William C. Mills, Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding.
Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2019.
Ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, gurus, clergy, whatever you want to call them hold positions of authority in a community like any leader. Added to that basic authority is an implicit connection with the divine that often makes people put ministers on pedestals. They are considered ‘holy’, set apart from the ordinary layperson and not just given authority, but sometimes reverence. The special positions that clergy occupy can sometimes create the illusion in a religious community that they are above the fray of ordinary human imperfections, insecurities, cares, concerns, and anxieties. Nothing could be further from the truth.
William C. Mills’ new memoir is, to me, a heartfelt exploration through the all-too-human side of the life of clergy.
Losing My Religion stands in the line of memoirs like Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets that unearths uncommon depth in the spiritual life by tracking through the ins and outs of religious life from the perspective of the leader of a religious community. The book begins in Mills’ early life, exploring the beginnings of a vocational call to parish ministry, and builds toward a major, catastrophic event in his ministry in which a third of his congregation ended up leaving the church. The latter portion of the book follows Mills’ path to recovery as an individual, and the recovery of his community.
Mills is a priest in the Orthodox church, a tradition that I have spent some significant time with and with whom I continually find spiritual nourishment. Yet it remains one of the lesser-known traditions in Christianity, especially among Protestants. It seemed to me that Mills tries to write not just for his own tradition, but for a broader audience, as he frequently explains in helpful detail some of the rituals and pastoral features of his church. As such it becomes an intriguing book not only as a glimpse into the inner thoughts and foibles of a clergy member, but also an interesting glimpse into a religious tradition that many may be only partially aware of, or familiar with.
I have already emphasized the main aspect of the book I found compelling—that it offers a first-person perspective into the life of a clergy member. What I think is great about this book is that it does so in a way that does not romanticize this life, nor does it try to make clergy-persons sound like they have it all figured out. Mills opens himself up in unusual vulnerability to show us a minister with struggles and questions both ordinary and extraordinary. Mills wrestles with his calling, he wrestles with his tradition, he wrestles with his youthful pride, he wrestles with trying to put together a financial life for his family, he even wrestles (figuratively, thank God) with his members. I think that is the best feature of this memoir, we really get to see a minister as a human being.
“I’m twenty-seven and I’m a ‘Father’. Yet I don’t feel like a Father, let alone an example to anyone. Bishop Peter called me worthy, yet I don’t feel worthy. I don’t feel worthy to preach sermons or hear confessions. I don’t feel worthy to lead services. I never changed a diaper, paid a mortgage, or had a real job. How can I offer pastoral advice? I went straight from high school to college to seminary to ordination. I know that I have the approval of the Holy Synod of Bishops, the seminary faculty, my friends, and my family. Yet deep down I am terrified. Little do I know what awaits me in the parish.”
I want to conclude with two contradictory thoughts: clergy should not be trusted, and clergy should be trusted. Coming from a low-church tradition in which ministers are at best the leaders of the “priesthood of all believers,” it is in my religious DNA to balk at the veneration that clergy are sometimes given. We are human. We have petty thoughts and feelings and ambitions and plans. Sometimes we are outright sinful, because, may I remind the reader, we are human. In fact clergy tend to suffer from larger than average rates of depression and self-medication or addiction. From the increasing horrors of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy across denominational lines to the power-mongering and posturing of ministers who build big churches or hoard influence in small parishes, this is a harrowing vocation filled with any temptation one could imagine. No human being, whatever their calling, regardless of their piety, should be trusted implicitly or adored the way that clergy are in churches or other religious institutions.
So take away the veneration and the naivete, but also learn to trust clergy in the right ways with the right things. Trust their education. Be skeptical of ministers without one. Trust that they are spending a lot of time thinking and reading and praying and serving not so that you don’t have to, but in order to make it possible for everyone else who lives busy lives to grapple more effectively with their own spiritual lives. Trust that the vast majority of clergy are deeply embarrassed and frustrated at the bad reputation they are given by a small set of highly visible and corruptible peers. Trust most importantly that it is possible for people to be good and faithful in the ways that God has called them to be good and faithful. Priests may not be avatars of the divine, and should not be treated as such, but they have a special calling, and most of them are trying to live faithfully into that calling with the challenges and raised expectations that come with it. William Mills provides an authentic glimpse into such a faithfully imperfect life of ministry.
Disclosure: I received this book free from the author without stipulation of a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.