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The Once-Angry Minister

A New Kind of Success Story

What are we to do with this enhanced story of ourselves? Can what-we-do really be in alignment that deeply with who-we-are? I think it can, if we let “I’m going to be truer to myself” be the principle that drives our decisions every time we come to a crossroads. Through trial-and-error, we are pushed to greater recognition about what we really need. The Big Bold Step turns out to be only the first step.

No story demonstrates this more cleanly than John Butler’s.

            The first time we talked, John was in his law office in Santa Clara. He’s about six feet one, with ruddy cheeks and short auburn hair and a diamond stud in his left ear. He still had the sweeping shoulders and tapered hips that he developed almost 30 years earlier, when he was ranked #2 nationally in the 200-meter breaststroke. He’s 47 now. John was preparing to shut down his divorce mediation practice so that he might become ordained as a minister by the Unity church. This was a two-year program at Unity’s world headquarters in Missouri. John expected to hear any day – and did, the next day, by letter. His application was turned down. The church told him he had “anger issues.” John had spent his life struggling to overcome his anger – he thought he had overcome it – so this rejection was doubly devastating. It almost extinguished his hopes.

            The next time we talked in depth, we met in the Portland, Oregon airport and traveled down to the southwest corner of the state, to a two-stoplight town called Bandon-by-the-Sea. The Unity chapter in Bandon had given John a six-month contract as their interim minister, even though he was not ordained. Their regular minister was on sabbatical. John was two months into his contract (he’d come back to the Bay Area that week for training), and he absolutely loved it. It had convinced him his instincts had been right. “Already I can’t imagine not being a minister. I’m not even sure I can go into the ministry training program next year. Why wait two years to do something I’ve already gotten to do and am good at?”

            While this jump from lawyer to minister sounds like one of those radical 90-degree turns, John’s been narrowing in on this his whole adult life, and the theme that’s brought him here has been consistent. When he was young, he was abrasive and quick to assign blame – and he found work that aligned with that personality. But his life has been a gradual step-by-step away from that hostility. This latest step has brought him to the other end of the spectrum; now he’s calm, good-natured, and forgiving.

That journey began shortly after college. He had a personal motive for becoming a lawyer – he’d suffered a great injustice in court. John had started out as a carpet salesman for a building materials wholesaler. They stiffed him on $80,000 in commissions, so he sued. John hired a letterhead-litigator from one of San Jose’s best firms to represent him, but the guy did a lousy job and was unprepared. John thought, “If this guy is supposedly the best, I’m in the wrong business.” He took the LSATs a week later, paid the extra hundred bucks to be FedEx’d his score quickly, and persuaded Santa Clara’s law school to take him at the last minute. He was sitting in Property class a week later.

He flashed that same kind of bullheadedness after school, when he joined the San Jose District Attorney’s office. Within a year was the lead misdemeanor attorney in the office. His specialty was drunk driving arrests. John went after everyone. He refused to settle. He was feverish with his righteousness. These people had done something wrong; they had to be punished. If that meant he had to work 90-hour weeks, he would do it. If it meant he tied up the courtrooms, so be it. There was no excuse for letting offenders plead to a second or third offense as if it was their first offense. There was no excuse for not making them go to AA meetings and fulfill their community service. John became infamous in Santa Clara County courts, and soon no attorney wanted to take him on. They began to plead guilty without a trial.

A couple of things ended this vindictiveness. First, John realized how much of the anger he had for drunk drivers was actually misdirected rage at his father, who drank excessively when John was young. As soon as he made the connection, he no longer felt this hatred for the offenders. His zeal for prosecuting these cases was gone. The District Attorney bumped him up to felonies, and his first two cases were ones that the D.A. wanted to drop because they were too hard to prosecute. But John couldn’t do that. When he saw blame, he would stop at nothing to get a conviction. One was a molestation case involving a patient at a mental institution, the other a child endangerment case. He took both cases to trial and won convictions, but they required an incredible amount of his energy. He could see that if he were to prosecute rapists and murderers, he would never escape from this cycle. His tendency to take these cases so personally, as if he were the victim, meant the cases would swallow him. He needed to learn not to take it so personally, something he would never do if assigned to criminal cases. So he quit and spent three months soul searching.

