by Becky Schamore
William C. Mills currently serves as rector of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. A New Jersey native, Mills moved from four years of college and six years of seminary in the north directly to a small orthodox parish in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. By his own admission, Mills was a rather naïve newly-ordained priest when he arrived in Charlotte in early 2000 to begin his career as rector to his parish. Eighteen years later, Mills is an accomplished author of several articles and books on the Bible and Christian Spirituality; he holds a Ph. D. in Pastoral Theology from Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he continues to learn from the congregation that taught him how to be a pastor (58).
In Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding, Mills recounts the struggles he encountered and the lessons he learned along the way to finding wholeness and peace in his work and life. His story has the potential to resonate with anyone, Christian or non-believer, who has struggled with stress or depression, disgruntled co-workers, uncertainty about his or her chosen career.
Given the significance of certain numbers in the Bible, the division of Mills’ book into three parts can hardly be considered accidental. If one were to assign labels to each part, they might look something like Innocence, Experience, Acceptance. But labels don’t account for the complexity of transformation, which may account for their absence in this memoir. Instead, Mills walks the reader through his complete transformation, from young acolyte to priest-in-training to pastor. The author’s frank portrayal of his youth and his calling to ministry, along with the many surprises and betrayals that await him in his new parish, offer a window into the humanity of the parish priest. It is a view that is perhaps not often considered from the pews, and it was well worth this parishioner’s time to consider the parishioner-priest relationship from a different perspective.
The focus on Mills’ youth may come as a bit of surprise to the reader expecting the memoir to focus on the pivotal moment in the priest’s church when “disaster struck, Mills’ life came crashing down [and] a third of his congregation left in a public power play” (from the book jacket). Mills may very well have considered beginning the story of “losing [his] religion” later in life, closer to the crisis, with the start of his professional career, but there is a logic to the preamble.
Mills’ experience of the church as a boy and the intensity of his studies, help shine light on his own misconceptions and misperceptions about what it means to pastor a community of diverse individuals. In Mills’ childhood home, for instance, “[the parish priest] was one level below God. . . the one who heard [their] confessions and gave [them] communion” (13). Mills recognizes later that he is perceived in this same way by many of his new parish, that “they too, like Mom, go to great lengths preparing” for a visit from their priest (13). This reverence for the priest is a double-edged sword Mills learns. For one it does not prepare the priest for the more down to earth frustrations and criticisms that eventually come his way, nor does it prepare the congregation for the humanity of the person who wears the cassock. One of the important lessons Mills must learn it to trust his parish and himself with his own humanity.
Mills is quite frank in admitting the pitfalls of his preparation in seminary. Theological scholarship, certainly, however, the study itself was solitary. “There were no group projects or presentations. Yet in parish life. . . most of ministry requires working with people: meetings, committees, and projects” (27). Mills admits he had to learn on the job how to work with people. “We had classes on Serbian Church History and classes on the ancient history of the Matins service, but how do they help with organizing a parish council or starting a pledge campaign? They don’t. While we learned a lot, most of it didn’t impact our future parish ministries” (27).
In the second part of his book, Mills explains how he was forced to wake up and smell the coffee, or more accurately, perhaps, buy the bagels, and pick up the hammer. He envisions lofty book studies with parishioners as committed to theological study as full-time seminarians. What he gets are human beings with children and jobs and frustrations who can’t get past the first chapter of the book he wants them to read. He comes somewhat sheepishly to the realization that he has tried to impose upon them his agenda without discovering who they are. “I thought I was their teacher, but little did I know that they were going to teach me more than I was going to teach them. They already had a common life and shared a common history. I was an outsider. I was a priest but not yet a pastor” (58). His introduction into parish life is all about the small details he never expected. In the chapter entitled, “I Signed Up for This?” Mills confronts his lack of preparation: “Some seminarians may have been well-trained but not this one. . . I didn’t have experience running a meeting, let alone, creating an agenda, reading a financial statement, leading small groups, or implementing the annual stewardship drives. Funny thing was that at the time I didn’t realize how little I knew” (60).
He is willing to learn. Mills jumps in with the both feet, learning not only how to run a meeting, but how to wield a hammer, dig a ditch, mix concrete. Eventually he even learns to feel confident as the part-time member of the parish contracting crew. He learns other lessons as well: “[His] job isn’t to change people, but to encourage and inspire them” (71).
But his lessons don’t prepare him for the upheaval to come. In the third part of the book, Mills finally gets to the heart of his emotional and spiritual upheaval—one parishioner’s dissatisfaction, which eventually leads to an exodus of approximately one third of the congregation from the church. Here again Mills is frank with his inexperience and perhaps his inability to deal with the situation effectively. The reader may wonder why Mills didn’t handle the situation one way or another. Mills seems to wonder himself. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, especially for the outsider. Who wouldn’t hope that in playing down another’s disgruntled behavior, the disruption might be avoided altogether? In any case, Mills has yet another lesson to learn. Eventually a public altercation with the unhappy parishioner and the despair and self-doubt which follow lead the author and priest to self-enforced renewal. He discovers the Davidson Clergy Center.
If there is any place where the author could have gone into more depth, it is here, in the unfolding of his transformation, from near despondent priest to renewed and refreshed pastor. The third part of Mills’ memoir deals with both the upheaval in the church and its outcome for the priest, as well as the priest’s eventual discovery of emotional and spiritual help through the services of the Davidson Clergy Center.
The path to healing is, of course, personal and individual, one does not expect a full confession of all that Mills experienced, but given the time spent on the author’s childhood and seminary experiences, the actual pages dedicated to the healing process seem somewhat rushed to this reader. The author himself notes the complexity of the process: “When I signed up for that week at the Center, I thought I would leave all fixed and ready to go. . . I didn’t realize it was just the beginning. I didn’t realize how much inner work I needed” (132). The reader does not need to know the inner work needed; nevertheless, the compression of seven years into one chapter, “Tuesdays with Tom,” comes as a bit of a surprise. The author recounts what he learned, how he had neglected important aspects of his life for his ministry, how he needed to call those back, “needed to embrace other areas of life that gave [him] joy, otherwise the parish would crush [him]. Then suddenly (it seems), the author is free. The “inner demons and darkness” are gone (141).
In no way does Mills suggest the transformation was sudden or easy. In fact, he does the opposite, insisting that it took seven years of work to come to grips with the failures of the past and to let them go. His freedom was hard won. What is missing, perhaps, is the shape of that transformation while it was happening—a glance at the parish with a priest in transition. Mills is so thorough in detailing his experience as a novice in the parish, it is a somewhat glaring omission, to deny his readers a working, up-to-date view of the renewed priest, the pastor, the one who “found [his] voice” (141).
Despite the brevity of the passages focusing on Mills’ own healing process, his meaning and intention are clear. Priests need to be cared for and they need to know how to care for themselves. While Mills’ memoir is his own experience, that experience offers valuable insight into the potential drawbacks of seminary life, as well as the rude awakening that may await first-time rectors. The parish community can indeed be a “warm loving community” (51), but it is always a community of human beings. Human beings are imperfect, and all human beings, pastor and parishioner alike, need care and renewal. Losing My Religion offers insight into life on the other side of the altar. It is recommended for anyone interested in an honest, refreshing look at the humanity of one who is not afraid to share his experience on the pathway of faith and finding.
Becky Schamore is an English teacher and member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.