The sword imbedded in the stone can only be removed by the person to whom the sword belongs. – Arthurian Legend
Even before one begins to speak about the authority, one must speak about the call. All authority ultimately rests upon a call, a vocation, without which there is no legitimate authority. However, there are fewer more difficult subjects to speak about with authority than the call. Just what is a call? ‘A calling is ultimately mysterious, and the process of discernment is always a bit of a guessing game.’ We use the term freely, and with meaning, but is there real substance to the term?
We try to differentiate between vocation and career; we try to differentiate between careers and jobs. Referencing Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Mahan writes, ‘worldly ambition is Ilyich’s problem. It was Ilyich’s fevered attachment to and preoccupation with specific images of success that closed him off to intimations of a better way.’ There are no hard-and-fast delineations; rather like good art, we know it when we see it, and come to recognise its absence when it is not there.
Discernment of vocation or calling is not a binary proposition. It takes time, it takes intention, and it takes community. Once one intentionally submits to a process of discernment, things begin to take shape over time.
The process of concretizing the call makes it personal and real. The abstract notion, which has potentiality and possibility, suddenly begins to present itself as concrete and energised by feelings. At this stage of development, the call has become specific enough for prayer and powerful enough to challenge our volition.
As we continue to work through the discernment process, inviting others in gives authority to the call.
This community element can assist in guarding against self-deception and wishful thinking. 'The first step toward understanding the community of truth is to understand that community is the essential form of reality, the matrix of all being. The next step takes us from the nature of reality to the question of how we know it: we know reality only by being in community with ourselves.’
As the discernment process continues in the presence of others, it often takes on new aspects, and new urgency. ‘As we journey in our call, God often reveals Godself to us inexplicable ways. The mystery of God spills over and embraces us. Our insight rises to a new level. There is that moment when we know ourselves loved and claimed by God, and this moment of God’s revelation fuels our vision and energises us.’ One can get swept away in an almost ecstatic fervour of feelings of enlightenment and spirituality (whatever that might mean to one).
This is fraught with dangers, however, as not everyone is helpful; while one trusts there will be honest and capable, it is also true this is a very human process. ‘We rely heavily on friends and, hopefully, a truthful and discerning community in this process…. However, other arbiters may preclude one from fulfilling that vocation by their decision, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes for pernicious ones.’ It isn't just the human elements of community that can seem to be problematic, either. Sometimes life events take on a direction of their own, almost as if conspiring against one. ‘On one matter, the several records of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem are consistent. From the moment he enters the city, everything runs out of control. Whatever else that mysterious fig tree may mean, it seems a poignant detail confirming the suspicion that sometimes even nature conspires against us.’ Why is it that the basement floods and the car won't start and the email system is down and the paper is due today? Aren't these all signs?
‘Vocation finally is less about discovering our occupation than about uncovering preoccupations.’ One ultimately has to have trust, have faith, and surrender the kind of authority over one's own life normally taken for granted in the world. One must look for guidance and direction, rather than being self directed. Only then can authority from God's call begin to attain validity and shape.
To what is one called?
‘Jesus promised his followers three things: that they would be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.’ - Marty Babcock
People are called to ministry and teaching with images of helping people, helping to shape a new and better world, and largely (although not universally) to lead a life that doesn't involve conflict. Such people soon discover that, as in any human enterprise, this is not the case, nor did Jesus ever model such a state of being. ‘The trouble with Jesus was—and is—that he stands in the midst of the conflict, allows the conflict actually to live in him even though it tears him apart, in order that new life might be born. The trouble with Jesus was—and is—that he invites us to follow where he has led.’ Conflict is at the heart of ministry, and (as more and more educators are coming to be aware) at the heart of teaching, also.
