Years ago, an elderly lady approached me after a Sunday sermon. With a knowing look on her face, she said in a confidential tone, “You know, you are kind of a teacher-preacher, aren’t you?” She was right, and my vocational life has taken shape around the two poles of ordained and academic ministry. When parishioners have told me they learned something from the sermons I preached, or they have detected something like evangelistic zeal in the adult education classes I have taught, they have confirmed me in that vocation. But, truth be told, the vocation they have confirmed was largely nurtured in spite of the church.
Today, I am an Episcopal priest, but I grew up in the United Methodist Church. As I completed my masters of divinity, I met for the first time with a board of ordained ministry. Declaring my dedication to the church’s ministry and modestly acknowledging that I had some academic gifts that I thought might be of value to the church, I inquired about the possibility of pursuing my ordination to the diaconate while exploring at the same time the opportunities for further degree work. One member of the board, fully 20 years or more my senior, leaned across the table and told me sternly, “Young man, if you think you are going to go away, get a Ph.D., and come back to take first church, you have another thought coming. You will go to Gravel Switch, just like everyone else.” Over the better part of the next decade, I heard that speech, or something born of the same sentiment, over and over again, in three different annual conferences. And nothing that I said or did, least of all my sheer persistence in seeking ordination and involvement in the church’s ministry, ever helped to ameliorate the sharp edge of that judgment.
Over a quarter of a century later, I have learned that there was nothing about the character of my commitment to that complex vocation that justified a reaction of that kind. It originated not out of any personal animus but out of a functional understanding of ordination, profound anti-intellectualism, and professional fears about the kind of “advanced placement” that someone who doesn’t work fully within the system might be granted in recognition of the additional graduate work they have done.
Along the way, one district superintendent advised me “not to take it personally,” and in the narrowest sense he was right. It wasn’t personal. Such suspicions of a bi-vocational ministry within the church are, however, widespread, and they plague more than one denomination. As a result, there is a paucity of serious theology done on behalf of the church. Seminaries find it difficult to recruit faculty with strong ecclesial commitments. Even those who are committed to the church rarely possess serious parish experience. And seminaries often prepare students capable of doing further graduate work without reference to a vocation in the church.
I do not regret the vocational choices I have made, and these days I have the opportunity to teach and preach in both Episcopal and Methodist parishes (among others) and it is always a delight. Laypeople are not, by and large, bedeviled by the professional considerations that dog the discernment process among clergy.
But deeper conversations about the theological and formational needs facing parish communities, as well as questions about the shape of curricula and formation in schools of theology, will be necessary if either is to thrive. Meanwhile, some of us will continue to live out a vocation that is often without mentors or an easily identified community.
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt is director of spiritual formation and Anglican studies and associate professor of Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. He is also the author of What God Wants for Your Life: Changing the Way We Seek God’s Will.