Calling not only for clergy

A calling and a career are two different things.

A calling comes from God. It is really has nothing to do with a pay check or health benefits. It is not a good way to provide for your family or put a roof over your head. It is not voluntary, and it may have nothing to do with your personal ambitions or desires.

A career (a word I chose for the alliteration but job is maybe more apt) is provided for pastors by the church. It comes with many of the things listed above, but also with some obligations and expectations that are common to every job.

Sometimes, it seems, pastors and the church get confused about this distinction.

This issue is important to me these days as I am seeking to live out my sense of calling outside the only venue that our denomination supports for calling – the pastorate. We pay great lip service to the notion that all Christians have a calling and are in ministry, but when we talk about “call” we almost always mean the call to be a pastor. The upshot of this is that laity find very few theological or pastoral supports for working out their sense of calling in their jobs and careers because the only career that we really speak of as a calling are ones in the church itself.

By merging the notion of call with the job of pastor, we create a muddle that makes is difficult for both laity and the clergy to think carefully about what it means to have a call.

I know for a fact that there are pastors who go by the name United Methodist who take the name because it comes with health insurance and a retirement plan, not because they plan to preach or teach church doctrine or practice church discipline. I know of pastors who ignore church law and openly profess that they have no particular sense of obligation to the UMC.

But they assert that their calling authorizes all this. They confuse their career as UMC pastor with their calling and believe the call authorizes behavior that would not be rewarded or condoned in nearly any other job.

As a member of the United Methodist Church, I want my pastor to have a strong sense of calling, but I also want him or her to be faithful to the vows to uphold the teaching of the denomination. I want my pastor to show by example that his or her vows, like the vows of my baptism, are meaningful. I want my pastor to do his or her job.

And I want the church to help me understand that I have a calling, too. I want guidance in working out the ways that I can live that calling in my job or through it. I want help discerning when my call requires me to change my career or seek ways to be a tent-maker whose call is supported by a job but not bound up in it.

These are difficult issues for me.  I suspect they are for others as well. They would be helped if we could start by distinguishing between the call of God and the job of pastor. Doing so would free up the concept of calling for those of us who are not in the clerical orders.

14 thoughts on “Calling not only for clergy

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I’m in the candidacy process now with my conference and even getting to that point was a struggle for me. On one hand, I didn’t want to support the ‘system’ that for the most part said that the only way one’s call could really be supported/recognized in the UMC was through ordination, so I avoided seminary. Though I’m still figuring out how to align vocation/career and call, I’m pretty sure (at least for now) that it’s not to be an elder in the church. I did start seminary at SPU last quarter to at least give myself space to learn and listen more to this call, but I’m not on the M.Div track.

    Our call serve God can be lived out in different places and spaces, much like midwesterndiva articulated. We don’t all have to be pastors to serve–though that seems to be the one that actually pays a salary (which is frustrating!).

    And it frustrates me that when people heard I was going to seminary, the assumption was that I was going to be a pastor. What’s wrong with a lay person wanting to go to seminary to be an empowered lay person in the church? It’s illogical to some. And what are we saying to our young (and not so young) people who feel called to serve the church? That being a pastor of a local church is the only way to go?

    I just blogged about this very issue.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sophia, and your blog post. Stay on the path.

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