Working at church vs. going to church

One of the odd transitions we seminarians go through, especially when we hit our middler year, is that we transition from “going” to church to “working” at church.

I have “worked” at churches in a variety of capacities as a church member since I was 26 years old. I’ve been a choir member, a choir director, an accompanist on the piano and keyboard, a Bible study leader, a youth group leader, an Education for Ministry mentor for the Episcopal Church, lector, chalice bearer, intercessor, praying team leader, vestry member, stewardship campaign coordinator….you name it, I’ve done it. But these were churches I went to as a laywoman, and churches I would worship at whether I was volunteering at them in some capacity or not.

It’s different when I have to change churches to come to seminary, and then change again when I start an internship. I have written elsewhere in this blog about the pain of leaving church communities I knew well and trying to find a church at which to worship in New Haven. But after only a year, I had to leave that church to serve at an internship parish, a place where I will serve for only nine months.

It’s hard to set down roots at a place one knows to be temporary. Seminarian interns typically help out with a variety of initiatives, but not in any long-term way. We get to know people, but they are just as aware of our being temporary as we are, and so we don’t get to know one another as deeply as we would if we were long-term members of the church.

In my chapel minister job: wearing a verger robe and directing worshippers to the Berkeley Divinity School's Lessons and Carols service

The role changes as well. We are not clergy yet, but we’re not really a typical lay church member, either. We’re being trained for clerical roles, but we’re not really on the staff, and in my tradition, we can’t actually do many of the official clerical roles (such as blessing, baptizing, consecrating the bread and wine during the Eucharist, etc.) until we are ordained. And so we stand by in robes and watch while lay members of the church do all the things we used to do and priests and deacons do all the things we eventually will do, God willing.

It’s an in-between time, a time of excited anticipation, but also a time of weighing what I have lost: those former church communities. I am not sure what “going to church” will be like if and when I am ordained as a deacon and then as a priest. I am not sure if the collar ever will really come off, whether I am wearing it or not.

I’ve experienced this same change of role while serving as a hospital chaplain. So many times, I have been in the hospital room as a distant relative or a very close relative of the hospitalized patient, helping out as I could or standing back respectfully, but when I walked in the room as the hospital chaplain, I was suddenly in an official role with a job to do. (What that job was differed in every visit, and I usually had to guess what it was, but nevertheless, I was allegedly supposed to know what I was doing.)

The one thing I am sure of is that worship goes on, whatever my current predicament about my place in the community. And it’s a good spiritual practice to set aside the concerns about my place in the community and recognize, especially through the Eucharistic worship so central to my tradition, that I always have a place at God’s table along with everyone else. Thank God for that.

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