Being clear about one is called to do is vital to effective ministry. One must get past the vague notions toward specific vocation – pastors, not being superhuman, cannot sustain being all things to all people all the time. ‘Pastoral vocational clarity frees the pastor to be and do what the pastor has promised in the ordination vows. It frees and empowers the laity to actually be the church.’ The model of ministry most have inherited is one of hierarchy and professionalism, and one that is often not well thought out. Many come to seminary (and, indeed, leave seminary) with rather non-specific notions of what their call truly is. ‘It involves far more than a vague desire to do good and serve God. It consists of more than good intentions. It goes beyond the desire to “save one’s own soul” and “solve one’s own problems”. The call to ministry involves the personal, the historic, and the institutional.’ But the sense of ministry's calling must always be directed outside. Even for the most contemplative of monastics, the call to God's service looks beyond the self.
The apostolic call is to live “outside of ourselves”. By that I mean that disciples are prepared to be engaged by the world and to connect with the world. Ours is both a strategic and an opportunistic faith. It is strategic in that we look for ways to bring our faith and our service together as often as possible. It is opportunistic because we must always be open to the surprises that God will bring to us through the world. So we live beyond ourselves in extending our spiritual lives into the world God loves as well as leaning into the Spirit, who meets us as we engage God’s world.
In many ways, the vocation to teach is the same kind of call; both ministry and teaching share this outside-the-self view. ‘I had pursued my doctoral degree because I found in my studies a way of coming to know God, and I had chosen teaching as a profession because of its evangelical role – because I hoped that in studying theology my students might also come to know God.’
McGinnis highlights a possible danger that both teaching and ministry have, the sense that one's vocation can become an end in-and-of itself; had McGinnis pursued her degree with the intention of coming to know God but then not followed that with action toward others, the vocation would have been skewed. Mahan recounts a modern parable that provides some clarity.
A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country; lakes and mountains and green fields and rivers. But the shades of the bus are pulled down. They do not have the slightest idea of what lies beyond the windows of the bus. And all the time of their journey is spent in squabbling over who will have the seat of honour in the bus, who will be applauded, who will be well considered. And so they remain till the journey’s end.
What teachers need to do, what ministers need to do is to see beyond their own life and sense of calling toward that which needs acting upon. One such change takes place in revisioning teaching: ‘A new image came to mind: teacher as mediator of transformation. Such transformation in the classroom is a movement from pretense to authenticity.’
However, even here, there is a danger in being too sure about what the call is to do. Portaro reminds us that Jesus often gave more questions than answers. ‘Jesus does, however, willingly step into the fray and engage the questions in himself. He is fiercely dedicated to human life and experience. He is equally fierce in his dedication to the God of Israel..’ Portaro reminds us that Jesus paid for his dedication to engage the questions and conflict with his life. Many have followed in his footsteps. Many more are called, but the labourers are few.
Acting on the call
‘The final aim of discernment is not information or knowledge but action!’ – Ben Campbell Johnson
The point of a call is not simply to hear, but to respond. If we do not respond to our deepest callings, we run the risk of living a life without colour and spirit.
We’ll feel alienated from ourselves, listless and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul. Life will feel so penetratingly dull and pointless that we may become angry, and turn the anger inward against ourselves (one definition of depression) or feel seized by the impulse to run madly out of the house, down to the river, and search among the bulrushes for a miracle.
Living a life without acting upon a calling can be torturous, regardless of who does the inhibiting. Sometimes it is the church (for example, what is a Roman Catholic woman with a call to priesthood to do?), sometimes it is family or friends, sometimes it is one's own sense of restriction. In any event, the call will still be insistent, and the manner in which it is acted out should still be pursued. This is again the point at which living out a vocation becomes more art than science. ‘We humans have a curious conceit that just because we have said something, we understand it. But that is not always the case. We may not have heard ourselves say it, and even if we did, we may not yet know what it means.’
Putting a call into action can be a blessing beyond measure, but it can also degenerate into difficulties. Even the disciples were susceptible to this, arguing about their rank among themselves (something future bishops would do with a vengeance in a way that still separates the church along major fault lines after a thousand years).
Who will be the greatest? The one who serves ordinary people. Those at the pinnacle of the church hierarchy have often been called “servants of the servants of God”. Right on! But how easily and deviously this “servanthood” undergoes an Orwellian mutation into the hierarchical control and ranking that no longer aim just to do what’s needed.
