Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Call and Response

Vocational churn.

That's how I'd describe my lay ministry retreat this time around.

I always experience this to some extent during my retreats, but more so this time around.

Don't get me wrong: It was a great retreat. Our biblical studies segment was wonderful -- the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. I can't tell you how much I enjoy these lectures; I could literally sit there all day and listen to our professors, and I'm always sorry when class is over. To my delight, we also had a new segment, on spiritual practice; a pastor in our synod who's also a newly minted spiritual director (at least we have one now, that I know of) taught us about breath prayer. We had a segment on ecumenism; on how to create partnerships with other faith communities that help meet the needs of the people around us. And we had devotionals as well as a group Eucharist and farewell to a couple of graduates. It's amazing to see how people blossom in this program; how one woman who was so painfully shy when I first met her that she blushed crimson every time she was addressed in class now very confidently led one of our services and even gave an extemporaneous homily -- something I've yet to garner the courage to do. We have small-group breakouts where people can be very honest and self-disclosing; it's humbling to hear people's stories and to know that they're entrusting them to the rest of us.

But in my motel room Saturday night, the questions started again. Why am I here? What do I want to do with all this? What does this mean?

For the last couple of weeks I've been reading Nora Gallagher's Practicing Resurrection, an excellent book that one of my bloggy friends (Hi, Charlotte! Thanks again!) sent me after my mother died. In it Gallagher writes of her experience losing her brother, and of entering into the discernment process to see if she is being called into the ECUSA priesthood. The book parallels my recent personal life in so many ways that reading it gave me the shivers -- handling a loved one's ashes; coping with the mental and emotional fog that descends after a loved one dies, making one listless, thick-headed, disinterested in most things; crying jags triggered by the most innocuous things. And Gallagher's discernment experience seems so much like my own as well, in many ways.

Do I feel called to ordained ministry? At this very moment, no, I don't, despite the fact that I'm freer to pursue that now than I've ever been before in my life. When I was in college, newly exposed to doing theology in a real way, spiritually nutured in the sort of worship aesthetic that spoke to me and encountering, for the first time in my life, female clergy who inspired me -- I thought, "I'd love to be a pastor." I had a vision of myself someday tatted up, standing behind the altar with arms raised, praying the Eucharistic Prayer; or being almost rabbinical in teaching people, in being a spiritual and ethical counselor. Now, 20-some years and multitudinous experiences later, I don't have that fire in the belly; perhaps because I have a more clear-eyed understanding of what the pastorate is about -- the administrative tasks, the conflict resolution and what my pastor calls "anxiety management," the fundraising -- I mean, that sounds like my job now, and those things don't often give me a sense of service or meaning or accomplishment. I've had several people, including one of my fellow students, urge me to look into seminary, but...I just don't hear that, right now.

The ELCA has a host of diaconal and quasi-diaconal programs (many of them rather amorphous in scope and seemingly overlapping). Do I want to pursue any of those? Frankly, I am struggling (and Gallagher's book brings up this subject as well) with a fear of being "owned" by my church body. Even the thought of the standard psychological spelunking that prospective seminarians -- and potential enrollees in the second tier of my own program -- must undergo makes me nervous. I resent the idea of authority figures holding a claim on my personal life, and all the complications that that suggests. And I don't want, frankly, to be sucked into the belly of the beast -- into that "company woman" mentality that revolves around the institutional church. I just don't want to go there.

Or do I just finish my three-year program, say, "Well...that was interesting," and do nothing with it other than what I'm doing already in my parish? Is that enough? Is that why God sent me on this path -- just to circle back again?

There's a passage in Practicing Resurrection -- I wish I could find it now but I can't -- that talks about finding God in the margins. This resonates with me -- not only finding God in the margins but finding people who need God in the margins. Maybe that's where I'm called to be -- working somewhere just out of view, backtracking to keep people confused, like the fox in Wendell Berry's poem.

Is there even a word for the job I want to do in the Reign of God?


Songbird said...

Since I'm not ELCA, but UCC, I can't speak to your process, but as far as the psychological spelunking goes, we undertake it for persons in care as an example of our covenant understanding. We're in covenant with the candidates and want to know if they're suited to ministry, and we're also in covenant with churches and need to know we're not sending out candidates who are not suited.
Whether or not you ever go to seminary, you are ministering now in your reflections on the lectionary. Does your denomination have a publishing arm? If so, I would send someone there some of these pieces you have written and see if they have an interest in your work. I find your writing to be a gift in my life.

Miffy said...

Finding God in the margins - resonates with me, too.It's something I've been mulling over awhile now in connection with calling, vocation, and the like.

