Saturday, September 26, 2009


I've been thinking about calling, and ministry, and specifically my call to ministry, in response to reading William Willimon's "Calling and Character."

What I know about my call:
I could not refuse it--although I tried to channel it into other directions for several years (several committees in the local church, choir, writing, etc.)
God called me, not a particular local church or denomination; if one would not, could not accept me, that did not invalidate my call; it simply meant I was meant to serve in another.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important to me than my call, my ministry. That doesn't mean I don't have balance in my life. But when it comes to life decisions, I cannot allow anything else to divert me from the fullest response to my call that I am capable of--not relationships, not fear, not finances, not other people's opinions of me... I gave up many things to respond to my call, both before and after I came out and left my denomination of origin. I am not going to waste that sacrifice (which was not only my sacrifice, but others' as well) by being any less than God calls me to be.

Beyond that, in the specifics, I'm still exploring and discerning. What size or location or mission or style or theology in a local congregation is a best fit, will, I suspect, change over time. I am too capable of seeing all sides (or many) sides of a situation to commit to one thing always and forever.

I was talking with a clergy colleague recently who said she never wanted to serve in a large church because she felt called to the intimacy and family feeling of a small church. I understand that well, having served in small churches. But, again having worked with large churches, I feel a pull to serve there as well, simply because of the resources available and the breadth of experience in a larger church. I can see and feel the call, the pull, to both or either. So does that make me wishy-washy or available to God? The jury's still out on that one!

Willmon's book is, for the most part, excellent. He talks about the ethics of ministry and call, the need for truth spoken in love. He's not only referring to the needed truth we pastors speak to congregations in our sermons and studies--although that is part of it--but the truth spoken to our colleagues in ministry. If we allow our colleagues to be less than they are capable of, we thereby give them permission to allow us to be less than we are capable of--and neither is a faithful response to our call.

My one complaint (at least so far, I haven't finished the book yet) is that while he recognizes that God calls whom God wills, and that may include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, he still feels that celibacy is called for by non-heterosexual people. He's missed two points here.

First is that no intimate relationship is solely about genital sex, the physical part of a relationship; what about intimate love, caring, nurture, mutual support? No one I know (of any orientation or gender identity) would define their intimate relationships purely around the physical act. In calling for celibacy (i.e., enforced singleness), Willimon is denying GLBT people the opportunity for the kind of intimate support and caring that heterosexual people take for granted from their partners.

Second, celibacy is a gift, it is not granted to everyone. To force someone into a state into which they are not called is wrong, simply put. To accept that persons are called, then to decide that who they are doesn't fit someone's (human) comfort zone and so they must surpress part of who they are is a failing of human grace. A person is called with all of who they are, not simply the parts of them we are comfortable with--it may be that what we are not comfortable with is exactly what God requires that person to express and share with God's people.

I understand Willimon's point that the pastor has a peculiar responsibility to be a living model of the Christian life. But having accepted that all persons may be called, why then would we ask that called person to be less than who they are?

Well, that's a pet peeve of mine--so-called acceptance and tolerance that isn't quite comfortable with the whole concept. A black friend of mine once comparesd it to her being welcomed in a majority-Caucasian church--as long as she didn't stand up and wave her arms, or shout "amen!" at the preacher, she was welcome--they were comfortable with her. But when she began to express herself in worship, as she felt comfortable and called, they were not as accepting. So too, as long as non-heterosexual people look and act just like heterosexual people, and don't do anything to remind heterosexual people that they aren't just like them, then non-heterosexual people are welcome. But only until then.

And so I have been doing some thinking about celibacy as part of a call--for anyone, of any denomination or orientation or gender identity.

Does it truly free one for greater service or does it lay an enormous burden of loneliness on the person? How does one find that ease, that comfort in sharing and mutual support that is really only available in the most intimate of relationships? Friendships, even long-standing ones, close, intense and trusting, can only go so far.

