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 clergy...how do we make it work?