Updates on the Journey (3): My Personal Calling and Theology of Ministry

This last post has been the most difficult of all of these updates to write. Describing my own personal sense of calling and purpose is not easy to do!  Especially while trying to not stray into the realm of overconfidence/arrogance/audacity in presenting myself as “called” to any particular thing (as if I can, with confidence, know the will of God)!

In the midst of trying to think about and write this, life has been increasingly busy and a lot of exciting things have happened!  First (chronologically), in the world of work, we announced that my youth group is taking a trip to New Mexico next summer to work with Experience Mission on the Navajo Reservation.  A lot of work went into making that decision and getting the ball of planning for the trip rolling, but I am very excited about the trip and what we are going to be doing!!

Me and Rebecca
Me and Rebecca

And second, in the realm of my personal life, just this past week I got engaged!!  Many of you know my now fiancé, Rebecca.  She has a similar position to mine at Green’s Farms Congregational Church in Westport (literally just down the road from where I work!).  We couldn’t be more excited about the future right now!  True to form, none of the details have been worked out yet, but we are really enjoying this new phase of life!

And third, in an update that just happened today (actually after this post went live, but I’m retroactively adding it now), I am now officially a “licensed minister” in the United Church of Christ at Saugatuck!  This means that I can function as an “authorized minister” at Saugatuck Church, acting as a fully functioning member of the clergy, but that my status as such is limited to Saugatuck.  It is, in my case, a kind of intermediary step as I begin the formal process of discernment that will hopefully one day lead to full ordination in the UCC, while simultaneously acting as a pastor at Saugatuck Church.

In the midst of all of this excitement, I have been trying to think more clearly about my sense of calling and theology of ministry.  The two are, to a large extent, pretty tied together and very wrapped up in my own spiritual journey.

Where I Was Then (The Journey There)

The place to start, I guess, is with my first sense that I had a “calling.”

For me, that came with a pretty dramatic religious experience I had while in high school.  I have always been skeptical of “charismatic” experiences, including my own, but this particular experience had a profound impact on me.

Sitting in a service at our church one day, I was really stirred by some of the music and then by the words of our pastor, and I had this sensation of being told that I was supposed to go do that, to go be a pastor myself.  I dismissed the idea at first as a random thought, and then as ridiculous, but it wouldn’t go away.  Over the next several days I literally became almost sick with anxiety that I could not shake this sense that someone was telling me I was supposed to be a pastor.  And so I finally vocalized the idea to one of our youth group leaders, who gave me really strong affirmation that this was something he could see me doing.

After hearing that, I felt a huge sense of relief and almost immediately I started changing all my future plans to chart the course I’m on now.  I had up until that time been imagining myself going to school to become either an engineer or a historian and was eyeing ROTC scholarships as a way of paying for college.  Though church was always important to me, I had never imagined myself becoming a pastor.  After this experience, however, I abandoned my other plans (my mother was more than happy to hear that I had stopped talking with Army recruiters…) and set out to find a college where I could study theology and prepare for seminary.

So when I got to Southeastern, I was pretty much certain that I was called to be a pastor.  And I was almost positive that the kind of pastor I was going to be was one like my pastor growing up in the non-denominational, evangelical world.

That initial certainty didn’t last very long for two main reasons.

First, very quickly after arriving at Southeastern, I fell in love with my studies there.  In particular, studying the Old Testament and philosophy, especially philosophical hermeneutics (a word I didn’t even know existed until I fell in love with the subject) were things I was really excited about.  And after making those discoveries, I started to think that maybe academia was the thing for me.  Over the next three years while I was at Southeastern I flopped back and forth between being certain I was going to go on to do Ph.D. work and become an academic and a strong sense that I needed to go work in the church.

Second, based on several rough experiences working in evangelical baptist churches and several more experiences of the cult-of-personality that frequently followed “successful” evangelical pastors, I started to react away from an evangelical model of ministry, rooted in preaching, pastoral care, and church leadership and for a while became much more attracted to the priestly model of ministry found in traditions such as that of the Episcopal Church. Frequently in the churches I experienced growing up, the person of the pastor was the spoke around which the church turned, and therefore everything reflected his (I hadn’t yet experienced a world in which women could be pastors) particular understandings of theology, the bible, and the mission of the church.  Having watched many churches crumble at the departure (or forced removal) of such a pastor, and having encountered many church members who interpreted any sort of disagreement with their pastor’s opinions (or the opinions of a celebrity pastor they liked) as an attack on the integrity of their church (and, by extension, their faith, which was, of course, the one true faith), I saw first hand the degree to which such strong personalities could create incredibly unhealthy churches and spiritually unhealthy Christians.

The more sacramental model of ministry I found in Episcopalianism initially appealed to me because it intentionally disavowed any such cult-of-personality, replacing it instead with the literal “cult” (in the academic sense of the term) of the rituals of the church.  Over time, however, shifts in my own understanding of what the sacraments are have led me to leave behind this model of ministry, finding once again that preaching, pastoral care, and congregational leadership are what I really think pastoral ministry is about.