Does it have something to do with committment? Is is fair to ask someone, not called as I am, to commit to a life--or an extended period of time--with me, knowing I will not be able to give them all the attention, care and nuture they deserve because my congregation comes first? On the other hand, without committment, how can it even be called a relationship rather than...what, friends with benefits? I think at some point there does need to be a committment to a relationship (any intimate relationship), even if it's only a committment to work on the relationship--not necessarily a committment that the relationship will never end (probably unrealistic anyway), but a promise to at least try to make it work and attempt to solve diffculties. Otherwise no matter the emotions involved, it's not more than intensive dating or living together. So I am faced with either asking someone to share my life, knowing they will always be in second place; or living without that intimate place of sharing and caring and mutual support. So perhaps it is better to be single--not because of any perceived sinfulness or concern over misleading the flock, but because it is too much to ask another person, not called, to accept. It would be a great gift if offered--but until the life of the clergy spouse is lived, no one really understands it.

Of course, it may be that "clergy spouse" is a calling the church has not yet recognized! It may be high time for that!

Two-clergy couples have their own struggles, before someone suggests that... Two calls, two demanding lives...and sometimes the calls will lead in different directions. If it is not fair to ask someone who has no call to ordained ministry to be our partner, how much worse is it to ask someone who does have that call to committ to delaying or rearranging or denying that call--or having them ask you to do so? I know there are clergy couples who make it work, and I rise up and call them blessed.

Perhaps I'm creating a false dichotomy here, between commitment to the congregation and commitment to a partner. In all healthy relationships, such as between the pastor and the congregation or between the pastor and his/her partner, there should be balance. Simply because that balance is difficult, that does not mean one should not try for the relationship, for the balance. If one is truly called to celibacy, or singleness--and I have known one or two people who are--then that is one's call. But it shouldn't be a choice of fear or disappointment, born of the difficulties of relationship in this situation. If it is freely chosen and one is called to it, then it can be a true support for a pastor.

But for the rest of us, as part of our call, we are to model the Christian life not only in how we deal with money and conflict and societal influences, but in our relationships as well. This is what Strong Heart and I were attempting to model this summer at the conference--difficult as it might have been for both of us, we were very aware of our call to model Christian love and truth, as pastors called to lead God's people. We tried--and I hope, succeeded--in modelling love that goes beyond the momentary to the long-term, love that offers forgiveness and acceptance, that sees beyond momentary pain to a love that does not end with a change in focus or direction. So, too, in our relationships with partners, family, friends, and others, we should be models. I'm not saying it's easy, especially with family--but we as pastors are called to act as Christ would act, whether our actions are responded to in a Christian manner or not. Therefore, it seems to me, we are called to partnership--not only as a model but for our own comfort and well-being in this ministry God has called us to.

And let me add one thought to that--there is a very special corner of heaven reserved for the spouses of pastors!

Well, this is a long musing with no real conclusion, more a string of thoughts I have had. I am not sure what it all means, of anything. I do not think, at this point, that singleness is part of my call, although I will say that in the most important relationships of my life, they did not continue as they were because of my calling (at least in part, never the whole or only reason), in one way or another. My partners either could not accept the reality of what my call meant; or my call led me in one direction and my partner was called in another direction. Which is why I am contemplating this whole matter of partnership for do we make it work?

Ideas, anyone?


Sue said...

I came to ministry late in life - the classic "second career" pastor. Our children were grown and my partner and I agreed before I began my theological studies on a few things.

1. He would never live in another manse as long as he lived. He grew up in them, hates them, and refuses to live in that particular fish bowl ever again. No problem. I'm cool with that.

2. He needed to understand that while my call was something I simply could NOT say no to (unless I could learn to live with a lifetime of regret) - he and our boys were such a vital part of my life that I knew I desperately needed their support. Family meeting. Support was there. I was truly blessed.

