I now know that there is "a call to serve" and "a call to ministry," and while the two "calls" might seem similar in some ways, they are also widely divergent in what is required. Sadly, for me and many people like me, this knowledge comes at the end of a long, worthwhile, yet painful and expensive education - and it's one of the many times that I find myself saying, "I wish I knew then what I know now...."
This reflection was prompted by yesterday's services at National Avenue Christian Church, my home church here in Springfield, MO. The theme of the day was "Looking For A Calling," and the first scripture reading was that classic call from Isaiah 6:8:
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Here's what I have learned:
One: The Big One: Being "called to serve one's fellows" is not the same as "a call to serve in ministry." One can have a perfectly valid "calling to serve" without having any kind of "a call to ordination."
Confession time: I was actually told this, a month or so before I left the safety of Kansas. One of my classmates at St. Paul School of Theology, Chuck Murphy, who was already an acting minister in the Disciples of Christ, told me flat-out that he felt I should "drop this whole idea of ordained ministry, of being 'in front of people' in leadership, and stick to the calling you already have in the recovery community." It was good advice, and would have saved me (and my congregation) about twenty or thirty grand if I had listened.
Chuck's point? I was already serving. I was already ministering. I wasn't wearing a robe or a stole; I didn't have a pulpit, and I wasn't preaching. But I was already sharing the love of God with God's kids, and doing a pretty good job of it. But I had come to believe that "ministry" was what The-People-Up-Front-Did - and (if I'm rigorously honest about it) I was a little jealous that Chuck was telling me to ditch congregational ministry, while he already was doing it. So I didn't listen.
I know better, now.
In my current church, I see boatloads of people "ministering." I see my friend Susan Wheeler "ministering" every time she prepares food for the homeless at "Bill's Place;" I see Terry Heitman "ministering" every time he's helping set-up or clean-up for a congregational event. Brad Wadle "ministers" whenever he encourages folks to support the Rainbow Network's work in Nicaragua. The list would go on a long time, just focusing on my own congregation.
Two: Ministry is doing; but it's also showing.
Being called to serve also involves mentoring, and both modeling and encouraging behavior. Yesterday, I watched Terry not-so-subtly nudge folks to help with the clean-up from yesterday's pancake supper; he was serving, but also reminding the rest of us that ministry isn't magic. It's work, and it's work of the whole body. That comes much less from the pulpit, and much more from an invitation from a friend to participate in what's going on right now.
Three: The answer is already in the question. So many times, I can ask myself, "Yeah, but what can I do?" One of my favorite authors, Ted Menten, reminds me that the answer is just a rearrangement of the question:
What can I do? Do what I can.
I don't need to be able to cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. I don't have to sing like Larry Stotsberry, or be a spiritual director like Tom Boone. I don't have to be able to paint like John Stone, or relate to children with puppets and stories like Louise Jackson. But there's several sides to this "Do what I can" thing:
- Maybe I can't cook for 200 people, like Susan Wheeler does. But maybe, if I'm interested, I could ask her to show me what she does and how she does it. Maybe it's about being mentored, about being shown what to do. Part of my "answering the call" just might be getting the courage to say, "I sure would like to do what you do - but I don't have a clue how you do it. Can you show me?"
- Maybe I've got something that I'm already sitting on - a skill or ability that I can bring to the table just as it is. I learned this the first time I served as "worship leader" - what our church calls the person who begins the worship and reads the prayers and the scriptures. Just being able to speak clearly and with some inflection was enough, for that part. I don't have to be Billy Graham or Bishop Sheen or Orson Welles in order to be a good worship leader; it's not a "big" skill but it's a helpful one. Who knew?
Maybe I see a need that others might not see. A classic case of this: a lady at the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Leawood, KS noted that there was a desperate need for blood donations in the Kansas City area, and UM-COR had a huge population of able-bodied potential donors. But no one in leadership had the bandwidth to organize a congregational blood-drive. She took it on; now, the UM-COR blood drive is now one of the largest blood-drives in the KC area - all because someone in leadership simply said, "Well, go ahead and see what it would take..."
Four: I don't know what other people's calling is, or should be. But I do know that guilt or shame should never be a part of it - ever.
True story: A friend of mine is an emergency room nurse. She's very good at what she does; there are a lot of people who are alive today because of her service. Yes, she gets paid for it - but she feels it is also a calling, an expression of compassion in service. (And I agree.) Yet people couldn't understand why she didn't want to be "the church nurse" or "the blood-pressure checker" on Sundays - and some were quite vocally annoyed that she wasn't "using her gifts for the good of the congregation." She was more than willing to do other things for the congregation - but being a church nurse felt a lot like she was working-at-church after she was done working-at-work. And after a series of well-intentioned do-gooders told her that she was "hiding her light under a bushel" (and other "loving admonishments"), she solved the problem - and simply stopped coming to church.
Last: I think the best words on the topic came from Matthew Gallion - this idea that it is not so much "what I am called to do," but "how I am called to be" for the world. A friend of mine often says, "You may be the only 'Good Book' that someone sees today."
There are various posts floating around this week about the minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who had to apologize to his denomination for participating in an interfaith rayer service after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT.
It's important to note that he was not apologizing for praying for the suffering people in Newtown. The apology was to the rest of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, because it is their denomination's principle to not ever, ever, ever participate in mixed-faith worship services. The LC-MS doesn't even participate with other Lutheran denominations, not even on Reformation Day (a big deal in the Lutheran world.)
That minister did the right thing, and for the right reason - but ended up having to apologize for his actions. He reminded me of an old quote from one of Isaac Asimov's characters: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right." I'm sorry he had to apologize to his denomination in order to keep his job. I'm just glad as can be that he took the right action, at the right time.