LC - this isn't the first time you've set me rushing off to Amazon. You don't happen to be in league with them by any chance?

Rainbow Pastor said...

Discernment is a lifelong process, often painful, sometimes joyful.

I found the hardest part to be doing what I felt called to do, rather than what someone else thought I was called to do.

I like Songbird's suggestion. God's gifts and calls are many.

Blessings to you--you continue to be in my prayers, LC!

Natty said...

Oooh, yeah! I really liked that bit about finding God and people who need God in the margins... if nothing else, I color outside the box and tend to feel most at home "in the margins."

I also thought of that T.S. Eliot peom when you mentioned "just to circle back again?"

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Tom in Ontario said...

From the sound of it the ELCA has a lot more opportunities for ministry than the ELCIC. For one thing you're way bigger than we are so it stands to reason that scale would make more things available.

I talked about just this with one of my former seminary profs because I had a parishioner ask me what the lay diaconate is all about because he thought he might be called to more service in/with/through the church but didn't know what or how. I couldn't tell him much because our church tends to be so rigorously academic in so many ways and he's not the academic type. I think all of our churches need to get their acts together when it comes to variety in the ministry. We tend to be very focussed on the parish model and the lay diaconate in specialized ministries (music, teaching, etc.) But the church's ministry has (or should have) more variety than that. The idea of the priesthood of all believers is a great gift that Lutherans have given to the church but we don't do it well ourselves. Maybe we have to re-discover what that means. Or maybe we need to discern new forms of ministry. Whatever the answer is, currently our church's view of ministry is very limited.

So, what do you do? I've said before that I think you'd be a great pastor. As The Police said "Poets priests and politicians have words to thank for their positions." Well I've hardly come across someone as good with words as you are. And you seem to have a compassionate heart. If you don't see yourself as a pastor then maybe you need to let your imagination lead you to some other kind of ministry, maybe something the institutional church hasn't come up with yet.

Mata H said...

Well, dear heart, given that you are still in the midst of a very deep grief, now is probably a smart time to not make a big vocational decision - or to worry that you should be doing so.

Let this little window of time be what it is. Just breathe your way through it, pray your way through it. You will know when there is a ripeness that calls for a decision.

And since we are all finding excellent quotes today , I will toss in this one by Barry Stevens:

"Don't push the river; it flows by itself."

s'my opinion, anyway...ymmv

LutheranChik said...

Well, and...even as I'm confidently stating all the things I don't think I want to do or am not good at doing, I know that I might wind up on the receiving end of a divine "Yoo-hoo? Remember me?" (which is how I got on board this bus in the first place) or dope slap, a la one Paul of Tarsus;-)...so..."Never say never."

Tom: How about...anchoress? ROFL Hey -- we're adding an addition at church; they could go ahead and tack on a nice li'l studio apartment off to the side. Although this might put a crimp in my nascent social life.;-)

Andrea said...

I'd concur with Mata about the need to create space for grief. It's been suggested that one should wait about a year after a major loss before making any big decisions or lifestyle changes. It seems like good wisdom to me.

I can relate in some ways to your discernment process. I'm an ELCA seminarian, finishing up my internship. My father's death had a huge impact on me and got the wheels of discernment really rolling. I think it's natural for a major loss to introduce a new focus or perspective. In retrospect, God had been leading me towards full-time ministry for a long time, but grief-feuled reflections on happiness and the value of a life really accelerated the decision to action.

I think there are a lot of different ways of being a pastor. And, frankly, we need more folks willing to participate in the system without totally selling out to it. I think your mixed interests in things academic and spiritual would be a real gift to any congregation.

RuthRE said...

I'd go along with mata and AJ on this LC :)

This is making me think of a Guys and Dolls song......

WeavingLibrarian said...

Lutheran Chik -

Thanks again for all the insight and great quotes. Having finished my synod's version of laity training, I am casting about for what is next.

You have helped me realize that I am not the only one. Our church needs all of us to be who we are, where we are.

Take your time, you know God will be in touch.


J.C. Fisher said...

Boy can I relate, LC.

I'm grateful for the "discernment experience" I had last fall (in ECUSA, in our part of the world---and are you back in that place where we met before?).

...at the same time, the process left me, if anything, less sure than ever of what God really wants for me, vocation-wise (so I've defaulted to my standard, pragmatic two---seeking a "paycheck and a partner"---and I feel much better for it, thank you! ;-/).

Sometime the Holy Spirit IS the Spirit of Pragmatism, I think.

LutheranChik said...

We're going back there this fall...what a great retreat venue! (Alas, no Amazing Electric Waterfall, though.)

This time we were in the Hastings area. Is that near you?