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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- "Whose Idea Is This, Anyhow? And How Will I KNOW?"

This week’s question , from an anonymous enquirer, evokes lots of memories of the whole “discernment process.”  (In these conversations, I always recall Frederick Buechner’s story of announcing his “call” to a group of his grandmother’s friends, and being asked, “Was this your own idea, or where you badly advised?” – which must be the champion deflating remark of all time!)  

Anonymous puts her quandary in these terms:

I have felt a deep and profound sense of calling at points. But I struggle with whether I am deep down just looking for ego fulfillment by getting to be large and in charge behind a pulpit and fancy office. I wonder if I have a messiah complex, trying to be the one who "saves" or "fixes" the church. I know, obviously, that God is the one who saves; but I question whether I have these impure motives, whether I am in fact calling myself to be a pastor and have not really heard from God. I took the psychological testing/interview required by my denomination, but it did not really help me answer those questions. I am agonizing over this because I know that if I am not really called to be a pastor, I will damage a church and myself. Yet if I am called, clearly I have to go obey God and stop dragging my feet. I have wrestled so hard with this for so long and I'm stuck. 
I have also had a number of negative, hurtful experiences in the church. I am leaving a campus ministry where I learned a lot about myself and God, but where there is also a bullying and controlling pastor who has made his dislike for me and eagerness to keep me out of any ministry role quite clear. I've tried many times to start constructive conversations about these issues and to help make peace among conflicting sides, but with little success. I am leaving because I cannot change anything and because I am sick of the pastor's hurtful behavior-- although I will remain a shoulder to cry on for the people in that ministry who need it and a prayer warrior, too. (Fortunately, I am part of a local church, too, with far less drama.) So I question whether my "calling" is really growing out of a selfish desire to somehow find healing from all this. I know it's good to be a "wounded healer," but I don't want to bleed all over people. And right now I am bleeding a lot.
How can I get un-stuck in my discernment? How do you know if you're called to be an ordained pastor instead of an active layperson? How do you know if your motives are impure? Why won't God just send a blinding light or a burning bush? And on a side note-- do you have any advice for choosing a seminary?
Thank you so much. I love this site. As a young woman contemplating ordained ministry but with few female role models, it's so inspiring to read what ministry is really like from many women who are serving the Lord.

We have an array of responses to share this week:  Muthah+ who blogs at Stone of Witness checks in with these words of wisdom –
    I would first suggest that you find a good spiritual director, especially one who is not in your denomination.  I suggest someone who is not in your denomination because it helps not to have the personalities clutter up your discernment.  Secondly I would suggest that you fight the urge to be ordained.  It is only when you can no longer fight the call that you know it God who is calling, not your ego.  Let yourself find a church in which you have minimal involvement and make the journey with someone who is wise in the congregation--lay or ordained.  

All of us are ministers--lay or ordained.  Don't let the clergy advise you differently.  There is a priesthood of all believers that you need to know deeply before you think about ordination.  And most of all RELAX!  If the vocation to ordained ministry is yours, there is nothing that can stop it.  If it isn't it won't be worth the trouble.

Ruth Everhart, who blogs at Work in Progress (aren't we all?) puts it slightly differently –

Dear Anonymous --

You are wrestling with your sense of call. That's an important process. "Am I called by God to do this ministry?" This is an important question to ask. I also think it's great that you took the psychological testing through the seminary. I encourage you to avail yourself further of the resources there, if that's possible. Talk to someone wise at length. 

I don't think motives are either pure/unpure, which is how you phrase your question. Usually we want to serve in ministry because we sense we'd be good at it. And yes, we do expect some reward for the fact that we are giving our time, energy, and indeed our lives, to this calling. So our motives are always a mix of what is good for the larger community and what is good for us. This is okay.

In my first semester of seminary, one professor said, "If there's anything else you could do instead of ministry, go do that." It's old-fashioned advice, but helpful. Seminary should be a last resort. Ordained ministry is a very particular way of serving God, not the only one. I don't know what your skills are, but I do recommend taking seminary classes part-time, perhaps in the evening while you're working elsewhere, before you plunge into a degree program. Test the waters, and continue to seek the counsel of wise people who know you well. You won't see a burning bush, but you will feel a sense of peace. If not, you will be able to make course corrections. There is no urgency. This is your life and you are serving God as you live it, day by day.

