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Monday, February 4, 2013

Acknowledging Impostor's Syndrome

Today (February 1, the day I am writing) is my 19th anniversary as director of music at St Anne Catholic Community in Barrington, Illinois. Not patting myself on the back much, though, because several colleagues at the Composer's Forum this week had even longer residencies than mine, a couple over 30 years in the same place. That's amazing. But it got me to thinking about the wonder of how I got into this work.

I use the word "wonder" with some intention, because I was relating to some of those colleagues at the Forum the story of my finally landing my first full-time job in music and liturgy at St. Jerome Church in Phoenix, back in (gulp) 1983. I was a travel agent then, having started as a filing clerk and worked my way up through the ranks to be a manager. On Holy Thursday, one of the veeps called me into his office, gave me two months severance, and told me to empty my desk, thank you very much, and don't come in on Monday. I was on my way to direct the cathedral choir in Phoenix for the first of the Triduum liturgies when this happened. I had two children and one on the way, and no job. And though I had been trying for a year to land a job in church music, nothing had been available. Two weeks later, I got a call from Daniel (now, Fr. Cyprian) Consiglio at St. Jerome's, telling me that he and (then, Fr.) Dale Fushek were both leaving St. Jerome, and would I consider taking the job he had? On June 1 of that year, I started at St Jerome, a job I kept for over ten years. That's how I got into this work. So, yes, it is kind of a "wonder," and a good paschal mystery story too.

I remember a conversation I had some time ago with a dear old friend, Stephen Storc. I mean, he's not old, because he's my age, but we go back all the way to the late sixties. Steve was a classmate of my brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier, at St. Vincent Seminary in Montebello, CA, where we all attended high school. Steve was already an accomplished pianist, or seemed to me to be one, when we were in school, but he went on to get a degree in musical performance in the UC system, worked for a while as personal assistant to Aaron Spelling, and eventually came to operate a small but critically successful repertory theater in Escondido. Steve has continued to be a great friend through the years, and directed the first professional performances of my musical Lost and Found at the 1989 convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in Long Beach, California. Later, he produced the show again at his theater, where it was also resurrected last year by their youth theater. He's always willing to take a chance on a dark horse, especially if the dark horse is a friend.

I remembered the two of us discussing the nagging feeling that we weren't good enough at what we do, or has he put it, "would 'they' think that what I've done is good?" Now, Steve is a guy who has paid his dues and done the academic work to pursue and achieve his goals. He settled into making a living at something he loved to do, and managed to make a life at it. He certainly made more money doing work that he enjoyed less, and made a choice to do what he loves.

But there are still those nagging voices. Is it just that we're getting to a certain age where we start questioning the direction our lives have taken, no matter where they've taken us? In my less lucid moments, or those less enlightened by my faith, I have similar feelings. How on earth did I get here? How did I end up being a moderately successful writer of liturgical songs and leader of worship at two churches over the last thirty years, and without much in the way of professional credentials to boot? I don't have a degree in music or liturgy. It's not that I don't know anything about them, or that I don't study them, but I don't have the sort of thing that certain kinds of people look for to validate someone's authority in an area.

Still, I have sensed the hand of God guiding me down this path for almost as long as I can remember. Before I could ever write a song or create a poem, I had a sense that I was being made ready for it. When things started falling into place in the early 1970s inside of me, it was like machinery had been being built within to do the work I was being called to do, almost without my knowing it, and it started operating on its own. Even the ability to survive the harsh and often well-deserved criticism of those early years was part of my make-up. Having a community around to help me discern my gifts and calling was vitally necessary, and was already in place. And none of this was my own doing. I have to say that now, and I am glad to say it. Anything good that I have ever done has been God working through me for the good of the Church and ultimately of the cosmos. Anything scandalous or off the mark in any way has been a result of my own sinfulness, laziness, or lack of cooperation with grace.

I know that I have no claim on this charism: it is completely gift from God, it is not for me, it is for the world. I have to do my best to stay out of my own way. Charism is always both in harmony and in tension with other authority. Because God's Spirit blows where she will, charism does not always fall on those with office or education or even natural ability. Moses was a stutterer. Jeremiah was too young. Amos was a farmer. Sometimes, you just have to do what's burning up inside of you, no matter the consequences, the criticism, or your own self doubt. "Impostor's syndrome" goes with the territory, but it seems to be a kind of faith-test. Is it possible to believe that God, who can do anything, can do anything with me? That's what it comes down to.

