Some Thoughts About the “Self” Engaging with Systems

All of us have systems in our lives: family systems, faith systems, political systems, invisible systems that guide friendships, jobs, and vocations.

For those of us who are leaders, we are often something like seed crystals in the nucleation/crystallization process. This is to say, we are brought into organizations which are hopefully malleable, flexible, super saturated solutions, and we are put into these systems specifically to encourage their growth. When this system is healthy,  a process of nucleation and crystallization will occur. People will organize and crystallize around the leadership of this new leader and they too will become crystals. A brand new–and stronger and more robust crystal structure will be created.  An organization will come together. Everyone has a role in this system. The system is solid. The crystal state is solid and it is beautiful to behold.  We see this in churches as they organize and cement themselves around a leader who has the right organizational vision for the church. We see this in businesses as a small business develops its niche in the marketplace and hires a seed crystal of a leader to help it grow and expand.  We see it in family systems where a strong leader—a matriarch or patriarch of a family will organize the whole family system. We see it in the non-profit world when a seed crystal leader will hatch a vision, and people will rise up and form around this person to help them organize, grow, and execute the vision. People will come together and grow.  But as the crystal forms, it becomes a more stable, solid, and rigid structure. And if the original seed begins to change course and change shape, it will begin butting up and chaffing against the larger crystal that is already in place.

If you take a pair of pliers and yank the original seed crystal out of the system, the shape of the original crystal system will remain. A non-profit organization, a church, a job system can’t flex or change or grow unless it’s willing to submit itself to a person who enters into the system and acts as a solvent agent. That is to say—a person who comes in makes the system aware of its previous spoken/unspoken & rigid shape, a person who cleanses the system, who bathes the system in warm water, who adds a touch of gentle agitation, and who shepherds the system by adding in a new solvent to help that system become saturated and fluid again. That system has to become humble, malleable, flexible and fluid in order to become receptive to a new leader, a new seed crystal around which the organization will recrystallize and become a strong beautiful new crystal.  My experience in churches is that too often we neglect this process of deconstructing the old system, of cleansing the system, of reflecting on the old system, of bathing it in a solvent that will work it’s way throughout the whole system and help it to become a fluid system again. A receptive system again.

But this is not just true of systems. This is also true of people as we engage and move through different transitional spaces in our lives. We crystallize. We become rigid. We take our accumulated knowledge/wisdom/plans—our roles and we become rigid and unreceptive to anything or anyone that tries to knock us off course. We don’t handle detours well. We don’t flex and bend and inhabit space the way we should or could. We develop blindspots because of this rigidity in our lives.

As I worked through my own identity process of coming to terms with my bisexuality, and as I moved forward to engage my own “coming out” process, I approached it as something that would likely be nothing more than a 1-2 year nuisance in my life. I thought that I would go through a series of disclosures with my denomination  and that I would flail and bounce around for 12 months or so before eventually landing in some progressive church as a part time staff member, associate pastor, or parish associate–and resume my life as normal. Easy as that.  Except it hasn’t been as easy as that.

I thought this way, because I was almost exclusively focusing on the personal theological/spiritual aspect of my coming out process. And I’ve held my theology/spirituality with a gentle and open hand for a very long time. My personal sense of spirituality has been fluid for a long time. Changing beliefs, changing ideas, changing knowledge—all of this is comfortable and comforting to me. I expect it. I welcome it. My faith is/has always been/and always will be in motion. In fact, I don’t feel particularly safe in places that expect me to stand still. I can’t think of anything more depressing than being told to stop searching, stop growing, to stop. The idea of making the leap from straight to queer was not a big deal to me spiritually. The seeming contradictions and ambiguities of the sacred text I serve are easy for me to hold with gentle hands. Because tradition is living. Text is living. Human knowledge and experience are living. Faith is living. 

With this knowledge in mind, my life of faith is a life of constant play, constant discovery, constant exploration. My life of faith is built upon the value of the journey itself rather than any particular destination. My life of faith is cumulative and constructive rather than necessitating a splitting of self or a deconstruction of places I’ve been.  I am the sum of every space I’ve ever engaged. The evangelical spaces. The mainline protestant spaces. The Unitarian spaces. The Jewish communities. The humanist spaces, and so many others.  All of these “Deep Wisdom Sources” articulate and present themselves in who I am as a religious leader/preacher.

However, in coming out, I had not anticipated how all these external systems in my life would react and respond to me. I had not anticipated how I would respond to them. I had not anticipated how my family system would respond. I had not anticipated how the faith system around me would respond. 

I had not anticipated how local LGBT groups and systems would respond. Would they be places that are inviting bisexual leaders to lead? To speak? To participate on panels?  To teach educational events? And what should I do if they are not. If that’s not the conversation that as a corporate body they are having?
Frankly, there are versions of my story that may have yielded that 1-2 year nuisance of “coming out” and then flailing in exile and finding my way into a progressive christian community on staff as a faith leader. If I were flexible and mobile anywhere around the country I likely could have found this scenario. But for many reasons, I’m not mobile.

If I had the financial flexibility to take on part time or full time positions, but for many reasons I do not have that flexibility. I have a pretty specific and finite amount of time and energy to give to ministry activities while juggling my full time Government job.