Where I Am Now (The Journey Back)

Marquand Chapel: Yale Divinity School
Marquand Chapel: Yale Divinity School (Photo credit: Chris and Amy Stroup)

When I got to Yale I crossed over from a small, familial, and highly encouraging academic environment to a much larger and more competitive one.  And I learned very quickly about the dark side of academia– the need for hyper-specialization, the pressures of having a clear plan so that you can prepare your transcript for applying to the next level of education, the competition for the attention of certain key faculty members.  Having very broad, interdisciplinary interests instead of specialized ones meant that I had little in the way of a concrete plan for my future academic work and being introverted meant that I was not very good at competing for the attention of professors.  The combination left me, at the end of my first year, pretty discouraged about my prospects in the academic world.  I think, as it turns out, that was good because it helped me to refocus my energies and ask more clearly “what am I called to?”

My first hint at that came via working with the Episcopal Church at Yale.  As their seminarian, one of my chief responsibilities was planning and leading a bible study every week.  And it turned out that I really loved teaching, that I felt really alive leading those discussions in a way that I hadn’t in many other of my pursuits.  There was something about those “lightbulb” moments when our students put together ideas in a new way for the first time that was absolutely thrilling to be part of.  So there was that.

The second hint came as I discovered that many of my research interests coalesced around questions about how people come to shape a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives and how they handle challenges to that sense of meaning and purpose or how they fit other life challenges into that sense of meaning and purpose.  I then discovered that a huge amount of clinical psychology research has been devoted to just these sorts of questions (which, in retrospect, should have been much more obvious).  Out of curiosity, I started enrolling in psychology classes at Yale (one of the awesome perks of going to a divinity school that was part of a larger university) and found them incredibly enlightening and thought provoking.  For the first time in a while I had some sense of focus to my academic pursuits: thinking about how our theological beliefs, the practice of pastoral care, and the work of clinical psychology impact one another.  So there was that.

The third hint came as I was contemplating my options for after graduation from Yale.  One option on the table was to apply to do more graduate work, probably in the field of psychology.  And there was a lot of appeal to that option, but after six years of higher ed I was pretty exhausted and ready for a break.  Another option was to seek a teaching or chaplaincy position at a private/religious high school.  And the final option was to apply for pastoral, Christian ed, or youth ministry positions at local churches.  Pursuing both of these latter options, I signed up with a teacher placement agency and then began circulating my resume among churches in the Northeast.  Through the several dozen schools and churches that I looked at, there was a recurring trend:  I always felt more drawn to the church-based positions than to anything else.  I simply could not shake that sense that the church was were I needed to be serving.  So there was that.

In retrospect, that last point is a common trend throughout much of this journey.  The reality is, there are many things I could do that might be thought of as “ministry.”  I could go into academia and be a seminary professor training up future pastors.  That would be ministry, I think.  I could become a psychologist and bring a strong theological training to the way in which I helped others, and that would be ministry I think.  But whenever I have considered these other options up to now, I have found that I am compelled most strongly in the direction of the church.  For now, I think, that is something that I need to take seriously, that the ministry I am called to is the ministry of the church, the ministry of a pastor.  Maybe someday I will be compelled to seek some other form of ministry.  But right now, it seems that God is calling me most clearly to this particular work.

Saugatuck CCAs I have begun engaging in that work while serving at Saugatuck, my understanding of the sacraments and strong belief that the church is essentially a local community give me a starting point for what I now understand pastoral ministry to be.

The job of the pastor, I have come to believe, is to help the community give shape to the identity they proclaim for themselves in the sacraments of the church.  In their preaching, pastoral care, and congregational leadership the focus of the pastor is not on building a church that mirrors his/her own personality, theology, and vision.  Instead the pastor’s job is to guide the church to articulate a theology and vision that matches its current existential situation.  So the pastor, through their leadership, teaching, and the formation of relationships with the congregation, helps the people give voice to the experience of God that is already at work in their community.

To fulfill this role, I think the pastor has to be a good listener, needs to be capable of giving pastoral care, should be a skilled leader, administrator, teacher, and preacher, and, what is probably unique to the role of the pastor in comparison to many other similar “helping professions,” should be an expert of sorts in the field of theology.  This is not because I think the pastor’s job is to drill into the congregation what they are supposed to believe but instead because the pastor should be able to draw from the wide resources of the Christian tradition, and especially the Bible, to give the congregation theological language with which to express their faith.  By helping them to put language to their own experience of God, the pastor is able to help the congregation give meaning and purpose to their individual lives and the life of their community.  It isn’t the pastor’s job to dictate what will happen in the church, but it is the pastor’s job to help the church make sure those things that do happen all articulate in some meaningful way the faith and identity of the church.

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