This week we asked our bloggers to reflect on their ordinations. Here are their blogs.
What was the most difficult decision I ever made? To leave the ordination process with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I grew up in the PC(USA) and have felt called to ministry since high school. However, my decision to leave the ordination process wasn’t based on a theological issue or a stance of the PC(USA) that I found myself in disagreement with. Rather, it was something I felt the denomination could not understand about me that I had spent my childhood trying to accept.
Since I was in the first grade, I have struggled academically due to several learning disabilities that have made it difficult for me to read and write. Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD) is usually characterized by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial and social skills.
While I spent most of my childhood struggling to understand what my disability meant to me, I did understand it in other ways. I saw it as a struggle for me to play sports because of issues with poor spatial recognition that made it difficult to hit a baseball. I saw it in academics such as mathematics because I had difficulty understanding conceptual aspects. And I saw it my low self esteem — spending my childhood often “feeling stupid” because I had a special education teacher and often took classes separate from my classmates.
Despite going through grade school in special education programs, I found ways to adjust to my academic difficulties and found ways to adapt through finding my skills and strengths. It was these adaptations, along with my parents’ constant positive reinforcement of my abilities, that allowed me to overcome social stigmas and to challenge myself to finish high school, earn a bachelor’s degree and even graduate with a Master of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2013.
Yes, seminary at times was a struggle, particularly in foreign language classes such as Greek and Hebrew where I had difficult differentiating between the characters in the given languages.
Yet, the support of my professors and finding affirmation in my call through my internship and yearlong clinical pastoral education residency helped me overcome my challenges and feel affirmed to my call in ministry — even though I found myself failing to pass the ordination exams.
However, it wasn’t my struggle to pass the ordination examinations that caused me to leave the ordination process in the PC(USA). Rather, it was the lack of understanding about my disability from my Committee for Preparation of Ministry (CPM) that caused me to experience hurt from an institution that I always applauded for its inclusivity.
A former chair of the committee told me that my learning disability was “just in my head” and I was using it as a “crutch” and as an excuse to get out of the exams. Another member of the committee suggested that I discern whether I should pursue other career opportunities that were not in ministry because of my disability. From the lack of understanding about learning disabilities to the lack of alternatives methods to examine candidates readiness for ordination, I felt disappointed that my denomination did not have a strong understanding about learning disabilities nor a willingness to learn.
While this struggle was between myself and my CPM, many other pastors in the PC(USA) with learning disabilities have had positive and supportive experiences and their stories should also be heard — not just my own.
Now that three years have passed, I have processed my feelings of hurt and anger and let my anger go. Today I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serving not only as a chaplain and spiritual care coordinator at a local hospital, but also as a chaplain endorsed by the Disciples in the United States Air Force Reserve. I am doing ministry in the denomination where I feel called to be and as a chaplain, doing ministry in the place where I feel called to serve.
As I look back at my experience, I do not have any resentment or disappointment towards the denomination I grew up in. I only have hopes for the PC(USA) and its future. And next year, I will begin a new type of relationship with the PC(USA). This time, it will be through marriage as I am engaged to my fiancé who is an ordained Presbyterian minister serving as a local church pastor in Ohio. For me, my new role in the PC(USA) will be supporting my fiancé in her ministry as an ordained PC(USA) minister just as she has been supportive of mine as a ordained minister in the Disciples.
It’s my hope that the PC(USA) will find ways to accommodate candidates with learning disabilities and will revise ways candidates are evaluated for ministry. A person’s readiness for ministry should be based on moral character and sense of call. And someone with a learning disability should have that opportunity to carry out their call, even if they struggle academically.
Despite what happened to me, I still have hope for the PC(USA) because I see the amazing ministry it is doing in our communities locally and globally. From pioneering new ways of doing innovative worship that reach to a new generation of Christ-followers to being a voice for justice and reconciliation, lives are being transformed by the ministry of the PC(USA). And I hope it will be the ministry of my fiancé and my friends in ministry in the PC(USA) to not only change the ordination process, but also work to make the denomination more inclusive — not just in the PC(USA), but for the future of the church.
CHRISTOPHER L. SCHILLING is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a hospital chaplain and spiritual care coordinator in northwest Ohio, and a chaplain with the United States Air Force Reserve.