When ordained people get cancer, we get it the same way other people do. One of a dozen triggers joins our genetic make-up, our exposure to carcinogens, and our immune system to compromise it, allowing cells inside us to grow in a life-threatening way. Our cancer also shares a psychospiritual pattern summed up by the poet W. H. Auden as “the foiling of a creative fire.” Not only has our biological immune system failed us, so has our psychological and spiritual system.

These cancers are not our fault. But they are our responsibility. We have to grasp hold of the triggers—biological, emotional, and spiritual—if we are to survive. Some may grasp all these and more—and still not survive. Cancer kills those who fight it admirably and those who don’t. As writer Molly Ivins suggested in a Time essay after surgery for breast cancer, “cancer doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you have a positive mental attitude.”

Clergy with cancer are different not just because we know so many facts. We have also seen nearly as much of cancer as doctors have. We know its pattern. We know way too much about cancer—and nothing at all about our own.

Knowing Too Much
Clergy go into cancer “role-heavy” and come out “role-light.” The role-heavy know too much about cancer, its cold sweats and night terrors, its demonic intrusions into intimate relationships. We know death comes far too slowly, and that prospects change so many times that the patient stops paying attention, as does the caregiver. We role-heavy ones possess the superior knowledge our life’s work has given us, but our superiority gets in the way of knowing our own disease. We start out being “know-it-alls” and end up as magnificently ignorant about the ways of life and death as anyone else.

By becoming “role-light,” I mean we get our work life out of the way of our survival. When we have cancer, we can’t take care of others. They—parishioners, family members, friends, doctors—have to take care of us. Besides having cancer and having to relinquish our health—or, in my case, my breast—we also have to let go of our customary role. Many of us really like the clergy role and are as close to it as we are to our breast. It is deeply a part of us. Letting it go is like going naked into the world, especially when we pretty much agree that cancer signals a compromised spiritual and psychological system as much as a compromised immune system. What? The clergy have lost faith? They don’t believe what they tell us? Yes. That is the peculiar nudity of the clergy when we have cancer: We are paid to have stellar spiritual immune systems. When they fail us, they fail others as well.

In that vulnerability lies strength. Genuine faith has gaps; from time to time faith knows doubt. In fact, “hanging on” to our role or to our “Rock-of-Ages” faith will cost us the great awakening and clarifying that cancer is. It is the best wake-up call around, as countless survivors will tell you. Men with prostate cancer discover that sexual function is not their only identity. Women who have lost breasts will still be women. Cancer is a metanoia, a turning point, an opening into a new life. English novelist E. M. Forster said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” That applies to both the ordained and unordained. Cancer tells you in no uncertain terms that it is time for a change and that loss is not loss of “everything.” God has a funny way of showing up when we let go of all the other props: clergy find deeper faith inside compromised faith.

Role Changes
These life changes are not a penance for the wrong we have done to get cancer. Rather they are the repentance, the chance to repair or reform whatever compromised our immunity initially. We know the routine—diet, exercise, vitamins, air, and water—the good things. Clergy join the rest of the human race in fighting for health in a world where the unhealthy chases us around in air, water, food, and lifestyle, where bioterrorism is waged on us not only from outside the country but also from within.

We not only change our lifestyle for greater overall health. We also are privileged to change and deepen our role. We get to be the care receiver instead of the caregiver. We get to “disrobe” and “defrock” in public and let others see our humanity. We will never again, if Christian, be so grateful that God sent Jesus in human form!

This disrobing is part of the great unquenching that cancer gives as a gift. The unquenching of the creative fire is something clergy desire as much as anyone else. Too many of us let too many people be our bosses. Too many of us live sedentary, “inside” lives, in offices, solving other people’s problems—problems they should probably solve themselves. Way too many of us say yes when we mean no.

The servant role is remarkably positive until it collapses into the slave role. It is elevated by choice and debased by lack of choice. When we clergy choose our role, we are servants in the holiest sense. When someone else tells us what to do, or how to be servants, not only is our creative fire quenched; our ministry becomes a form of slavery.

Likewise, faith is not faith when it is for show or for holding others up. Faith is faith when it holds us up, too, when we acknowledge our dependence on God.

The Chance to Receive
Cancer gives clergy special gifts. When people talk the classic cancer talk—“If there is anything I can do for you, just tell me” or “I will pray for you”—take them up on it. Be specific. The chance to receive will not return soon. I asked my staff to move my office to a lighter area in the church instead of sending flowers, candy, and Hallmarks. They had a good time doing it. I asked my congregation to run out-of-the-box errands, like taking the cat to the vet or getting my daughter to driving lessons. Cancer is a great teacher of assertiveness. We learn to say, “So sorry, but I just can’t talk now” and “Thank you so much for making my Thanksgiving pies. I never could have gotten to them myself.” Cancer is a clarifier: we learn to say what we need and want, not what others think we should need and want.

I was able to ask those who truly, if awkwardly, wanted to “help” to surround me with a blanket of prayer before and during the surgery. They did. It was the most powerful experience of church I have ever had. People prayed all over the country, as well as in a small service in our own chapel. The prayer did two things for me—it represented church, viscerally, and it gave others a way to “do something” as they genuinely wanted to.

The Pastor’s Pastor
I also made sure to ask someone outside my “system” to be my pastor. I didn’t want to be part of my parochial church, but I did want to be part of church. This pastor gave me the greatest gift at my bedside because she was free of my role and I was free of my role.

My husband managed an e-mail list, sending out all the gory details and information. I have known pastors who kept their illness a secret—a mistake, I think. It means they don’t want to get naked in public. I can understand that; nonetheless, such silence puts the lie to the very preachings of community, support, and prayer that are our lifeblood and weekly sermon. Getting people to give out information is helpful—and we don’t have to do it ourselves! Choosing a pastor gives life and power to our own pastoral work at a later date. Yes, Virginia, even you need a pastor.

When we get out of the hospital, we can return to our role as slowly as we wish. We have been clarified by cancer, and we know more about how to be a child of God. That certain knowledge will do more to advance our ministry than keeping at it, through thick and thin, ever could.