He thought about being a minister, but it was so far-fetched, “It was like a football player suggesting he wants to be a ballerina,” John said. John decided to go into bankruptcy law. He got two job offers from firms that specialized in corporate bankruptcy. The first was from a hardball litigation firm that took everything to court. The second was less prestigious and less money, but from a boutique that preferred to negotiate, use workout sessions, and help the debtor’s business turn around. John had a deep hatred of debtors (his wound from the $80,000 in unpaid commissions hadn’t healed at all), but this second’s firm’s approach tugged at him. John went with them. It felt right. He found in their methods a better solution for his own resentments, which he held against his parents and his ex-wife.

He spent four years there, then started his own practice. It was another notch down in pay and prestige, but he thought he’d be happier representing consumers rather than corporations. Consumer bankruptcies were usually uncontested; the injured parties were banks and credit companies who didn’t take it personally. The whole process was designed to help a man turn his life around. Again, this felt right. John was very good at it, and highly sought after. He was in therapy at this time, and he was realizing how much better he felt talking things out than bearing grudges and fighting endlessly. One day after therapy, sitting in the parking lot, the thought occurred to him, “Why don’t you become a mediator?”

He took a class on mediation with the goal of doing one divorce mediation by the end of the year. John became, rather quickly, the dominant and most successful divorce mediator in Silicon Valley. He’d been married for six years, had two children, and divorced during law school – he brought his own experience to his mediation sessions, and he was often in tears as he described his own experiences to the warring parties. He utilized Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus techniques to help divorcees communicate better in their sessions. John found the work very rewarding, and still does. But one of the keys to resolving marital separation agreements is to always push the question, “What do you really want?” She doesn’t really want his car, she wants him to say he’s sorry and to admit he handled it badly. He doesn’t really want the home, he wants her to forgive him. And John Butler really wanted to be a minister. The thing was, he didn’t go to church and didn’t really believe. But he still wanted to be a minister! Somehow, it called to him, quietly. It didn’t make sense, but the idea of ministering to people’s problems seemed the next step in his evolution.

During this time, John took a Theology class at San Jose State. It was very academic and not very spiritual. He looked into seminaries, but he didn’t believe in any of those religions. Then he met a woman who was a minister, and he fell in love with her, and started going to her church, and they got engaged. John thought she was his soulmate. She was going to make this transition easy. Their plan was, after the marriage, John would become the co-minister of her church. He still hadn’t found his belief yet, but the God part wasn’t the appeal of it to him. Shortly before the wedding, she called it off and broke up with him. No soulmate, no ministry, no church.

“I see now that I was using her to make my dream happen,” John said. “And there was something false in that. I wasn’t willing to do the work myself. It was devastating, but it was a real test. Was I willing to make the transition alone, without anybody’s help? That’s a lot scarier.”

John went looking for a new church. He tried the Unity church in Palo Alto, and more for ritual and solace than religion, he kept going back. The Unity church did not convert him, not in the slightest. Slowly, gradually, as he learned more about Unity’s teachings, he realized here was a church that he didn’t disagree with or have misgivings about. Here was a church that aligned with how he’d come to see the world. One of the distinguishing beliefs of Unity is that the world is not a battle between good and evil. There are not good people and bad people, the right and the wrong, the saved and the damned. Unity teaches that all people are inherently good, even if they might have made some mistakes. This is exactly what John had slowly gravitated to in his work! Then, Unity teaches “practical Christianity,” meaning it models how to handle life’s everyday difficult situations, which are their own reward when handled well. Unity ministers don’t wear robes and aren’t the congregation’s conduit to God. John found in the Unity church a way to add a spiritual dimension to his evolving skills in handling conflict resolution. With everything in alignment, his spiritual belief gradually came to him.

