Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who you gonna call?

I serve on the Committee on Ministry on behalf my local association in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. This committee's work and concern is that of authorized ministry (ordained, commissioned, licensed) within local churches. Some of our work includes giving support to pastors, receiving persons into a minimum 2-year discernment process toward authorized ministry, and holding clergy accountable for any misconduct.

Currently I am advising two persons toward ordination. During the discernment process, that is, perceiving the call of the Spirit, we talk a great deal about what kind of call toward ministry a person has received. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr speaks of a four-fold understanding of call:

  1. The Christian call: This is a call to live a life of Christian faith and discipleship that matures over one's lifetime. It is the foundation of all attitude and behavior, no matter what one's given vocation or profession.
  2. The Secret call: This refers to the passion of the Spirit in the life of the individual when one considers specific Christian service, such as a missionary, a pastor, a chaplain, or a volunteer.
  3. The Providential call: This is the secret call lived out and affirmed by others in the form of one's gifts and suitability for ministry. One shows a willingness to make what changes are necessary to answer the call and align one's life toward this call.
  4. The Ecclesial call: This process involves the individual, God and the Church, as ministry is about the needs of the Church, not the needs of the individual person seeking to serve.

Often, the Christian call is confused with the secret call: one experiences a conversion from one sort of life to another, a falling-in-love with God and with community, and wishes to give one's life in service but that does not necessarily entail ordained ministry. In the discernment process it is important to explore one's call, for not all who wish to follow God are suited for pastoring a church.

The trouble is, over the years we've exalted the ordained ("Reverend", a Master's of Divinity degree) to the point that one's ego inevitably gets involved. Ordination becomes the goal rather than the means towards being a faithful servant of Christ. When I reflect on my own sense of call, I sometimes wonder if I, too, got the first two confused. One of the passages I chose for my ordination service ended with the verse "...what will they give in return for their life?" (Matt. 16: 26b) Becoming a pastor was my answer to that question.

I sometimes wonder if I really was meant for the church as a pastor, especially since I left full-time ministry ten years ago to stay home with my children. I never really had a chance to test myself. I'm not looking for reassurance; I'm seriously considering the path I have chosen. I once heard it said that sometimes one has to step off the path in order to find it. But every time I'm in the pulpit, preaching a message I am compelled to share, or singing for a congregation, or celebrating Communion, or offering comfort at a funeral, or praying with folks, I know I'm in the right place. It's all the other stuff that's expected that I am not qualified for nor am I interested in doing: fundraising, administrating a staff, being 'in charge' of everything. In our Congregational polity I thought we were all supposed to be in charge. But congregations still defer to the pastor in differing measures.

Elizabeth O'Connor wrote in her book Letters to Scattered Pilgrims that churches are to be seminaries to educate and prepare laypeople as ministers in the world, what the first letter of Peter calls "the priesthood of all believers" (1 Peter 2:9). Pastors are those who dedicate their lives toward that end; no better, no worse than any other human being, yet striving for excellence and beauty in their ministry. Yes, we should expect our leaders to be educated, trained, and faithful but the same standard needs to be used with all members of the Body in order to nurture that priesthood and call forth that costly, joyous discipleship.

I would be interested to hear from you, dear reader, about your passion deep within, how the Spirit is moving in your life, calling to you....what? How is your passion made manifest in your life?


Mystical Seeker said...

I read an interesting book a few months ago by a woman whose father decided late in life to become an Episcopal priest. The woman was not raised in a religious home and it came as a shock to her, and so she decided to investigate the whole question of what it means to have a calling. Although the book is mostly focused on the Episcopal church, her insights and observations would apply to a lot of denominations, including the UCC. The book is called "Do You Hear What I Hear?", by Minna Proctor.

One of the things I remember from her book was that she felt that churches should not focus so much on figuring out whether a potential clergyperson had a true calling for that profession, and instead simply try to evaluate whether that person is qualified based on more objective criteria. You pretty much have to read her book to see why she comes to that conclusion. Anyway, I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in this topic, as long as you don't mind the Episcopal focus of the book.

Cynthia said...

No, I don't mind the Episcopal focus at all. I've also read Nora Gallagher's book "Practicing Resurrection" in which she examines whether or not she is called to the Episcopal priesthood.

Thanks for the recommendation.