Go in peace! Ruth Everhart

And finally from our friend Songbird, blogging at Reflectionary

Dear Anon,
It's true that interpersonal dynamics have a huge impact on all institutions in human life, including churches, an it's also true that people with various complexes and neuroses are present in human systems and their leadership. 
But the church is something more. So here's a thought. Take a step back from the drama of the campus ministry and the psychological self-study. Instead take a walk through scripture. Read the stories of Moses (Exodus 3 and 4), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and Mary (Luke 1:26-56) and the first disciples (multiple gospels, but try Mark 1:16-20 for an economical version and Luke 5:1-11 for something a little more embroidered). Look for the verses and phrases that captivate you. Pray them. Write about them. Draw them. Sing them. Sit still with them, quiet your mind and leave room for the Holy Spirit to work. I have no doubt things will become more clear. 

And what do YOU think?  What was helpful in your discernment (and what wasn't)?  Please share!
Our question file is empty again!   Perhaps in these quiet (!) summer days you'll have leisure to remember the Great Nagging Unanswered  in your own ruminations!  Please do pass them along -- always welcome, at!

Blessings all!  Happy days and good weather!


  1. If you don't already have a spiritual director, perhaps now is the time. Some spiritual directors are trained in the Ignatian way and some are trained in the contemplative tradition. Some are pastors some are not. There are a variety of denominations represented but that might not make any difference. Find one that "fits" with style, location, etc, etc. is a national listing with tons of information. Blessings on your clarity of discernment.

  2. I, too, cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding a spiritual director. For me the call that had been bubbling upward for decades came via the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which meant a year of prayer and weekly meeting with a spiritual director. During the Exercises, you move slowly and imaginatively through much of Scripture and other mediations which hone your sense of Christ calling (to whatever that might be)(see Martha's suggestion above). In the particular context of the Exercises, the director is supposed to say little, and not to encourage you in one direction or another, but when I came into our meeting about half way through the year and announced, "I'm going to seminary!" my director said, "It's about time!" He continued as my director for the next year as I figured out the realities and made plans and so often said, "This is ridiculous; I can't do this," and when he moved away the year I went to seminary, another Jesuit priest became my director and helped me process that experience.

    Those very personal relationships as a constant in my life of prayer and discernment made it possible for me to make a decision that, in retrospect, was completely senseless. It was also, as Muthah+ says, helpful that they were very different from me in life circumstances -- celibate, male, Catholic priests was about as far as I could get within Christianity. No one else's clutter added to mine, a helpful challenge to articulate my thoughts to people whose own experiences had been quite different, and no denominational intrusion.

    That said, there were lots of confirmatory signs in the years before, most especially in the form of encouragement from others to take on leadership, including preaching, roles in my home church. Other signs came in the form of a clarity that other work I was doing -- practicing law and teaching -- were forms of ministry, at least as I did them.

    A book that helped was Margaret Silf's Inner Compass. Praying with Mary Oliver's poetry can be a big help as well.

  3. One more thing -- denominations differ, but it is highly unlikely that you'll be doing this alone, and any tendency you have to bleed all over others will be addressed by your interactions with your call committee and by your CPE, if you have to do that. (Clinical pastoral Eductaion, i.e., Chaplaincy internship, which is MUCH more about what's going on inside you and how you relate to others than it is about the outward activities of chaplaincy).

    I had many of the same fears after a great tragedy in my life at the beginning of my second year of seminary. One of the affirming aspects of my experience was that I kept waiting for someone -- a professor, a counselor, my spiritual director, my call committee, a friend, someone off the street -- to say, "You can't do this anymore," and that never happened.

    The call process is FAR from perfect, but it does include many opportunities for reflection and assessment, by both you and others. Take heart and be of good courage!

  4. So glad that the suggestion of a spiritual director has been raised over and over again. I have worked with a spiritual director for several years now and it has been invaluable. I fought my own sense of call for 12 years, and it was only after I had exhausted all other possibilities do I find myself in the ordination process. I have never seen a burning bush or heard a booming voice, but I have heard God speak in the stillness and silence of peace in my heart. I just look for the next right thing, and pray for direction, and it is revealed. This journey is pretty wild, but I am not on it alone.