“But being religious was not enough,” John said. “And bringing spiritual ideas into my mediation practice was not enough. I still had a calling to be the one delivering the sermon.”

John joined the board of the church and became a well-regarded mediator for church conflicts, both at his church and at others. It was at one of these mediation sessions, for a Unity chapter in another county, when John learned that their minister had to leave town on a family medical emergency. Who was going to deliver Sunday’s sermon?

“I’d love to do the sermon,” John found himself saying.

He had three days to prepare. He’d never felt more alive. His mentor attended, and so did his mother and father. When John talks about his father, his voice trembles and cracks with emotion. “After the sermon, he came up to me and blessed me. It was –” He choked up, then let go. “It was the first time in my life he blessed me. He said I had a gift.”

Over the next couple years, John delivered an occasional sermon and took some week-long classes at Unity’s world headquarters in Missouri. (I discovered him through a friend who attends the Unity church in San Francisco, where John gave three sermons last year).

When we talked last year, it amazed me that he was once an abrasive man, but he assured me that was the kindest word one might use to describe him. He understood himself enormously well and had nothing to hide. He was never afraid to reveal his weaknesses. I assumed he was going to be accepted to the ministry program – how could he not? – he’d clearly done his work.

“Being told I had ‘anger issues’ was such a blow,” John said, now nine months later. “I was infuriated at being rejected. I was angry at them. And yet every time I felt anger, it was like I was offering them evidence that I’m angry. Of course I’m angry, because I felt they were wrong, but I couldn’t protest or appeal their decision, because they would see that state I was in and think they were right. Oh, it was a trap.”

“How’d you get out of it?” I asked.

“Well, first, spending a lot of time forgiving them for what I perceived was their mistake. And then, kind of on the wings of that forgiveness, I realized they were probably right. I’d been a little on edge when I went for the week to Unity Village. I don’t like being judged and evaluated. And they had these knickknack rituals that bothered me, sort of treated us like children. There was a dress code, just casual clothes, but I’m an adult. I dress appropriately. Then, I had to sign in for classes every morning, as if I might skip class. I’d paid over a thousand dollars for the plane tickets, hotel room, and rental car – was I really going to skip class? So these things put me on edge, and they could feel it when I was there. I had a bit of a grudge.”

“So did you go back?”

“Yes, I went back for another week, to sit in more classes from the very teachers who had denied me permission to the program. That was a real test. It would have been so easy to see them as my enemy, my tormentors, and bear a grudge. When they saw I did not bear this grudge, and I was no longer bothered by the knickknacks required, they realized I was a better man than they had known.”

“It sounds like you will get admitted to the program next year.”

“Yes, they’ve indicated that, and I’ve applied. But I don’t think I want to go,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because I love being a minister so much. I’d rather find another short-term position than sit in school. My contract is up in June. That will be a very tough decision.”

He told me the story of how he received this position in Bandon, Oregon. When he was back in Missouri, he grabbed a newsletter for Unity ministers. In the back pages were classified ads from churches needing ministers. Bandon had advertised. John called and sent them a CD of his sermons, but he was told they already had two ordained candidates they were interviewing. A month later, they called back. Neither of the two candidates were quite right. Could he be there in four days and deliver the Sunday sermon? John agreed, but then was told they couldn’t pay for his plane ticket, which was about four hundred dollars. He bristled. It was standard procedure to pay for a candidate’s travel costs. He didn’t want to be taken advantage of. Finally, on a friend’s advice, he decided to drive, a 12-hour trip, spend the night, give the sermon, and drive back the next day.

The congregation loved him. He was offered the six-month contract.

“I know it now seems like a dream come true, but it still was very hard for me to accept,” John said. “Most of my friends and my mentor thought I shouldn’t take it. I would have to pay other lawyers to take over my mediation cases, and wrap up a practice I’d taken years building, for what? For a six-month gig that led nowhere. That offered no next step, no future. My success is not measurable. I used to make $250 an hour. This pays $425 a week. It’s not like I was unhappy with my mediation cases. I love that work. Plus, I really want to find a soulmate. Most of the people in Bandon are retired and older than I am.” He went on with more excuses until I cut him short.