If I lived somewhere other than the Midwest in a larger Metropolitan area there would be more LGBTQ affirming churches looking for leaders and/or leadership. But I don’t. I do live in the Midwest. In a Mid sized town with only a handful of truly LGBTQ affirming churches. And the line to serve in leadership in most of these churches 10-20-30 queer leaders deep. And most of the churches–even the more progressive churches, are still caught in binaries. That is to stay, they’ve just barely mastered “straight” and “gay” –so those of us who are bisexual or transgender or non-binary in any fashion are ahead of the conversation that is really happening where I live. Even most of the progressive faith spaces available to us are really not engaging beyond straight & gay parishioners. This is not universally true, but it is mostly true. And I really don’t have control over these systems and the speed and pace at which they will decide to change and grow.

I couldn’t anticipate how my family system would respond to me. Here, I was not naive. I knew that it would be a long hard slog for my family of origin to reconcile themselves to my sense of sexual identity, and/or that they may or may not ever successfully adjust to this information, and I’ve been right about this. I anticipated this correctly and gaining the necessary support in light of that has been a top priority for me.

The other day, I turned to my partner and I had the courage to finally say something out loud that up to this point, I had been holding back–because it was too painful for me to think about much less to articulate it out loud. I hadn’t been able to breathe when I thought about it, much less to find the courage to say it. I said to her, “You know it may well be another 5 or 10 years before I’m attached to another church in a formal pastoral staff role.” This acknowledgement brought with it a massive wave of grief for me. I was shook to my core. I was shook in a way that up to date I really haven’t let myself be shook. With this acknowledgement I’ve had to surrender a dream. Or at least I’ve had to surrender one version of a dream that had been invisibly guiding and dictating a lot of my assumptions, goals, and life plans.  And I sobbed. I sobbed a gut wrenching, full-bodied, cry until I dehydrated myself level of sob.

It’s important to note that this concession on my part does not mean forsaking or giving up on my call to ministry. It does not mean I’m not a Reverend.  It does mean releasing myself from a particular kind of ministry and releasing myself for a particular vision for what a Reverend is and how our vocation of ministry manifests itself. It means releasing my iron grip on a version of ministry that I had been holding very tightly. It means creating a new one. It means introducing peers, colleagues, friends, and family to a new way of being a minister. It may mean that I am the one who holds a new vision, creates a new space.

I think of so many queer spiritual leaders who came before me. Those who had countless setbacks. Those who endured numerous rejections. Those who suffered. Those who spent 10, 20, 30 years of their lives longing to participate as ministry leaders before they were afforded their chance to so do. Those who lit their candles and never lost hope. I think about how long they were in exile. I think about their patience and long-suffering. I think about their unwavering faithfulness to their sense of call and calling. I think about the kind of leaders they became because of what they experienced. Their wisdom. Their integrity. Their gifts. I think about their dedication and drive and determination of leaders. I appreciate these queer elders now in a way that I previously hadn’t. I realize that there is a hall of saints and that is wide and deep and rich. I realize that I’m in their good company.

I also realize that this is a space where I’ve had to let go and surrender what has been, but it’s also the fertile soil for new dreams and new loves and new hopes to be planted and seeded, to be watered, sown and harvested. This is not dead space. This is not useless space.  It’s fluid space. It’s not a space to grit your teeth and survive. It’s not a space to rush. It’s a new rhythm and a new season in my life.  It’s most definitely not a ministry free space.  My preaching calendar and my guest speaking calendar is filled more weeks than it isn’t. This is a growth space. It’s an exploring space. It’s a skill building space. It’s a space where I have a newfound ability to re-imagine and re-envision my life, my dreams, my hopes—and for the first time, I have the ability to build a professional infrastructure around myself that will accommodate a fluidity that runs through every facet and corner of my life.

I have the ability to be wise and to create a structure around myself that lets me function in my truest deepest gift instead of resisting it or handcuffing it.  I have the ability to start my own business, to add new skills/new services/new ideas.  I have the ability to take classes, get new certifications, and offer people brand new skills. I have the ability to take the crystal I’ve become, submit myself to gentle solvent, and become fluid. A fluid that can hold all manner of new seed crystals—grow/change and recrystallize as an altogether different—a yet even more beautiful crystal structure.

So these days, I’m asking myself a new set of vocational questions. What does it look like to embrace this fluid space in my life with real intention and integrity? What does it look like not to resist it but rather to lean fully into it.   Who are the people who have the sacred calling to rise up and come alongside me as my squad, as my inner circle of friends, as my braintrust—to imagine/to dream/to brainstorm/to explore/to feed off one another creatively–and to walk this journey along with me.  This is not just a willy nilly role that any individual can fill. This is a role specifically for someone who wants to befriend someone in a fluid space. Someone who wants to commit to walking with someone in a fluid space. Someone who wants to embrace changing roles/relationships/dynamics.  And that is a special kind of calling.  Setting this support system in place, and laying this foundation in place is my first and most crucial task.   Next up, who are the leaders, the care-givers, the professional support team that will come alongside me to help me build my skills, to keep me accountable, to challenge me, to keep me healthy.  And finally where are the communities/groups/people that will benefit from the wisdom I’ve gathered, collected, and that I’m ready to start sharing. I have more questions than answers these days, but they are really good questions that will lead and prompt me in the directions that I’m meant to pursue.

I’ll end with a poem by Denise Levertov.

Variation on a Theme by Rilke by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being.  And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task,  The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can

The poem that Levertov is riffing with and referencing is below….

The hour is striking (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”

Rilke’s Book of Hours
(translated by Johanna Macy & Anita Barrows)

Today is a new day. I have the opportunity to ring out like a bell awakened, and so do you.


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