I was going through the process, I too went through these evaluations.

The result? I have "a fragile sense of self."

What does this really mean? Well, I'm an alcoholic. It's true. I've spoken about it as part of my faith journey (read: testimony; yes, I have a testimony). I don't wave it around like some flag, but I'm not shy about telling people. And I have certainly told the congregations and other organizations I have served about my history with addiction.

Keeping this stuff secret, for me, is poisonous.

At any rate, there it was, "a fragile sense of self" on my evaluation. This caused everyone to pause. The ordination committee had a ton of questions for me. They did the obligatory background check (this is perfunctory; everyone gets one). They checked my references, etc. They did their due diligence to make sure, as best as anyone could, that I was not going to fall off the wagon.

Of course. No one can promise that. Not really.

And let it be known, if I do fall off the wagon, there will be ramifications appropriate to the fall. Addiction is not a get out of jail free card. The addict is responsible for all their actions. Three minutes in an AA meeting and you will hear people talk about being responsible, making amends, and taking ownership of their own actions and all the implications therein. Falling off the wagon isn't an excuse for hurting someone else.

Again, I haven't. I promised my wife I wouldn't. I promised my churches I wouldn't. And, well, I haven't. But that's never the whole story, is it? Again, you can't really promise that. Addiction is not some behavioral on/off switch. It's far more complicated.

The committee did their work. They made sure that I had a strong safety net. They connected me with mentors and networks. They took my personal challenges seriously. They were vulnerable with me. They were honest. As was I. This is how we were able to move forward.

To say I have "a fragile sense of self" is to define addiction. For me the alcohol was a way to mediate a perceived deficit of character. My sense of self is oft precarious. Thus, therapy. Lots of therapy. And professional mentors. Throughout my ministry I had mentors and a therapist. I was candid, perhaps overly so for some, with leadership in the churches I served. It simply became part of what I navigated as a pastor. Everyone has to manage something in their lives as pastors. I am no exception ... nor is addiction an exceptional challenge.

Nonetheless, to be who I am and be a pastor means being candid with those to whom I am closest. To be a pastor by definition is to be close to people. No secrets. No "special friends." Candor. Vulnerability.

Fragility. All the time.

Thus my public whining about my PhD on Facebook, too. It's all there. And, yes, I am in therapy. I talk with other alcoholics. I rely on grace. Don't we all?

There has been a great deal of hubbub of late regarding clergy and addiction disorders. We do need to spend more time as clergy discussing our own challenges. Denominational gatekeepers need to be more aware of what addiction is and find health to manage the call processes of their clergy. Lives are absolutely on the line.

But I perceive a lack of charity in so much of the public discourse on the issue. I see a lack of love, of hope, of a belief in healing and grace. If we believed in healing and grace, then we would not be afraid to set high standards. We would believe that through grace and healing an alcoholic would make a fine priest, pastor, nun, or bishop. We would address it openly. We would not stigmatize it.

But I am afraid that is precisely what we are doing. We are stigmatizing addiction and addicts. It troubles me deeply.

Every time I see a picture of a clergyperson on the news and "alcoholic priest" is written below, I am terrified. For them. For myself. For my family. Watching these stories unfold is an assault on my senses.

I could fall off the wagon. Statistically, I will without question do so. I hope to defy those statistics, but I have to take them seriously.

And I am afraid. I am afraid that I too will become a pariah.

There's more that I could say about this. I'm rambling and have no idea how to end this post. So, I'm just going to stop writing. If you comment on this or share it, be generous. Be vulnerable. I'm trying to be so here. And if you find it to hard to be so, then simply close your browser and start over.


Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Unionin Berkeley, Calif., and is Director of Admissions at American Baptist Seminary of The West. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.org. Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

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