About 20 years ago, I intended to write a book, which I started and of which I never got past the start. It touched on some of these issues in the introduction and first chapter. Tentatively titled Amateurs Only Need Apply, it was a call for people to do the work of preparing worship in the church because they love Christ, the Church, and her worship. I'd like to finish today's blog post with a couple of paragraphs from the introduction which are appropriate here.

I'm gonna sing when the Spirit says "Sing"... I'm gonna obey the Spirit of the Lord. (from an African-American Spiritual)
Pastoral ministry is like a fever. It is, in the words of Jeremiah, "a burning fire shut up in my bones." We who do it shake our heads after five or ten or twenty years at it, and wonder where the desire has come from which allowed us to survive the rarified atmospheres and smothering valleys of human interaction, the pettiness and subterfuge of some our leaders, the dull heroism of the fidelity of others, the vast wastelands of the spiritual journey with its voices that taunt us, "nada, y nada, y pues nada."
And yet, we can no more not do this work than a bird can stop singing, or the sea stop its charge to the shore. Like them, we are moved to song and action by the Spirit of God. We can no more escape the call than Jonah could. Jumping ship, we are engorged by the holy leviathan and vomited back onto the shores of duty with the aggrieved sense that this is God's idea of an invitation, an offer which, if we know what's good for us, we can’t refuse. I have been at the work of liturgical and musical ministry for over thirty years now. I have to admit that I love my work. Yes, it can be dull and frustrating. Yes, I have been wounded and yes, I have wounded others, firing defensive and paranoid salvos of poisoned arrows in the direction of some who have held variant opinions over the years. In time, I may yet find some echo of the Teacher in my own actions. When I do, I know it will be amazing grace at work.
I want to be a Christian. I dream of being an apostle. I am settled on being a disciple. An amateur. The word amateur gets a bum rap these days, probably thanks to the Gong Show, Simon Cowell, and perhaps George Bernard Shaw, who has probably been surprised to discover that it is heaven, and not that other place of eternal lodging, which is full of musical amateurs.

Because in its original sense, an amateur is a lover. An amateur is an enthusiast, and at the heart of enthusiasm is theos --God. This book is for liturgical and musical amateurs in the sense that the Olympics is for the Amateur Athletic Union. It is a book for amateurs who do the work, who practice, who study, who have a passion for this calling of ours. It is for amateurs without credentials, and amateurs with Ph.D.s. It is a book for lovers of the church--of people, of the liturgy and its music. So, I guess I'll keep doing what I'm doing, and I certainly encourage you to do the same. Do what's in your heart, discern with your community, and live in gratitude for being an instrument in the hand of God as we listen to the call to keep turning away from sin to believe in the gospel. Obey the Holy Spirit, and do your work to serve the liturgy of the church. As Austin Fleming has told us, through our ministry, even us amateurs, God is saving his people.


  1. Another truly beautiful post, Rory. And you mention my friend Austin Fleming, too.

    You have touched me in a particular way with this, as I engage in some vocational wrestling right now, wondering where I should be. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Fran. Austin was one of the folks that John Gallen had come to speak to us in Phoenix, and we all read his "Preparing for Liturgy," which had those several brief exhortations to ministers that all used the refrain "Yours is a share..."

  2. So True. 19 years of fun. You know it just occurred to me you were in St.Louis this weekend and that's where I first met you 19 1/2 years ago to ask you to consider coming to St. Anne for an interview. Time flies when you are having fun. I sure miss the days of the Three Musketeers and the work we did together.
    Happy Anniversary Ror!

    1. Thanks, CB! I miss those days too, but "missing those days" seems to be part of the territory "these days" for all of us. Probably for everybody as they age. Sigh.

  3. Another amazing post - I live in fear, whenever I am in a group of my peers locally or nationally, that someone will find me out - will find out that I am not worthy to hold the position I hold. I only know, like you, that the burning desire in me will not let me rest. Composing for liturgy is NOT my gift, but the Spirit has found a use for the guitarist/cantorial/directorial gifts I do have. Even in Rome, I could not go 3 1/2 months without ministering through music (fortunately, I was asked!)THANK YOU AGAIN!!

    1. Way to stick with it, Linda! Yes, we all try to use our gifts as they're needed, whatever they are. Thanks for reading my blog.

  4. Having a degree in the subject doesn't take away impostor's syndrome, though I keep hoping time will help!

    I'm enjoying your blog (thanks to Fran!). Blessings on your ministry.