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A Priest’s Cautionary Narrative

It seems still difficult to talk about all the ways in which laity abuse clergy. The power does not always lie on the side of the ordained.

Losing My Religion
A Memoir of Faith and Finding
By William C. Mills
Resource. Pp. 170. $20

Review by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

My beloved New Testament professor Don Juel was a font not only of biblical wisdom but also pastoral apothegms, one of which was, “Don’t trust the first people to welcome you to your parish; they’re the ones who will betray you.” Like most pastoral wisdom, it sounds harsh until you have become a pastor. Once you are a pastor, you wonder why no one ever told you the unvarnished truth about the business.

William Mills’s memoir of ministry is exactly one of these stories and, spoiler alert, don’t trust Walter and Linda, the first to welcome him to the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Charlotte, North Carolina. (I was both pleased and ashamed that my immediate suspicions were confirmed.) The book traces Mills’s story from altar boy at the command of his church-lady mom to ambitious and isolated seminarian to bewildered priest plunged into a mystifying conflict and out the other side.

Out, however, does not mean out of the ministry. Mills notes that most parish pastors do not make it past the five-year point, and he remains at Nativity because he is either “too stubborn or too stupid” (p. xiii) to leave. Probably stubbornness and stupidity are underappreciated virtues in clergy, at least of the kind that Mills displays.

In fact, the title of the book is quite misleading in this regard, rather like Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. In his narrative Mills admits to doubts and struggles but no catastrophic loss of faith or rejection of Christianity. If anything, the most moving parts of the book are his descriptions of childhood experiences of the divine liturgy, and when he walks the reader through an Orthodox priest’s vesting and presiding at worship, both rich in sensory detail and devotion. None of this is what he wished to lose or leave behind.

The crisis at the center of the book is not reported in much detail. Clergy who have been through this kind of thing, or lent a sympathetic ear to a colleague going through it, will be able to fill in the blanks. More than anything, Mills uses his story to point to the gap between, on the one hand, the mission we are called to and the theology that supports it, and, on the other, the day-to-day business of running a volunteer organization with a frequently hazy chain of command. Mills implies that better preparation for the latter would have served him well, though I am not sure anyone really has ears to hear until facing it firsthand.

More practical is his testimony to the good done him by the Davidson Clergy Center and getting help in the midst of the mess, and if his story encourages others to do the same, so much the better.

More and more stories come out these days of how many clergy abuse their power and harm the laity, and by all means we need to encourage truth-telling and reckoning, not to mention prevention and repair, in that regard. But it seems still difficult to talk about all the ways in which laity abuse clergy. The power does not always lie on the side of the ordained.

We need not make targeted pastors into martyrs and victims, but if we are doing ministry in the way Jesus commands, then we really are “sheep in the midst of wolves.” Yet just as Jesus makes that observation about his messengers, he makes a shift in the choice of iconic animals: we are ultimately not to be either helpless sheep orpredatory wolves, but “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

Mills’s story is of one who had received a full measure of dovelike innocence but really could have used some serpentine wisdom. Perhaps it is time to add a seminary course in Herpetology 101.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, author of the quarterly e-newsletter Theology & a Recipe, and co-host with Paul R. Hinlicky of the podcast Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad.


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