Transforming a Career

by Wendy Sherer

Dan's Note: I met Wendy when I studied in seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. We were friendly to each other, but I can’t say that we were friends, because I didn’t get to know her very well. Since I’ve dropped my own self-identity as a pastor, Wendy and I have gotten to know each other more. In fact, she helped edit a chapter in Sobriety: A Graphic Novel that needed her expertise with UK slang and dialects. With this piece, Wendy explores her own new identity as a DJ living in London, but continues to keep her old one as a leader of a faith tradition.

When I chose to pursue radio broadcasting as a profession, I talked about my “career switch,” welcoming a move away from ordained ministry into something completely different.

Over time I discovered that this “ministry thing” just wouldn’t go away. The jobs I had during my studies were all clergy positions—interims in university and hospital chaplaincy, and occasional supply preaching. Even my media work seemed to reach back into my professional past. My MA thesis was a documentary on Christianity in Britain, and I used my religious connections to secure sources.

During this project I began synthesizing what had been tugging at me for some time: my identity as a pastor—and, indeed, a Christian—not only lingers, regardless of other career pursuits, but also defines my unique contribution to the world. Rather than “leaving behind” one profession in pursuit of another, I actually bring everything I am—and have been—to each new endeavor. This may not sound earth shaking, but it’s a major shift for me. 

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As a pastor I often felt a fraud, questioning/doubting much of my tradition—certainly not an appropriate representative of that faith to others. In seminary I’d been exposed to various heretical challenges to orthodoxy, and instead of solidifying doctrine, for me the exploration only further dismantled the assumptions inherent within it. By the time of my graduation and ordination, I was an angry young woman. I felt betrayed by the church of my birth, with its unjust policies that excluded those dear to me from being pastors, and not at all sure I really supported any of the beliefs in which I’d been trained. I was a phony of the worst kind: one who looked, sounded, and seemed to any outsider as a model pastor. But inside I seethed.

Serving as a single person in a rural setting was an isolating experience, and even though I found supportive colleagues, my well-being was dying a slow death. I requested an early transfer into campus ministry, which appeared a better fit than a traditional parish, but soon the gaps between my convictions and the theology of my church seemed overwhelming once again. I mumbled through creeds, dropping words and phrases I couldn’t profess. I kept much of my doubting to myself, holding my tongue at clergy meetings when I felt the smugness of doctrinal assurance sweeping across the room. And yet, ever the chameleon, I dared arouse no suspicion amongst my colleagues. After all, this was my bread and butter.

The eventual prospect of changing careers was as exciting as the Transatlantic move which heralded it. In London I could reinvent myself. No more Pastor Wendy the Doubter. From now on, it would be Wendy the radio presenter. Wendy the writer. Wendy the journalist. All those interests which I’d been waiting to feed. I was a new woman. 

Paradoxically, it took moving to a self-professed “secular” country (despite the official presence of a state religion) to re-discover the things I loved—and still cherished—about being both a pastor and a participating Christian. It was as though everything beautiful, essential, and worth keeping about my tradition finally rose to the surface. Here is what I discovered . . . 

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1. I Love Ritual

My life long experience as a Lutheran has gifted me with an innate love for all things ceremonial. There is power in the water poured gently over a baby’s head at baptism, and in the words spoken at communion—not my words, but those of the most ancient tradition, and blessed by a Spirit much bigger than oddly worded doctrines or my stubborn objections to all I cannot accept. This Spirit is present each time I anoint the head of a dying patient in a hospital, to the tearful gratitude of an attending family member. I didn’t invent any of this, and yet I’m honored to be a facilitator of such holy moments.

2. Sacred music is transcendent

I love music of all sorts, and am moved by much of it. But an a capella choir at Evensong takes me to another realm of spiritual communion. Harmonies intermingled with centuries’ old texts stir a deep impulse within me, the comfort of being profoundly at home anywhere in the world such singing occurs. It is not just music. It is, for me, the highest expression of what music can be.

3. Jesus is a participatory reality

For all the weirdness that has grown up calling itself “Christianity,” there remains this person who lived, bearing such a close communion with the Creator of our universe, and who died, transcending whatever incomplete understanding we might have of death. My participation in this tradition doesn’t require belief in supernatural births and miraculous occurrences; whether or not they “actually happened” as written (over years and by numerous authors, by the way) carries no weight for me whatsoever. All I need to hear is the invitation of a fellow traveller who recognized his complete oneness with the one who brought us into being (however that happened), and so desired that for everyone else on the planet that he implored us to continue his mission. Taking a look at the current state of the world, there’s clearly enough work for all our lifetimes.

4. My ordination was not a “mistake.”

I often say I have no idea how I “ended up” a pastor. But that is merely avoiding responsibility for the actual choice I made. No one made me do it, and it was not the wrong choice. It wasn’t the rightchoice either. It is simply what I chose, and it’s an identity I bear for the rest of my life. The only difference is that now, fifteen years and two continents later, I choose to bear it proudly instead of resisting and denying who I’ve become: a woman of words, music, and ritual. A woman of the microphone, and of the cloth. At last, I like the sound of that.

Rev. Wendy Sherer is an ordained Lutheran minister and a trained radio broadcaster. She currently lives in London with her two U.S.-born cats, Philo and Athena. To listen more from her series “Postcards from London” click here.