Last week, I posted on Adam S. McHugh’s 2009 book Introverts in the Church.

Recently, I have been dipping in and out of his website, which includes a blog.

McHugh served as a practising clergyman — for many years as a pastor, then two years as a chaplain — for more than a decade until early 2013. He intends to continue writing and being a spiritual director.

On February 13, 2013, he wrote that he would be giving up his post as a hospice chaplain (emphases in the original):

For the last 15 years I have been “Adam the pastor.” Two months after college I found myself in summer Greek at Princeton Seminary, and I have been preparing for ministry, thinking about ministry, and doing ministry ever since. I have worked in churches, I have worked as a campus pastor, I have worked as a hospital chaplain and as a hospice chaplain. I have preached hundreds of times. I have taught, I have listened, I have prayed. I have preached sermons that made people weep, I have preached sermons that made people squirm, I have preached sermons that made people roll their eyes. I have attended conferences on evangelism, pastoring, church administration (woo), and preaching. Every time I went out to eat with people they asked me to say a blessing on the food.

It is hard to describe how difficult it is to let go of a label like “pastor.” It’s one of those labels that comes so close to your identity. It’s who I feel like I have been for the past 15 years. It’s how other people introduce me. It has been a joy, yes, but it has also been a burden, because of the assumptions that go along with being a pastor. Strangers, upon finding out I was a pastor, would go silent and feel strangely guilty in my presence. People would take mistakes that I made really hard. Expectations were impossibly high. You start playing to the expectations rather than being yourself, and you get so good at it that you confuse the two in your own mind. As delusional as it sounds, you can start viewing yourself as this superhuman figure.  

On February 28 that year, he wrote a moving post about his memories of hospice:

Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.

I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.

I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.

I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said “Amen.”

I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.

I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.

I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.

I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz …

It was a job he had applied for in 2011. On May 9 that year, he told his readers:

Recently I received the ultimate backhanded compliment, from a former colleague I came to know in my first church ministry job. Back then I was a 25-year-old seminary graduate plotting revival everywhere I went. Now I am a 34-year-old pastor asking her for a recommendation for a hospice chaplaincy. She expressed surprise at my interest in the job. I explained that the chaplaincy would allow me to grow as a listener and to be with people in painful but potentially sacred moments. She said, “You certainly are different from what I remember.”

It was meant as a kindness. Yet it felt like receiving the “Most Improved Player” trophy, which I may or may not have won on my first-grade basketball team. The subtext of that trophy is: “You’re still awful, and you will always ride the bench, but we don’t feel as embarrassed to have you on the team as we once did.”

Today, his life is somewhat different. On November 5, 2014, he wrote (emphasis mine):

I may have walked away from professional ministry over a year and a half ago, but I think it took about 18 months for professional ministry to walk away from me. I am now settled in as assistant manager at a reputable winery in Santa Barbara and a wine tour guide in Santa Ynez. But I still think there is more continuity between my old life and my new life than others might think. What I tell people is that as a hospice chaplain I used to listen to medicated people, and now as a wine educator I still listen to medicated people. They’re just a lot happier now.

His second book is due for publication in the autumn of 2015. Its working title is The Listening Life.

He enjoys giving talks on wine and will be giving a seminar on the subject next June for Glen East, which will be held at Mt Holyoke College in Massachusetts. His seminar is called ‘Wine and Spirit’, described as follows:

To the ancients the process by which grape juice was transformed into wine was a sacred mystery. Wine was a gift of the gods, a holy offering, lifeblood that unites us to the deep things of the universe, an elixir that makes a hard life just a little bit easier. You see, wine was not invented or created; wine was discovered, an accidental miracle stumbled upon by a gatherer of wild grapes. Even now, when modern science has discovered the building blocks and chemical reactions that catalyze the fermentation process, we put wine at the center of our tables and our altars, a sacramental reminder of invisible realities. In this workshop Adam McHugh, ordained Presbyterian minister, spiritual director, author, and yes, sommelier, will lead us into the mysteries and meaning of wine. Through discussion and wine tasting, we will let wine slow us down and teach us how to pay attention to the everyday miracles in front of us. 

Although McHugh’s interest in early Church mysticism doesn’t resonate with my faith, I wish him all the best.

It’s hard to criticise someone who has thrown churchgoing introverts a life raft in a sea of extroverts. For his groundbreaking book, many of us are grateful.

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