In addition to this metamorphosis of vocation and authority into something less than ideal, ministers in their zeal to live out the call can fall into the trap of sensing their own indispensability.
It is not an uncommon disease or dis-ease among pastors who fail to come to terms with their own limitations and who do not look after themselves. Burnout – literally, burning until the fire burns itself out – is severe physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion. It is usually accompanied by loss of control, loss of challenge or interest, and loss of commitment or faith. Burnout is much easier to prevent than it is to treat.
It is imperative to ensure that a call, however valid, however well-discerned, be lived out according to realistic terms of personal ability, which requires a healthy dose of self-care, and a healthy respect for the authority of God's creation (the very true reality of limits of time, space and energy for a minister or teacher to act).
Teaching as a Vocation
‘I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind. Yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.’ - Kahlil Gibran
I have always felt my calling to be a dual-track vocation, that of being a teacher and a minister; I've often lectured and conducted myself in the lives of students such that people thought I would make a good priest; I've often conducted myself in lives of congregations such that people thought I would make a good teacher. In all honesty, the first words I heard toward ministry were when I was a newly-arrived student at Indiana University, and I arrived at the campus minister's house for a welcoming party. At some point late in the gathering, he and I had a private chat, in which he told me point-blank that I would be a priest. I gave it no thought at the time, as my course was set on more dramatic and lofty goals. ‘Sometimes we’re called toward arenas in which we seem to have scant abilities and little experience or know-how. Sometimes we’re called to things to which we have distinct aversions, or to what we have always thought of as our weaknesses.’ To this day, I wonder if I have the 'right stuff' for ministry or teaching, but then I have learned that many of the best in these professions are constantly assessing this in themselves, too.
My first career was supposed to be mathematics. In addition to this, I was going to be in politics. I am credentialed in each for purposes of teaching and research, and indeed do so on an occasional basis. Little did I ever guess that it would be theological education that would give me my most secure sense of vocation. ‘If we embrace theological education as a vocation it means we envision what we do not as a job or career, but as being faithful to a grace.’
Teaching in the various disciplines at the seminary has been a very fulfilling one in many respects, with the largest problem being that of lack of community. As Wadell states:
Teaching theology is an exciting adventure, but it can also be a perilous one. There is no way any of us can survive the journey, much less delight and flourish in it, without the support, encouragement, and companionship of friends, including friendship with the God who called us to the journey in the first place.
Unfortunately, owing to my unique circumstances, I fit in neither with the students nor with the faculty, and have just recently been shown just how difficulty such isolation can be, having been criticised on both sides of the fence for not being enough like of those on the other side. And yet, through all of these problems, while I can sense that my future is clearly not at this particular seminary, my sense of vocation to teaching theology in some shape or form is unshaken.
How this must take shape is anyone's guess at this point, and yet another indication that one shouldn't try too hard to force the issue when it comes to discerning a vocation. ‘God works where God wills. God is not limited to great cities and outstanding institutions. Teachers anywhere can concentrate more clearly on God when their own reputations are not continually in the way.’ Some consider themselves failures if they don't have tenure by a certain point, or don't teach at places such as Oxford or Harvard. There are distinct advantages to being away from the centre of things; if God is to be found more in the silence than in the noise, there is little doubt that this holds true at a place such as our seminary. Also, there is the problem at major research institutions with reputations in modern and postmodern methodologies to shy away from theological education: witness the abandonment of theology as undergraduate options by many schools, and the collapsing of such studies if they still exist into philosophy, history, and religious studies general categories. ‘The task of holding faith and learning together is made doubly hard by the crisis of authority that plagues the modern world of serious scholarship. Christian scholars will find few stable points of reference either in the disciplines they are studying or in the theological frames of reference that are currently available.’
