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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
Blessings all! Happy days and good weather!