(January 17, 2016) Jesus calls the disciples to step out of their comfort zones, yes, but not to do something totally alien to them– for a group of people who know fishing, he invites them to fish for people. When God calls us, it’s usually to use gifts that we already have, just to use them in a different way. What gifts and joys do we have, and where do they intersect with the needs around us, so that we may find Frederick Buechner’s definition of our vocation: “the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”? (Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 4:12-22)
(January 25, 2015) Sometimes, God calls us to our vocation with a fancy, funny, unavoidable moment; other times, with the long, slow, persistence throughout our lives. I tell the stories of my call from God, and invite us hear a call in all our stories. The real fun begins when we answer. (Jeremiah 1:4-10, Mark 1:14-20)
Yesterday I joined 71 other pastors in a twitter project called Pastor’s 24. It was a project suggested by my friend, colleague in ministry, and cohort in online Methodist geekdom (as of this writing, we are both featured in the blog section at umc.org, as we attempt to subvert the church with our newfangled communication ways), Jeremy Smith. Jeremy described the project in a blog post on October 19, and invited his readers to participate by posting to twitter their every pastoral action on Wednesday October 27. Yesterday, 72 pastors posted 1050 updates, providing an interesting glimpse into a day in the life of a pastor (or 72). Go to twitter and the hashtag “pastors24” and see for yourself, and be sure to read Jeremy’s recap as well.
I was amazed by the outcome. I thought it would be cool and kind of informative, but for me it turned out to be much more.
I was inspired.
1. So many of my colleagues are so very prayerful, and pray in many places and in many ways. In a way I was watching people “pray without ceasing,” or as a monastic might do, mindfully work. Reading twitter and facebook, we remembered to pray for our friends, actual and virtual; in the shower we prayed for the day ahead; on our commutes, we prayed for our communities. And the rich prayer life reflected in this diverse (but let’s face it, skewed toward the twitter-using crowd) group of pastors was then pouring out in wonderful ways, providing counterpoint to the argument that the church is dying. Many tweets described meeting with people seeking baptism and membership, and several of us were meeting with, praying for, or actively working with candidates for ministry. Many pastors were engaged in work in the community with those living in poverty or great need, and several were out and about interacting with youth in their churches and beyond. The “church” was not confined to a building, and the pastors knew it, each and every one.
2. I did feel much more connected to my fellow ministers, and especially to my fellow working-parent-pastors. I was glad to hear that I wasn’t the only pastor nursing a baby at work, nor the only one who stopped work (at least temporarily) in the mid-afternoon to pick up children. I also wasn’t the only one discouraged by paperwork or overwhelmed by my to-do list, and I wasn’t even the only one who received an annoying robocall voting guide. More importantly, I wasn’t the only one who prayed while driving, or the only one who was banging her head against the social service systems to help those in need, and definitely not the only one who feels gratitude, humility, and joy (mixed with frustration and anguish at times, to be sure) to be part of this vocation. Today, I find myself missing that camaraderie, and that sense that we are all in this together.
3. I think I was a better and more intentional pastor yesterday. I was more aware of what I was doing, and which things I considered ministry. I noticed things I hadn’t been aware of before, like that I do breathe a thanksgiving each time I drive through Montpelier on my way to church because I love living and working and serving God here. And that’s prayer. I was doing things I normally do, and then excited to share them with others, not for self-congratulation, but because they–whether breathtaking or mundane–are part of God’s work. I found myself pushing to get things accomplished so they could be part of my 24 hours, and I actually got through a lot more stuff than I usually do on a Wednesday. Then I had charge conference on top of all that, but the small disappointments around that (low attendance, forgetting my planned worship liturgies) paled when seen in the gestalt of the whole day’s worth of ministry. I even felt better about the things I didn’t finish, and sent out a tweet where I gave my undone work back to God.
It felt like an examen to me. The way I think of an examen may not be by-the-book Ignatian, but it is taking some time to reflect on the events of the day and determine when I felt closest to God or most connected to my calling (and sometimes, when I felt farthest away, because that’s important to know, too). What things lifted me up? For what do I give thanks? What do I give back to God? This exercise of tweeting my ministry helped me be aware of the silly things that were annoying or when I felt far from God/my calling, and the many things that were uplifting and sacred and drew me closer to God and who God is calling me to be as a pastor and a person.
Which leads me to the thought, in connection with point 2 above, that I would love to continue this twitter community in some small way with those who are interested, using a common hashtag like #examen or #pastors or something to not only share our ministries throughout a day (and I do think we should make #pastors24 at least an annual thing!), but share our common work more often and reflect on what about it lifts us up or annoys the living daylights out of us. In our shared frustrations, I found some humor and consolation, and in our shared celebrations, I saw nothing short of the laborers in God’s vineyard.
Thanks to Jeremy and all the participants in #pastors24 for this experience.
