The Minister Guy: How I Look is Not Who I Am

the divinity school phto by andrew malone

The Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell tells of his spiritual journey in hopes it will connect with men who may not be able to put their own journey into words.

The neighborhood is close, but there are just too many names to remember. So, like many neighborhoods, we use shorthand: Julie the weaver, Bill the gardener, Molly with the Doberman, and me—the minister guy.

I went to Harvard Divinity School, and the late Peter Gomes, the bestselling author, campus chaplain, and a brilliant preacher, included me in his small, once-a-year preaching seminar of six students. He would share other wisdoms as well. At least one of them I have always kept.

When I leave in the morning and come back home in the evening, I look the part in clerical garb: I’m the minister. I treasure neighbors who know my name. I also treasure that whether someone is spiritual or not, I’ve the sense that the people in the neighborhood like having a minister around. The clerical shirt doesn’t make the man, but on those days of doubt, it is a good reminder.

Denominationally, I’m Lutheran, politically I’m off-the-charts liberal, and I take people as I find them. I do that in the congregation, too. It’s a come-as-you-are place on a difficult side of town, but the people who still live in the congregation’s neighborhood are very proud.

♦◊♦

Getting to ministry wasn’t a straight shot for me. For 25 years, I was a Washington lobbyist. However, at the same time, I was a home-care hospice volunteer who went into the most bereft of Washington, DC, neighborhoods. At some point, I realized that my volunteer work gave me a lot more fulfillment than my daytime job.

Hence divinity school and ordination for pastoral ministry. I’m a convert from Roman catholicism (remember the off-the-table liberal part?) to Lutheranism, yet a lot of my Lutheran colleagues despair of what I espouse. Harvard gave me a rich, but non-standard understanding of theology, particularly Lutheran theology, and it stuck.

I learned early on that Harvard let you audit all the classes you wanted, and for good measure, your audited classes are reflected on your transcript. Since I’m a good auditory learner, I took as many audit classes as I could fit in without shortchanging the classes I took for real credit.

Harvard may have been a crucial pivot on my spiritual journey, but it wasn’t the beginning or the end. Probably the beginning of my spiritual quest is more interesting because it’s so unstandard.

I have been in therapy off and on for many years. My best therapist was more of a religious guide than anything else. Among her techniques were guided imagery, book assignments, prayer work, and EMDR. Often I didn’t know what was going to happen when I walked into her office. Her father was a missionary, and she grew up Presbyterian in India. In fact, she lived all sorts of places, and so her knowledge of and exposure to many religious traditions was encyclopedic. At that time, at least some of her techniques and knowledge was a woman’s preserve. Obviously she didn’t care that I was a man. Perhaps that was part of her enthusiasm.

Once she knew that I was headed to divinity school, she seemed to take a greater interest in my spiritual formation, but it was not like any spiritual formation I could have gotten anywhere else. She was into what many call New Age theology, which I consider (as did she) mostly a type of ageless mysticism. However, I know it is a great shibboleth for mainstream theologians.

We focused a lot on Native American sensibility. As a priest, I would be a shaman (Norman Bancroft Hunt, Shamanism in North America, Firefly Books, 2003). Being gay, I was a two-spirited one, a treasured person in a tribe because of his ability for dual gender consciousness and leadership. (Wearing a dress-like cassock seems as a man to fit the quality of having those complimentary gender spirits.) Talismans were crucially important, and everyone needed at least two animal guides—one of gentleness and guile, and the other for strength.

Prayer consisted of identifying a series of guides through guided imagery, and getting to know them well through mediation discipline. Each guide had different things to teach you. When I went into a place of prayer—and the better I got at it, I could enter into that place easily and just about anywhere—the guide I needed would come forth. We could sit silently in each other’s presence, or we could silently talk. Or I could be called gently on the carpet, or wisdoms would be revealed to me, because I needed guidance, even if I didn’t know it.

She also opened me up to theological writings different from what I’d ever read before. The dessert fathers, saints with stagmatas, contemporary spiritual memorists. Indian mysticism, including energy healing and chakras. She didn’t want me to take standard theology at face value, so she guided me to what I will shorthandedly call the “debunkers.” I could learn from many wise people, and many wise people looked at dogma through a jaundiced eye.

I learned that one new religious tradition internalized does not displace older, familiar knowledge. Rather spirituality is a process of accretion. Our spiritualities get larger as we get older and more practiced. Many wisdoms them can be shared. Yet many spiritual gifts were only for you. Shamans reveled not everything, but what others need to know. One never pretended to be or to have knowledge that wasn’t theirs.

 ♦◊♦

All of this prepared me for divinity school, although little of it was discussed in the dry, dense, academic classes I took. I think she wanted me to have a wide mystical preparation before I went on to academic exposure. Both were important, complimentary, and included a fuller essence of spirituality.

As a Lutheran pastor, I teach standard two kingdom theology, sola scriptura, and that we are both sinners and justified, and other Lutheran dogma. Even though I may not be talking about it or teaching it in the moment, the early dessert fathers and mothers are looking over my shoulder. I lead public worship, and still pray through guided imagery, and I know that I am both shaman, two-spirit one, and ordained pastor.

Yes, when I get in the car on the way to the church in the morning, I’m still the neighborhood minister, and I smile about that. I like being the ministry guy, but I like being the two-spirited one—male/female, man/woman, head/heart, care-seeker/care-giver. My inistry gives me a way to be whole, spanning culture’s divides. I’m prepared to meet God’s people on their own ground anywhere, not insisting on mine.

photo: andrewmalone / flickr

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About Neil O'Farrell

Pastor, St. John Lutheran, in Brooklyn, a post industrial neighborhood of Baltimore city, Divinity degree from Harvard and doctoral degree in pastoral health. I'm an avid gardener, lover of almost everything with four feet, start books but don't finish them, off the edge liberal, and speak my piece, often when I should be listening.

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