What Experiences Inform One’s Faith and Practice of It?

 What experiences in our lives inform one’s faith and practice of it?  And is it any different for clergy as opposed to laity? 



This is a disturbing report of a parish priest who had an abortion in divinity school in order to continue her career goals.  As I read her report of her proudest accomplishments, it is enlightening to see that they include “fostering a loving, creative, responsible and fun community of faithful people.”  Faithful to whom?  Her or God?  It seems she cultivated a fan club for her own comfort and belonging.  I don’t see anything about cultivating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in this report.  What I do see is the report of a dying church.

I have been told by some in the know that the percentage of women undergoing abortions is as high or higher among those in the church as those outside the church (as has been the case now for several decades with divorce, too).   But somehow it never occurred to me that women entering ministry might have had that particular experience.  Although I have to confess that the opportunity to consider abortion and, in fact, personal consideration of abortion occurred twice in my life.  The first time it was over matters of shame and fear of how it would impact my own life and the lives of my family.   The second time it was simply rank selfishness in wanting to  pursue my career goals on my own schedule and without interference and interruption by the inconvenience of pregnancy.  Both times, by the grace of God and influence of godly people, I rejected the option. 

As I have undergone examination for ordained ministry, I have been told that any question the examiners choose to ask is fair game and I have been asked some questions that I felt were an intrusion of my privacy.  But the questions I have never been asked were, “Have you had an abortion” and “Have you ever or do you now live a life that reflects values other than celibacy in singleness and heterosexual monogamy in marriage?”  It seems that such questions as those are too intrusive to ask, too politically incorrect.  But what medications do you take or have you taken in the past (relative to mental health) is indeed warranted?   

I counsel women who frequently have had abortions or who have experienced promiscuity or lesbian or bisexual lifestyles.  Those questions are included in our application interview.   The answers are not so much the issue as it is a matter of one’s willingness to actually answer them honestly.  They are not “knock out” questions.  I’ve received women who’ve answered both ways, yes and no, into our discipleship program.  The issue is where are you now in your emotions about those activities?  Is there a post traumatic stress response or shame present because of those events that causes one anxiety and that one feels must be hidden from others?  Are you comfortable in your spirit with having done those things (or still doing them)?   Is one defensive about such issues or demands that others accept such conduct as natural, and suitable to one in ministry?   How do those emotions about those events inform your faith and your relationship with God and others?  Are you an advocate for that conduct in your own life and believe it to be right for all?  

They are aware that our discipleship program has positions on those issues that arise out of the way I and other instructors interpret the Scripture on those and other matters.  But those positions don’t keep such women out…..they simply must be addressed in the course of our counseling because what they will get out of the program will depend on how willing they are to be honest about such questions that have the power to bind or free one to live authentically.   If they have not reconciled their emotions  with their faith or are not willing to do so then it will be difficult to have honest and potentially transformative engagement in the counseling and discipleship context.  If one cannot feel free to speak honestly about her beliefs, past conduct, and the things about which one feels strongly, there will be a stronghold there that will prevent  her from being honest and transparent in these and, in all probability, other things, too. 

We can differ in how we view our own or others’ involvement in such things and even in our interpretation of our standing before God and others in the face of them.  It is that way with many  things-  felony convictions for criminal acts, participation in occult practices, whether or not one has been divorced, attitudes about or experience of infidelity,  our use of alcohol or other substances of abuse, how we view and use money, abusive treatment to us or of others. and more besides abortion and sexuality.  Questions about some of these issues come up in the course of examination for ministry.  Others are studiously avoided or simply assumed to have been resolved in one’s personal doctrine and praxis.  In the relativistic world in which we live, it seems that it doesn’t really matter WHAT one believes or does, as long as one doesn’t feel judged in it or doesn’t make judgments of others about it.  And so, to avoid the risk of stirring up shame or risking public questions or judgment, people are allowed to keep some secrets but not others.   

There was a time when it was generally assumed that people seeking ministry would have had little or no experience with such things.  Not so today.  In fact, it is almost certain that many have.  How does it inform and form one’s faith in God?   How does it inform and form how one views others?  How does it inform and form how authentically one lives her life?   I’m sad to tell you that individuals’ personal experience (or the experience of people they love) with such matters may have far more impact on how some do ministry than what the Scriptures teach, what the church’s history and traditions have demonstrated over time, or what reason would suggest.  Personal experiences and our hidden secrets about those experiences have far more power over who we are and what we do, sometimes, than other criteria for truth and doctrine.