Perhaps Parker Palmer said it better than I ever could with regard to the difference between the vocation of teaching and the modern situation of the professional professor:
I am a teacher at heart, and I am not naturally drawn to the rough-and-tumble of social change. I would sooner teach than spend my energies helping a movement along and taking the hits that come with it. Yet if I care about teaching, I must care not only for my students and my subject but also for the conditions, inner and outer, that bear on the work teachers do. Finding a place in the movement for educational reform is one way to exercise that larger caring.
Where teaching is valued, there would I find a home.
Growing in Authority as a Minister and Teacher
‘I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.’ – Arsenius
One of the primary ideas of vocation is that discernment is never complete. The more one continues a lifetime of discernment, the more authority one can infer from the vocation, although it is not authority as the world might have it. It is a difficult concept (ironically, one right at home with postmodern theorists!). ‘If you’re willing to sit with ambiguity, to accept uncertainties and contradictory meanings, then your unconscious will always be a step ahead of your conscious mind in the right direction. You’ll therefore do the right thing, although you won’t know it at the time.’
Too often, when people hear the word authority, they think of hierarchies, control, and ultimately oppression and coercion. ‘When authority really means control in church settings, a number of difficulties are set in motion. Leaders become more interested in being right than being helpful. Religious leaders who grab all the authority find themselves crushed by the burden of such a load of responsibility.’ The very model of Jesus in the world shows an authority like no other – kingly, but not with a physical crown and throne; priestly, but not with a temple and sacrificial altar; prophetic, but not with the voice of unbridled judgement and destruction. Interesting how our earthly institutions have managed to re-create all these!
Authority for a teacher is similarly ambiguous and difficult to enact in complete fairness. Postmodern ideas make absolute truths and absolute objective standards impossible; in many seminaries, the sense of wanting non-hierarchical structures of community make for strange society when some sit in judgement of others, both openly and in secret. ‘In a culture where there are no truths, only opinions, teachers and students are equals and differences are resolved not by reasoned arguments, but by subtle intimidations.’ I've been taken to task for giving a 'B' to a 'perfect paper'; I've had conflict from a student who went an almost-semester-long funk because a grading scale wouldn't be stretched to round up to give him an 'A'.
There is no perfect situation for teachers or ministers (or students), there will always be conflict. However, conflict can be lessened, if there is an acceptance on the part of the leaders that there has been a paradigm shift of sorts in society.
Before the recent quantum leap in Christianity, most ministerial relationships were vertical. “I know the catechism and you don’t.” “I know theology and you don’t.” “I’m a Christian and you’re not.” In a world of external faith appropriation, this presented no problem. But once the mountain called Christianity shifts, people begin to resent always being at the bottom of vertical relationship with those in ministry. The resentment soon turns to resistance, and a lot of ministerial effort comes to naught. The great irony is that it is not your ministerial efforts that are being resisted but the ministerial relationship itself.
Just as the title of Hahn's book suggests, there is more authority in relinquishing control. ‘Looking back, we see a path marked by singularity embraced in providence. No roadmaps have been charted; but if we examine our own and others’ growth in authority, we can discern some sequences noticed by solitary travelers, philosophers, and developmental theorists.’ For teachers and for ministers, authority is rather like grasping a handful of sand on the beach – the tighter the grip, the more grains slip through, until the tightest control opens to reveal nothing left in the grasp at all. Perhaps the process theology model of God's power is also one for authority in the current age – persuasive rather than oppressive, enlightening rather than dogmatic.
The Ever-Present Ending
‘Dreams don’t come true . They are true .’ - Tom Robbins
Growing into one's vocation and growing in the authority of that vocation are never-ending processes. The sooner one learns that the journey never ends, and that all questions lead to more questions, the more content one will be, but the more curious and motivated one might become, too.
Life and the natural world are not just more minute mysteries to solve, and not everything can be figured out. I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems the better bet. After all, life doesn’t end with an answer, but a question – what next? – and it certainly ends with a sacrifice – the hero always dies.