When I wrote earlier about hearing the call to ministry, a few people asked about the specific moment itself. I tend not to talk about it too much, not only because people look at you funny if you say you hear voices in your head, but because sometimes it’s discouraging to people who don’t have a call story with voices or flashes of light or burning bushes. I want to emphasize that many if not most of the pastors I know do not have stories like this– they realized that they were called the same way someone realizes they want to be a doctor or a teacher or a farmer. Having a call story with voices and light and burning bushes doesn’t mean we’re more called; in fact, it probably just means we’re more dense, God had to resort to getting our attention by slapping us upside the back of the head.
(The following is a near-transcription of a sermon I preached about my call)
It was a Tuesday night, Mardi Gras, my freshman year in college. I was studying to be a teacher, because that’s what I wanted to be. In particular, I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I wanted to teach Shakespeare, because you see, you have this really old text, and yet the words are still so beautiful and powerful; the ideas still shape us and tell us about who we are, and when you read it you come to a deeper appreciation of the author, a brilliant and profound thinker. I imagined I’d have a semi-captive audience of high school students and their eyes would light up as I’d read them this old text, and together we’d explore how it still touches us and shapes us today.
I was taking Introduction to Education, which I am convinced is designed to weed out people like myself who shouldn’t be teachers, or to make sure that those who want to be teachers want it enough to make it through the class, because it was the most boring, anti-learning course I’ve ever taken. And so this Mardi Gras night, even though the next day the professor was probably going to read the textbook to us aloud in class, I was reading the textbook. And I had read the same sentence a dozen times, and it wasn’t sinking in.
It was getting late, and I was getting desperate. I thought if I could just picture my vision, my dream, that would be the impetus I’d need to finish my homework and go to bed, it would motivate me enough that I could finish reading and get some sleep. So I closed my eyes and I pictured myself in my classroom, with my Complete Works of Shakespeare textbook and my captive audience of high school students and them getting excited about the old text and… it did absolutely nothing for me.
I had this moment of sheer terror. This was what I was supposed to do with my life and now it didn’t inspire me. What am I going to do, who am I going to be?
And then–I won’t call it a voice, because I didn’t hear it. It was a thought. And the thought kind of scrolled across the back of my mind the way text scrolls across a marquee sign in a bus station. And the thought said, and I quote directly, no dummy—not the last time God’s called me a dummy, but the way—no, dummy, you heard wrong. I didn’t say teacher, I said preacher. Picture yourself as a preacher.
Now it was late and I was desperate and I wanted to get my homework done so I thought I’d try anything, and so I did it; I pictured myself as a preacher. In some ways it was familiar. I pictured an old text, and yet the words are so powerful, so beautiful, the ideas in it so important that they shape our lives now in our very hearts and souls and who we are meant to be. And when we read it, we learn about the incredible Author of such a work. I pictured my semi-captive audience whose eyes sometimes do light up as we together discover again and again how these words speak to us and how they shape us today and that the Author who wrote and inspired them, that Author’s love for us and for creation have no limit.
That was what I pictured. It was the most exciting, most inspiring thing I had ever imagined for myself. It had so much purpose, it felt so right and I thought what a great idea I just had! And then I thought where *did* that idea come from? I spent the rest of that Mardi Gras night alternating between arguing– Wait a sec, I know you’re omniscient and all but it’s a small dorm room and an easy mistake to make. I think you meant my roommate; she goes to church a lot and does that clapping and hand-waving thing a lot, and I haven’t been to church in a while now. I tried to read the bible when I was in high school and got stuck in Deuteronomy and haven’t opened it since. And then on the other hand just laughing hysterically, which wasn’t particularly odd behavior for Mardi Gras night.
The next day was Ash Wednesday, and I gave up Catholicism for lent, which is a good punch line, but was actually true and a hard decision I had to make, because that was how I knew how to be spiritual in my life, and the thing that I’d imagined was not going to be possible within the Roman Catholic Church. So I had to go find a place that would let me do what I had imagined.
In the weeks and months and years that followed and are still following, I learned something: that evening was not when I was called by God. That was when God got my attention, because I can be kind of a dummy sometimes, and I needed a moment of vision to get it into my head. But in fact this had been my gift and calling and passion my entire life. Every time I took one of those tests in high school that tell you what you’re supposed to be when you grow up, they would always flip back and forth, but the first two answers were always lawyer and pastor, and I thought I was too moral for the first and not moral enough for the second, so let’s go for choice three, which was teacher. Never realizing that all three were about taking an older text—the bible, the constitution, Shakespearean literature, interpreting it, studying it, explaining it to people persuasively and with excitement, and helping them see its relevance and beauty, helping them see it in a new light— all of that was pointing to a skill set that I have and was being called to use for God’s work. Never realizing or putting together that I had always loved church, my whole life, even after my family stopped attending following my parents’ divorce.
That summer after I’d begun to take that seriously, I was home and I came across this picture. This is not my daughter, although I can understand the confusion. This is me, and I’m about Arianna’s age, and I’m playing my favorite game. I’m wearing my nightgown with my bathrobe over it. I’ve taken a piece of bread from the kitchen and squashed it flat (because we were Catholic and Catholics use those wafers for communion). Sometimes I would take the cup from the bathroom, not pictured here, and I would fill it with grape juice (because I was a good Methodist even then), and I would serve communion to my stuffed animals. I would pretend that I was a priest, and that was my favorite game when I was four.
