Once upon a time, I was called to ministry, and it came about six times, from different people, and the sixth time, I listened. It was Rev. Dick Sherlock, the pastor of my home church, First-Immanuel UCC in Alliance, Ohio, who said he had noticed in our conversations some stirrings in me that he, too, had felt when he was about my age.
Before, when people had mentioned my calling, they had always put it in terms like, “Have you ever considered the ministry?” And I had immediately jumped to conclusions, thinking, “I could never do that!” “What a burden!” “Oh, my God, my time would never be my own, and where would I get the strength to do that?”
It was a life I envisioned filled with burdensome tasks, listening to people’s problems, and getting up in the middle of the night to be with the dying, and never having a family life, and always being paid too little for an enormous job, and above all, having to assent to beliefs that always seemed to me a little suspect.
NOT what I wanted to do with my life, at all!
But Dick put it in other terms: “Have you ever considered going to seminary?” He said that at Yale Divinity School, where he went, fully half of all graduates went into other forms of ministry: hospital and prison chaplaincy, ecumenical work such as Councils of Churches, social work, human services, work with the poor, homeless, and abused. And even law and forestry. People found all sorts of ways to respond to a call from God to serve in ministry, broadly defined and divinely empowered.
His point was that I didn’t need to decide what WORK I was going to do in order to follow God’s leadings, which were happening in my HEART. He was the first person who taught me to look within and pay attention to an INNER sense of vocation; the rest would work itself out in me.
A YDS classmate of mine was going through the discernment process for ordination in the United Church of Christ, and one of the most profound things she said when we were talking about vocation was, “I came to the decision that wherever I ended up, whatever work in ministry I ended up doing, I needed my calling to be something I could fulfill even if I was in a coma.”
Talk about an inner sense of calling! It’s defined not by what one does, but by one’s relationship and identity as a child of God.
I have returned again and again to this definition of call as I’ve worked in conventional parish ministry (both long-term, “settled” pastorates, and temporary, interim ones), shelter work, massage therapy, and even stocking grocery shelves when one of my churches had a salary freeze one year when the economy tanked.
Turns out we can say “Yes!” to God no matter what we say “yes” to DOING. And that, more than anything else, has shaped my ministry throughout my life.
Good to have those embers glowing inside of me all these years—and to be able to bring them with me to NC, where I am now. I hope I’m nurturing that inner sense of calling in others here at The Congregational Church, UCC.