Monday, April 6, 2009

Vocation as Vocation

Here is an edited version of the quiet day meditation I gave last week at our clergy quiet day.

Every Facebook user knows about the proliferation of quizzes right now. Here was the result of one I took recently:
“Kevin took the ‘What is your ministry calling?’ quiz and the result is Grounds Keeper and Fence Mender. You are your own boss. Although you believe in the church, you do not want to deal with the hypocrisy of church. You are willing to show up during the week to do odd jobs. You appreciate being called when there is a special need. You may clean the sanctuary during the week or put together the video technology for Sunday. You may teach a Sunday school class occasionally. You will drive the church van or paint the social hall but you are not called to attend staff meetings or put up with the politics of church.”
I write this as an entry into discussion about where we are going with our vocations. What I love is they way my job got described in a manner that had nothing to do with my ordination. I know lots of clergy who have spent a lot of time as grounds keepers and fence menders without picking up a rake or a hammer. Priesthood is a part of who we are, but the living out of our priesthood comes in many forms.
There are two errors that get repeated when clergy talk about vocations. Neither of these should be particularly enlightening to clergy, but they bear repeating.
The first is this: Vocation is something that clergy have.
As a campus minister, I talk about ordination with people a lot. At the moment, I am talking about ordination with seven different people. Some of them are not even members of my ministry, just people who wanted to talk about it. It is a regular part of my work.
But I also get to talk with a lot of other people. Like the student who suffers from PTSD and anxiety issues and has to consider that when he looks at possible careers and jobs. Or the one who graduated, moved away to become a teacher and is now back after discovering that he really hated it. Or the student who may have to leave school if she is not granted in-state status, even though she doesn’t live anywhere but North Carolina. Or the returnee who started a career in journalism—we all know what that’s like now.
In the midst of all their challenges are the same questions: Where is God in all this, and where is God calling me? And out of a ministry that in many ways is almost always about vocations, I am forced to conclude that there really is no difference between the vocational challenges of the clergy and those of the laity. Our struggles are their struggles. The struggles are just as deep, just as powerful, just as meaningful on both sides of the collar.
Which means, of course, that the questions we ask the laity to reflect upon are the same questions we need to be asking ourselves.
This is the second error clergy make: Vocation is something that you have settled once you become ordained.
In my work history after ordination I have been an assistant in a parish, then in a cathedral (where I later became priest in charge for awhile) a member of the bishop’s staff, a vicar of an inner city mission, a PhD student, a writing instructor, a freelance writer, an interim (twice), and now, for the third time, a college chaplain. And truthfully, if I had it to do over, I would only leave out one of those experiences.
I mention this to illustrate a point. One of the biggest mistakes clergy make is to think we have settled the vocation question by being ordained, or by becoming a rector, bishop, dean, or some other position. And while we all know better, too often we act on this false belief. And we find ourselves in vocational difficulty because we lose sight of something that we so readily can see when talking to other people.
I love the stories of the first deacons as told by Acts. Here they are, a group of guys set apart essentially to wait tables. After the apostles lay hands on them, the next part of the story is all about how they go on to be really good waiters.
Oh, wait. That part isn’t there. The next thing we here is not about them fulfilling the diaconal duties of service. It is the story of Stephen going out into the street and preaching until he is stoned to death for upsetting the status quo. And his story gets followed by Philip teaching and baptizing. Apparently, their calls to ministry did not settle much of anything for them. Nor did they seem to have a problem with moving past the tasks originally assigned to them.
So, then, what is the vocational quest really about? For Christians (and certainly for Christian clergy), it is first and foremost our struggle to shape our lives in a fashion that lives out our baptismal covenant. Put another way, it is about aligning our lives with Christ’s vision of the kingdom. In that sense, it is not primarily about happiness or fulfillment, though both of those are very important to our ability to function.
No, it is about a Christological view of our world and our lives. It is about building a seamless bridge from Sunday to the rest of our week, rather than seeing them as forever separated. We know that vocation is a spiritual matter. But it is also an incarnational one. How do we live our lives in a way that Christ is made real in the world? And then how do we help the people we find ourselves in the midst of do the same thing? Vocation is about making Christ incarnate.
Which leads me to one inescapable question. Is the clergy vocation primarily about helping everyone else to find their Christian vocation? For most of history there were very few people other than the wealthy who had much choice about their vocation. Poorer folk were apprenticed to a trade if they were in a city, a farmer if they were in the country, and a wife if they were female.
In that system a vocational crisis occurred when you were injured and could not do your job, not when you felt angst about wanting to move on to something else. Priestly counsel about vocation was to help people accept the life they had been dealt.
Now we live with the belief that we can grow up to be anything we want. Has it become the role of clergy to help frame vocation spiritually and practically and sacramentally for people? If so, what does that mean about how we fulfill the ministries to which we each have been called? Does this, for example change anything about how we worship? How might it affect premarital counseling or youth group or the mid-week Bible Study, the Outreach Committee, or the men’s group, or your EFM class, or—dare I say it—the Vestry Meetings? Or, for that matter, does it affect the budget?
So let me leave this not as a question but as an assertion. Our vocation is all about vocation. It should rarely be away from our minds as we plan our activities as clergy.
Now I have to admit that I am still playing with the implications of this; I had never verbalized it or put it on paper until now. So now it is an offering to you along with this one last consideration on which I invite you to reflect. We know that vocations do not live in isolation from God, but they do not live in isolation from other people’s vocations either. How then is your vocation tied to others?

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