    In my own discernment process over the last five years or so, I have found it helpful to spend time with clergywomen from different denominations and talk to others about their own sense of call. Visiting a seminary and taking a class or two might be helpful discernment also. Ordained ministry is an art that requires many different disciplines, and an MDiv is a very challenging graduate program and there is a lot of education and formation that happens before you even get close to being behind a pulpit or leading a congregation.

    Above all, pray and ask for guidance. Listen to what you hear when you fall asleep at night, when you awake in the night, or the unclouded thoughts of early morning. Journal about what you feel. And know that you are not alone, you are being lifted up in prayer.

  5. And one additional thought, your denomination's local church body (for me it is a Synod, but it could be a district, presbytery, bishopric, etc) likely has an organized discernment process. It is often called candidacy and includes many opportunities to explore ministry and has "checks and balances" along the way if you are worried about your sense of call or any of your other concerns. I have found candidacy to be a excellent place for support and have also been assigned a mentor in the process. It might be worth calling this office (whatever it is in your denomination) and figure out how to start the conversation.

  6. I fear that the way that we in the church often talk about the idea of "calling," especially with respect to ordained ministry, creates unnecessary anxiety over what could and should be a gift of God received in freedom.

    The fundamental calling for all Christians is the call to "Follow me," and that's a call we don't have to worry about whether we have or not. In each life, the way that call gets expressed is a product of our own unique gifts, passions, and opportunities.

    From within my own evangelical tradition, I recommend the books *Good News for Anxious Christians: Ten Practical Things You Don't Have to Do* by Phillip Cary and *Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View* by Garry Friesen. Cary doesn't address ordained ministy in particular, but I believe that his advice is just as valid with respect to that decision as the other major decisions we face in life. Friesen *does* have a chapter on ordained ministry in particular, and (alas!) does not affirm the ordination of women (although there is a long footnote in the second edition acknowledging that he could be wrong about that). I would hope that that point of disagreement would not make us miss the wisdom of the rest of the book.

  7. I agree with Rachel that the idea of "calling" creates expectations that aren't helpful. Yes, it would be wonderful to hear a call expressed clearly in words and experiences that cannot be misunderstood, but the world is loud and filled with competing voices.

    So much that is helpful has been said above, so I would add only this: Step back and look at your whole life. Is it flowing in the direction of pastoral ministry? My tradition considers that call has three components: a personal sense of call, affirmation from your community (if not your home congregation, perhaps your Committee on Preparation for ministry), and finally a call to serve in a particular setting. Sometimes it's a start-and-stop process, because God's time is not our time, but you can trust in God to keep it moving if that's God's will.

    Don't think of ministry as something you may do in the future. Ministries of presence in every occupation are a gift from God to the world. And don't think that a pulpit is always a place of power. Every woman here can tell you that servant leadership is a real thing, and that hour on Sunday is a small part of it.

  8. Well, at least I know I'm not alone! Those sound exactly like the thoughts running through my head all the time, only I've already been to seminary. My only bit of wisdom gleaned from these years of wandering (while also spending quite a lot of time mothering and moving from city to city following my husband's job) is that figuring out what you're NOT called to do is also valuable. Closing doors/roads can illuminate the path. I have figured out from experience that I am NOT called to do youth or children's ministry, for example. I have found Parker J. Palmer's book "Let Your Life Speak" not exactly helpful in a practical sense, but very comforting. He also talks about using closed doors as a guide and taking stock of your gifts, and spends time talking about his own struggles with depression. And one last thing, sometimes I have to tell myself (repeatedly) that it's okay to shine. Many prayers for all of us who wrestle with our callings.

  9. Move forward... as my pastor told me, "if you can do anything else, then do it." I couldn't. So I'm a pastor now. It was a good decision. :)

  10. One thing that helped me was realizing I don't have to have all the answers at once. Feel a prompting? Investigate it. Take a step forward and see what you can from there. Honestly? Your fear of hurting churches? That is a healthy thing for pastors to have. So many (and this is probably more prevalent in men who don't have the same barriers to ministry that women do) that do hurt churches never thought to consider that they might. The path is rarely revealed all at once. As others have said, we are all called to follow. And sometimes that following comes in steps rather that having the whole set of directions clearly laid out from the beginning . . . When I was contemplating seminary fulltime (as opposed to the 20-year plan I had been on and which would require me to quit my job), he suggested I do what would help me love God and others better. If that was in what I was doing already, great!


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