How to make it work? BOUNDARIES. Like anything else in ministry, as I'm discovering, success isn't about how many people you visit or how wonderful your sermons are - success is about BALANCE. When you can balance your personal and professional lives, suddenly your call doesn't feel like a burden to anyone....only a gift from the Holy.

And just imagine - it only took me 50 years to figure this out!

Great post RP - thanks!

If you're not on my private list yet (I had to take my blog underground - lots of reasons - just email me at suecan at gmail dot com and I'll send you an invite.

eyes wide open said...

Please do not lump me into the "hater" crowd. I realize that even if I were a prophet, without love I am devoid of anything profitable- I endeavor to love everyone. Please read my comment before you decide who I am.

I believe that the Scriptures are clear that all forms of sexuality are wrong apart from the marriage between a man and a woman. Unless we are reading different translations I do not understand a different interpretation as there is not much to interpret on the matter.

Let me make a theological explanation of the why sexuality is so important. Paul compares marriage to the great mystery- the great mystery is summarized as "Christ in you the hope of glory". Most people interpret this as the intimacy/love that a committed couple share along emotional lines. The problem is that, marriage, when this was written was not a matter of emotional love; it was simply a legal agreement. Marriages were arranged and generally not birthed in "love" as they seem to be today. What is the point?

The point is that Paul was comparing the physical act of intercourse where the male actually and literally fills the void inside the woman, thus making them one. The ultimate product/fruit of this literal "oneness" is life birthed. This is a picture of what happens when, through belief in Jesus and the subsequent forgiveness of our sin- a clean conscience- God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, comes to make His abode with us, thus literally filling the void that man was created with that is only able to be filled by God through belief. In the same way a life is birthed as a product/fruit of human intercourse, the presence of the Holy Spirit/Christ in us births eternal Life, and "Life abundant". All other attempts to fill the "void" apart from the articulated covenant is a counterfeit and a corruption of what God intended.

This is why God HATES adultery- adultery is comparable to idolatry, which God also hates. For this same reason, God hates fornication. Fornication is an intimacy that happens apart from covenant. According to my interpretation of the New American Standard Bible, homosexuality is a counterfeit of what God offers through belief in Jesus.

When I say belief (pisteuĆ³)I mean a belief that actually trusts and commits to a truth to be believed. If a person dose not trust and commit to a truth it is not true belief. Most of Christianity seems to live in unbelief based on the fruit of their lives- far too much of the time myself included.

For this reason also, when God calls His people to pursue holiness He means it. Why? The pursuit of holiness is apart of the covenant that God gave us in order to enjoy the "Christ in you/eternal life" reality. Having said this I believe that few Christians are actually enjoying this "Christ in you/abundant life reality"- this is why we must live a life in pursuit of holiness because God will not dwell in a temple not devoted to him- note the great detail and high standards required of the Jewish temple, which is a picture of our becoming the temple of God as per the new covenant established through belief in Jesus and what he did at the cross.

I have not enjoyed the abundant life reality in a while because I have been apathetic toward a pursuit of holiness. I have neglected my prayer life/relationship with God for months and consequently have been "walking according to the lusts of the flesh". I have not been enjoying "eternal Life", which is the presence of Jesus, because of my sin. I ask God to have mercy on me daily and give me the grace to draw close to Him because I fear what my flesh is capable of without Him.

Believe me, I am fearful to judge.

Please consider my heart and do not condemn me. I am not walking in judgment.

Rainbow Pastor said...

I would never condemn anyone--that is not my place, for one thing, but neither is it a part of my faith to pass judgement on another person's faith or belief.

First, I want to thank you for your honesty and for your willingness to engage in respectful discussion. That is rare and refreshing!

Second, I want to respond fully and thoughtfully--but my plate is full for the next few days, so I can't do so immediately. Know that I am not ignoring you or your comments--I'm mulling a response and finding the time to write it out carefully.

Blessings to you!

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