This is my Jeremiah 1 picture; before you were born I called you, and I keep it on my desk in my office to remind me that while it might have taken me a while to get it through my head, this is what I’m called to do, and what I was called to do my entire life. That’s what I know, what’s familiar to me, that’s the gift and the passion and the joy that I have and am called to use in God’s service.
And it reminds me that we all have that, we all have gifts and passions and talents, and we are called to use them for God’s service. Your vocation, says Frederick Buechner, is where your deep passion meets the world’s deep hunger. I’ve found my vocation. Have you found yours?
The hardest part of discerning a call to ministry for me was believing it was possible.
I was raised by parents who told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, so it wasn’t that I didn’t think the sky was the limit. And yes, I was Roman Catholic, and so I’d never actually *seen* a pastor who was a woman, but I knew such people existed. No, the hard part was that I really didn’t think I was a good candidate, spiritually speaking. At the the time I heard my call, I’d never read the whole Bible, I wasn’t much of a churchgoer, I was pretty new to that whole taking-religion-seriously thing, and I had a lot of doubts about a lot of the things I thought Christians Are Supposed to Believe.
So really, why in the world would God allow, much less want, me to serve as a pastor?
The first thing that really helped was actually reading the bible, particularly the prophets. In their call stories, I heard a lot of my own doubts mirrored (like Jeremiah, I am young; like Isaiah, I feel that I am a person of unclean lips), and in their accounts I also read God’s repeated response: “hey, dummies, it’s not about YOU; I’ll be with you.” Ah.
Along my journey, I met many wonderful pastors who also gifted me by showing their humanity and imperfections, too, and I realized that we are all serving God as best we can, warts and all. Powerful women, particularly my mother in law, my first mentoring pastor, Karen, my supervisor for my internship, Carol, my candidacy mentor, Michelle, and my back-to-back Bishop Susans (Morrison and Hassinger) modeled a variety of ways of being a strong woman in ministry, and I learned a great deal from them. Oh, and there are some guys I look up to, too.
I wish someone had told me how hard ministry is sometimes, not in terms of the endless tasks and the way everything seems to be a top priority, but how draining it can be emotionally, and how there can be dark nights when you’re sure that you are in the totally wrong place in your life and ministry and faith journey. The first time this happened to me, I was in seminary, and I thought I’d made a huge mistake; I wasn’t holding up well emotionally, and I thought that *obviously* meant I wasn’t fit to continue, because pastors have to have it together all the time. It took a while to work through that. I read Renita Weem’s book Listening for God, and now I read it about once every three years. It never fails to speak to me and remind me of the dawn at the end of the darkness.
Out of seminary, my doubts weren’t totally erased; my first six months in parish ministry, I found myself hating my job, constantly trying to fill out paperwork, manage crises, and figure out interpersonal struggles, and hardly ever having time for the creative, spirit-nourishing stuff I love. What someone *did* tell me, a neighboring pastor (now D.S.) named Henry, was that I had to stop trying to tackle the crises of other people, stop filling my time with the minutiae of the job that I hated and do the ministry I was called to do. Henry set me free to answer my call again, to do the ministry I loved and let the rest take care of itself. He is in many ways the reason I remained a pastor at all.
The greatest surprise came three years into my ministry after a particularly difficult week which I struggled through. Looking back over the past seven days, I had the strangest realization: I did a good job. I was good at this. Not just part of it, not just the stuff I liked, but the whole package. With congregants who stepped up and with a rawness in all of us that forced us to be dependent on God, we had managed to come through a crisis together and I had exhibited some pastoral leadership that, when I really looked at it, revealed that maybe I wasn’t such a lost cause after all. Maybe God didn’t mess up in calling me. Maybe God was going to–already had and always would– make good on that promise to be with me in the calling.
I won’t say I never doubted again. I have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. But I remember that there are dark nights that lead to dawns, and crises that give us opportunities to come together in loving community, and a God who is present every step of the way.
It’s a roller-coaster of a journey, and one I wouldn’t trade for the world. Blessings to you as you explore it!
I talk more about my call to ministry in a sermon you can hear here.
If you are a young adult (high school senior-age 24) interested in exploring a call to ministry of any kind, please consider attending Exploration 2009 this November, a chance to learn more about how God’s call might play out in your life! We’ll be praying for you.
(January 25, 2009) When Jesus calls the disciples, he calls them to what they know–fishing–but applied in a new way for God’s work in the world. So it is with us; God calls us through the gifts and passions and blessings we have. I share my own call story as an example of being called to what we know, but applying that gift to God’s service. (Mark 1:14-20)
My picture, and part of my call story: me at the age of four, playing ‘priest’ (I’m serving communion to my stuffed animals). It’s what I know and love!