Monday, December 18, 2017

A few apposite comments on the "call to ministry"

This winter I'll have been ordained fifteen years. Way back in the day, before children, a move to Arkansas, and the advent of social media (though not before blogging) I knelt near the altar (that no longer exists) of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa (the church in which I was raised).

Many bishops and clergy laid hands on my head that day (the weight of those hands still startles me in the remembering). The words: teach and preach in accordance with Scripture and our confessions. The act: apostolic succession into multiple historic episcopacies, mostly by the happy accident of which clergy and bishops were present that day (Porvoo, Latvian, and Episcopal), The prayer: calling for a special measure of the Holy Spirit. The reality: all of this qualified me for employment by congregations so I could do what I've been doing professionally since then.

Our denomination likes to use some fancy language to say all this: I'm a rostered minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ordained into the ministry of Word & Sacrament. This means I'm on a special list and there's a special job in churches only people on that list can fill.

They call us pastors.
At the capitol in Little Rock speaking against the death penalty

Like many professionals, over the years I've had to re-evaluate what I thought I was doing when I was pastoring. I think early in my career, I thought I was stewarding some ancient things that might otherwise get lost: liturgy, theology, the sacraments, radical Lutheranism. I liked church camp, visiting people and such, and was finding my feet as a Christian progressive (rode a bus to protest the Iraq war, participated in actions against Walmart, attended meetings between hotel workers and their employers, etc.)

I also just loved the people. I grew up on a farm, so serving rural congregations in southern Wisconsin was a real joy. I loved life as a kind of adopted Norwegian, and of course still wear the sweaters and miss the cheese curds and lefse and people.

Over the years, I think I've changed a bit. Ministry tempers you. I don't get all highfalutin as I did early on (though I still love books), and I've got the cassock on mothballs. 

But I think the context for ministry, what it means to be a pastor, has changed even more than I have.

So at this anniversary, I've been trying to articulate a bit of that. Why is it I think the context has changed more than I have? And why is it so important to name the contextual change?

The bottom line: I have parishioners and even one staff person who are considering pastoral ministry. So I need to give an accounting to them of what they're getting themselves into. I mean, they're adults, so it's their decision. But I'd like to be honest, and clear. They say they may be called to ministry. So what is ministry? And what is a call?

Let's start with seminaries, because almost anyone who starts discerning a call to ministry starts thinking about seminary. Seminaries still are really cool places. Where else can you devote three or four years to the study of religion, with a fighting chance of finding a job on the other side? I loved seminary, and even if all you do is go to seminary and get the degree, and then go back to what you're doing now, I'd say that was time well spent. Especially if they have a cool library and pray every day, and if you avoid going deep into debt while there.

You might be called to ministry if...
But seminaries are changing, drastically. Residential is out. Distance learning is in. This is of course a larger trend in education. Many seminaries are struggling, even failing, and some are relocating to their historic context: the university. So if you are considering seminary these days, know that you are entering into an academic context that is in a high state of flux. Faculty and administrators and everyone are trying to figure out what to do with themselves. 

Be okay with that. If you are, it will be a great ride. Alternatively, come talk to me or somebody near you about starting a new church or ministry as a tent-maker, because it costs a lot less and is just as much of an adventure. We can read some good books with you if you want.

Calls are changing too... although neither as fast as some are warning, nor as quickly as others hope. I mean, churches are aging, fast, especially the mainline Protestant ones. So it's likely that a lot of churches are going to shutter their doors, or shift to calling part-time clergy. But the church is a stubborn entity, and it doesn't look like the church will change very fast, so if you are thinking you just want to land somewhere and love a group of people, that very traditional desire of the pastor is still a solid option. 

And a lot of churches are growing, quickly, like ours here at Good Shepherd Lutheran, as more and more Christians come to a clearer understanding of their own faith and commitment to Jesus, and either return after long absence, or come to faith for the first time.

