Leaving Church is a memoir about running out of steam, of being so harried in your work as an Episcopal priest that you eventually left the clergy. Why did you need to tell that story?
I entered ordained ministry believing it would be what I spent the rest of my life doing. It was a surprise to leave in mid-career. That happened eight years ago now. I feel very much engaged in ordained ministry in the classroom, but that didn't fit any of the stereotypes of ministry. So I have had a personal struggle with believing that I am still a priest and still engaged in God's work. The book both offered me an opportunity to work through that struggle and to speak to many members of the clergy who are also engaged in that struggle.
What kinds of demands did you experience as a priest?
The demands ended up being more spiritual and psychological than they did vocational. The untenable nature of the experience for me was being designated the holiest member of the congregation, who could be in all places at all times and require no time for sermon preparation. Those aren't symptomatic of a mean congregation; those are normal expectations of 24/7 availability. I spent so many years learning to be holy that it took me just as many years to learn to be human again.
After leaving parish ministry, how did you reformulate your identity?
If you become ordained, your identity is largely handed to you. The role is very laden with expectations. To take off my collar, to leave my set role, and to say, "What does priesthood look like when I have no one defining it for me?" was both alarming and freeing. My ordination vows are lifelong. I ended up spending a lot of time parsing them in terms of my present situation as a professor [at Piedmont College in rural Georgia]. I teach undergraduate religion to a broad range of students to whom I am passionately devoted.
How did you wind up with HarperSF?
My previous books were always with religious houses, mostly Cowley Publications. When my editor left Cowley, I took the opportunity to look around. Since I didn't know how to move from the religious publishing world to trade publishing, I found an agent, Tom Grady. It was on his advice that I pursued this topic out of a long list of ideas I gave him.
Who is your expected audience?
I have some very faithful readers now, not only clergy, laity and seminarians, but also people I describe as "edge dwellers." They have one foot in the church and one foot out. I've flourished in the institutional side of religion, but I've also felt boxed in by it and short of air. So I feel I can be a bridge to the people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious" as well as those who are religious.