Posted on June 18, 2012
Standing at the brink of a couple of months away from parish ministry I had a sensation of what might best be described as “existential vertigo.” What would I do with this time? I had some intentions—reading, writing, sitting, studying—but no ministry, none of the work from which I receive so much of my meaning and identity. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, but it was a bit unexpected and unsettling. And on reflection, I suspect it was/is not an uncommon feeling for persons nearing any major change in their lives. Though retirement is not in my immediate future, at 64 it’s within view, and this sensation will no doubt return in force at that time. In the meantime, it was a revelation of the depth of ministry as part of my identity, an indication of this occupation as vocation.
This being unsettled is not at all a bad thing. Though not especially comfortable, it has brought with it insight (or rather clearer sight) as to who I have become over the past 35 years. I have moved from having a job as a minister to being a minister. (Those who know me would be neither surprised at that truth nor the long delay in its discovery. J )
This is a transition I have sought to ignore and resist through much of my time in the ministry. There are probably a number of reasons for this—little about us is as apparent or simple as it seems—but the one that comes most quickly to mind is that it was not completely my agenda/intention. My mother was so pleased with the idea of my being a minister that it crowded out much my own “ownership” of the choice. Though the decision was mine, there was always that strong sense of how much this mattered to her. I want to tell you, dear reader, at 64 it’s a little embarrassing to realize/admit the degree to which I have lived my life as a “mama’s boy.” 1
I remember years ago having a “discussion” with an Association Minister about whether this enterprise was a “job” or a “vocation.” He opted for the latter and I the former. And I have often spoken of the benefits of this job as a job, 2 and (non)jokingly said that I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t paid (I’m not really sure that is true anymore—if it ever was) and that they wouldn’t pay me if I stopped doing it.
So here I am, admitting a truth about myself against which I still (though to an ever-lessening degree) adolescently rebel, on the brink of that truth being set aside for the time being. I am a minister. It’s not an ink drawing; it’s a dang tattoo. I think it’s going to be an interesting couple of months.
1 What I mean by this is not that my mother told me what to do, but that I have discovered in myself a well-developed sense of obligation to do what I perceive other persons—especially women—want me to do. In particular with regard to my mom and family history, I was raised to make up for my grandfather. So real or perceived, present or distant, (too) much of my ministry has had this ill-conceived orientation. I’ll have more to say about the role of gender in ministry later.
2A business ethics text I used some years ago referred to “vertical” and “horizontal” freedom; the first being a job in which there was a diversity of tasks and the second in which there was a great deal of autonomy. Both of these are indications of job satisfaction. Parish ministry has both a wide variety of tasks and a great deal of autonomy regarding those tasks. I’ll say more about this later (or sooner) also.