“But you needed to know if this was really for you,” I argued.

“Yeah.”

“Is it?”

“So much more than I ever anticipated.”

Unity’s chapel in Bandon is an aluminum-sided, aluminum-roofed barn across from an oil change shop off the coast highway. It’s a humble place. There’s no cross on the roof’s peak. Inside, the walls are plastered and the ceilings are suspended and the light flickers from long florescent tubes. The floor is covered from wall to wall with cream carpet. There are no pews, just semicircular rows of ordinary metal chairs. I had no expectations, so I wasn’t surprised. But now describing it, I’m at a loss – what makes it a church at all? It was entirely in the minds of the congregation. They hadn’t inherited a place of worship. They’d started this chapter themselves, and the church required their participation or it would not exist. During the week there are children’s classes, a writer’s group, a science-of-mind class, a meditation class, a prayer support group, and at 9:30 on Sunday mornings, an Adult class with about fifteen feisty people who wanted John to challenge them. This was incredibly refreshing. Most of them were retired. They’d come to tranquil Bandon from California’s busy cities, but they weren’t here to golf and play bridge. They’d gone north, not south. In their 50s and 60s, they were using this time for personal growth.

John had given them homework the week prior, and most had done the exercises. He’d asked them to write down their limiting beliefs – essentially, their opinions of themselves, reseen not as identity statements but as self-constraints. One woman’s limiting belief her whole life was that she wasn’t smart and couldn’t learn – she’d realized she did learn, but slowly. Another woman’s limiting belief was that she could never ask for help. She had to fix everything, and by herself. John urged her to learn the feeling of helplessness. “Wow!,” she exclaimed, unable to imagine ever going there, but willing to think about it. Another woman said that her limiting belief was that there was never enough money. One of the principles of Unity is to be aware of our “abundance,” that we already have plenty and we will not go hungry, that the world will take care of us. She had real trouble accepting this, and as a result she was preoccupied with the material world.

I began to get the hang of this exercise, and I wrote down the limiting beliefs that had stopped me over my lifetime – that my dream of writing wouldn’t come true and I needed to find another career, that my divorce had wounded me, that being a parent was not compatible with my calling, that nobody would read what I wrote unless I was funny … Many of the constructs John was teaching these retirees were ones I’d arrived at over the course of this book – that our fears should be attacked, not run from. From our deepest wounds come our greatest gifts. Everyone in this book has overcome his or her own limiting beliefs. They’ve discovered that their hard-earned skills mean more to them than the talents they were born with. John said, “Most of us can trace our problems back to two or three limiting beliefs.” In his own case, he had believed he was a fighter, and so he went looking for fights – in the swimming pool, in the courts of justice, and in his family. That fighter turned out to be a shell, and inside was a man who hated to fight.

At 11:00 the chapel filled with about 70 people. John took the microphone and led the service. People felt free to interrupt with questions or joke lightly with him. During his sermon, he involved several as actors in a skit. He never bludgeoned them with scripture, and quoted poets and philosophers and politicians more than Christ’s disciples. In a voice quaked with feeling, he told long stories from his own life, from times that he was challenged to love unconditionally or grant forgiveness.

He’d told me, “All week long, Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. It really pushes me to think and observe. This is not about me lording over the congregation, me being better than them. I’ve got tons to learn. Delivering a weekly sermon accelerates that growth.” 

John’s arc is, in my opinion, the clearest example of how I’ve come to think the question “What Should I Do With My Life?” be approached. What I so admired about John Butler’s journey was not that he ended up a minister. Most people jump through life, asking what’s next, and choosing based on where can they make the most money, what offers the most upside, or opportunity. A conventional “success” story is one where, with each next, the protagonist has more money, more respect, and more possessions. I’d like to suggest an alternative “success” story – one where, with each next, the protagonist is closer to finding that spot where he’s no longer held back by his heart, and he explodes with talent, and his character blossoms, and the gift he has to offer the world is apparent.