There are jobs and there are callings. My first jobs included babysitting and waiting tables. My first “call” to professional ministry was with a tiny church in a tiny town nowhere near family or friends. I stayed for five years and the experience changed my life for good.
Now I work with clergy seeking their first calls and – on the cusp of this new year – I have great hopes for all who have finished the seminary race, have been deemed “ready” and now await the nudging of the Spirit. What we have here is an Advent/New Year’s Resolution mashup.
It’s not as fun as waiting for Santa.
I’ve observed too many new pastors experience soul-sucking first calls. The common denominators to these debacles include:
- Congregations who were not transparent about their issues during the interview process. The issues might range from no money to actually pay the new pastor to a failure to inform the new pastor that the Town Matriarch is actually the de facto pastor and you’ll be working for her to an expectation that the pastor is the hired help and it’s expected that he’ll do everything while we watch from the pews/parking lot.
- Pastors who were not honest during the interview process. You said you loved youth work when you were just kidding/desperate to get ordained.
- Colleagues who pitch themselves as collaborators but are not. You find yourself sabotaged by other staff members/volunteers for all kinds of reasons including feeling threatened, jealous, or basically cranky.
A good first call is a joyous thing and I’d love to hear your tips to finding a good first call if you have positive wisdom to share. What I’ve noticed is this:
- A good first call is all about God. It’s not about “getting ordained” or “paying the rent” or “being in the same town with ___” or “impressing the parents” or anything other than being where God calls you to be. You do not want to be where God isn’t calling you to be. #disaster
- A good first call will bolster your pastoral identity. Whether your first call is in a parish, a hospital, a school, a homeless shelter, an interfaith organization, or a soup kitchen – if you are called to professional ministry by God in that particular setting, your understanding of yourself as a pastor will blossom.
- A good first call is among people who allow you to have a life apart from work. Your people will want their spiritual leader to have a social life, an intellectual life, and – yes – a spiritual life that will be fed beyond the congregation/ministry site. They will expect you to take your day(s) off. They will be happy when you take vacation and study leave because they care about you.
- A good first call allows for mistakes and missteps. New pastors fail in small and huge ways. Forgiveness goes both ways.
Actually these are helpful tips for all calls, but if they don’t happen in the first call, a pastor could find herself wounded and cynical to the point of never wanting a second call.
And here’s the last thing (which should be the first thing in your process towards ordination): everyone is called to a life of ministry but not everyone is called to professional ministry. This is one of the few professions that cannot be achieved like a certification program. We can leap through every hoop and still not be called to that first call and, yes, that feels brutal. But the good news is that we are still called to ministry. It’s possible that it’s just not what we expected.
So to any of you who might hope that 2017 brings ordination: I hope that for you too if that’s where God is leading you. It’s all about the One whose birth we celebrate later this week and – just like the coming of the Messiah – it’s always different from what we expect.