The stories we tell about ourselves are always told in context. So the words I have used to answer the question, “How did you become a minister?” have changed over the years. What follows is as full of an understanding of the process as I can recall, given the limits of time and the constraints of context. And because, DR (dear reader), we are dealing in language rather than another medium this narrative will be linear, but lives are not linear, and the various factors mentioned here changed in significance over time.
I mentioned in a previous note my family and in particular my mother’s role in my becoming a minister. Her approval, based in part in her being an adult child of an alcoholic and seeking balance for childhood-born shame, was a factor in my choosing parish ministry. Who doesn’t value a parent’s approval? (And, had he lived, I have no doubt my father would have approved as well.) It was important to my mother.
But I mention my mother also because somehow I learned to be attentive to unhappiness in women and to be rewarded by attending to it. This skill manifested itself in personal relationships certainly, but came to be useful in the church, a community with a mostly female population.1
I also became inordinately anxious about other persons’ anger, actual or potential.2 Enough of attributing this vocation to some oddities of my childhood.
There were some other aspects of my childhood that definitely did contribute to my being a parish minister. I grew up in a family that was very involved in the local church. As was the case in many families of the 50’s, the Niederfranks were in church if the lights were on and the doors unlocked. My sister and I were in Youth Group and choir activities, my father served as a deacon, we had 3 years of Confirmation instruction, etc. The church was a very familiar part of my life growing up.
I also grew up in an extended family which told stories—usually about one another. But story-telling was part of any and all gatherings. I grew up with people who had a good sense of humor, who liked to tease, who appreciated a good joke, etc. This extended family was multi-generational so I have always been comfortable even appreciative of older persons. And last but not least, it was assumed in my family that you took care of other people. Indeed, my widowed grandmother Carothers took in “failing” boarders and had “Care Others Home” embroidered on the sheets. It was common for my dad to simply say, “Gram’s lawn is looking long” for me to understand that I was expected to get it mowed that day or the next.
The relevant advantages of growing up in a small town (pop. 2000) were a) I had acquaintances of a wide variety of personalities, temperments and abilities and b) I was safe and grew up very trusting of others. And I was given a decent intelligence.
So taking that, the comfort with church, the enjoyment of narrative, the experience of trust and diversity, the encouragement to ministry, the assumption of care and add into my innate extrovert personality and in what other occupation would I fit so well?
OK, next time Why I’m Still Here.
1It would an interesting discussion among clergy about cross-gender approval. Robert Bly has written provocatively about “copper work” in his book Iron John.
2Yes, I know we all become anxious about others’ anger. I’ve seen in myself an unreasonable effort to avoid this. This may have something to do with my upbringing, but perhaps even more with being a (recovering )addict/alcoholic.