Life is full of endings and beginnings, and different people in their circles of conflict. The pattern is always changing, rather like a kaliedoscope, but with common elements returning in new and interesting ways. Chaos theory gives some insight into group dynamics, a diversity of forces and influences that the early church recognised was already at work in the communities forming around the gospel message.
Patterning themselves on their Lord, early church leaders called forth others’ authority. Paul had a strong sense of his own apostolic authority; at the same time he found ways to advise unruly New Testament churches on their problems without taking control. He kept teaching them that ministry belongs to all Christians. All parts of the body are important, and “charisma” means not dazzle but offering my small gift, doing what’s needed to build up the whole. The Johannine community pictured the authority of the disciples, not as a gate barred to all but a few, but as an open door that welcomes all of us who follow. The author of I Peter saw that now all are a holy priesthood.
We all have a place, and perhaps the most important element in discerning one's vocation is to realise that all others are, whether they know it or not, on a journey through life that requires discernment. A task, indeed a gift of one who has done intentional and supported discernment is to make this available to others, too. ‘There has been a retreat from what Clark Williamson identified as the one indispensable function of religious faith, “that it help people to understand what it means to be human in light of the ultimate reality,” and that it equip them to live out the implications of that understanding.’ Ministers are called ‘…to preach a gospel demanding enough to be worthy of their attention.’ This same is true for those teaching theology – not to simplify the subject or to simply regurgitate as teaching what students already know (or think they know), but to give students real insight and real tools for continuing their own discernment and vocation.
Vocation is more than the fulfillment of days or tasks. Long after I can no longer do those things by which my accomplishment is measured, I shall not cease to be. Comforting as this realisation might be to me in times of extremity or duress, this realisation is particularly important to me here and now. It is important—perhaps even essential—to know that my vocation is not measured in accomplishment, that it is never truly finished.
It is interesting that among the last words of Jesus on the cross were, 'It is finished'. The two thousand years that have followed show that every ending is a beginning, and that the call continues to go forth to all, to pick up the authority of God and grow.
DiGiacomo, James J. & John J. Walsh. So you want to do ministry? Second edition, 1993. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York.
Foss, Michael W. A Servant’s Manual: Christian Leadership for Tomorrow. 2002. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Hahn, Celia Allison. Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control A New Approach to Faithful Leadership. 1994. Alban Institute: Washington, D.C.
Henry, Douglas V. & Bob R. Agee, editors. Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation. 2003. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Hunter, Victor L. Desert Hearts and Healing Fountains: Gaining Pastoral Vocational Clarity. 2003. Chalice Press: St. Louis, Missouri.
Imbler, John M. & Linda K. Plengemeier, editors. Discerning the Call: Advancing the Quality of Ordained Leadership. 1992. Chalice Press: St. Louis, Missouri.
Johnson, Ben Campbell. Hearing God’s Call: Ways of Discernment for Laity and Clergy. 2002. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Jones, L. Gregory & Stephanie Paulsell, editors. The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher. 2002. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Levoy, Gregg. Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. 1997. Harmony Books: New York City, New York.
Mahan, Brian J. Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition. 2002. Jossey-Bass Press: San Francisco, California.
Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. 1998. Jossey-Bass Press: San Francisco, California.
Portaro, Sam. Crossing the Jordan: Merditations on Vocation. 1999. Cowley Publications: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Portaro, Sam. Conflict and a Christian Life: A Hopeful Reflection on the Healthy and Holy Aspects of Conflict. 1996. Morehouse Publication: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
L. Gregory Jones, ‘Negotiating the Tensions of Vocation’, in Jones & Paulsell, p. 214. See also Levoy, p. 204: ‘One of the frightening prospects of saying yes to a calling is that you may find out who really supports you and who doesn’t.’
Paul J. Wadell, ‘Teaching as a Ministry of Hope’, in Jones & Paulsell, p. 130; and there's that sense of vocation vs. career again!
Frederick W. Norris, ‘Vocation in the Outback’, in Jones & Paulsell, p. 206.
Paul J. Wadell, ‘Teaching as a Ministry of Hope’, in Jones & Paulsell, p. 123.