But while we're still on the topic of finding a comfortable call... you may want to second guess pursuing such ends. Ask yourself, did the quiet and traditional approach to church of the last century steward a level of discipleship we hope to continue and deepen in the 21st century? I mean, the church in which I was raised was comfortable and fun and energizing... but I'm not convinced that overall Christianity as practiced in the majority churches in our communities instilled deep levels of biblical literacy, or formed people ready for resistance.

For example, the church hasn't done very well at offering an alternative to capitalism. Wendy Brown, political theorist, criticized academic theorists for their 'theoretical retreat from the problem of domination within capitalism.' And as R. Rogers-Vaughn argues, "Pastoral theologians have participated in this retreat" (19).

The clergy's complicity in this retreat has primarily occurred through political co-optation. Clergy attempt to keep everyone and everything together. They tend to be, and were historically trained to be, conflict-avoidant. And avoiding conflict rather than leaning into the truth is the primary manner in which pastors retreat from the problem of the domination of not just capitalism, but also heterosexism, racism, nationalism, and a variety of other heresies.

So one thing I've learned during these fifteen years: sometimes surviving the split that happens if you stick to the truth is the way in which you will truly thrive. It's death and resurrection, for real.

I do get uncomfortable with all the discernment language and soul-searching and hand-wringing that accompanies conversations about the call to ministry. I think such language, highly individualistic as it is, forces the ministry into one class-based mold: the middle class. 

If pastoral ministry is captive to any one thing, it is definitely captivity to the middle class.

We truly need more working class clergy, who think more in terms of systems and participation and solidarity rather than meaning and words.

I've learned there are lots of ways to do this gig, but probably a majority of clergy tow the line and are overly careful. They ride the rails of the already established. Pastoral ministry is a set of relationships with tasks embedded, whereas many other vocations are a set of tasks with relationships embedded. So if you can sort out how to have the relationships, you can spend your time doing a wide variety of things among a wide variety of people. You've got to love people. And books. But people, people you believe are alongside you on a mission of fidelity to the way of Jesus.

The new parish is the public. Perhaps never before in the history of pastoral ministry did every pastor have an opportunity to consider all the world a pulpit. New media now offers such opportunity. This requires considerable and careful planning on the part of the pastor. Clergy now need to understand platforming. Courage and curiosity are also required. Keep trying stuff (podcasts, tweets, manifestos) to see what works. 

I'm not convinced the whole narrative of "resisting" the call is helpful. I've heard a lot of clergy say, "Only do this if you can't do anything else." I don't think that's a very helpful perspective. I mean, really, wouldn't that be true and not true of almost every vocation? Such narratives of call set the ministry apart in a very non-Protestant way. I think we'd be better served if more clergy would say, instead, "Everybody can do this. Here, let's talk about how you can do it too."

Why should we pay people to do this? Well, that's a good question, given that I just said everyone can do it. But the truth is social organizations function thus. Non-profits need directors. Almost all organizations, from businesses to schools, seem to need principals or CEOs. So some people are going to organize together and realize they want to pay somebody who is really good at a percentage of what the church does, and then spend all their time doing it. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the person so hired keeps giving it back, while also stewarding the unique role they have as the paid person who keeps reminding everyone the real head is Jesus.

What about releasing the ministry to the whole people of God? Yes, do it. Do lots more of it. But keep in mind the old business mantra that the holy grail of systems is the self-actualizing work-team. It's not all that easy to give it all back. People are people. It's still worth trying.

I think the way congregations will inspire more people to the ministry is, in the end, by doing really good ministry. When the neighbors of your congregation start saying, "I love what your church is about. You all do great work!" I can almost guess that in that congregation, multiple people will be thinking about ministry. Because who doesn't want to go study and do the thing they're already a part of that they love?

I think early in my ministry I was trained to value doctrine and orthodoxy. And those aren't bad things. But recently a colleague criticized our statement of unity for refugees and immigrants as elevating compassion over orthodoxy. And I thought, "If I ever think that you can elevate compassion over orthodoxy, then there's probably something wrong with my orthodoxy."

That's the real struggle of every pastor right there. To keep the faith, the actual faith, in the service of the love we've learned in Christ.

And I hope you like to read. I hope you'll keep reading. Because books.

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