For the past few years I have taught a course on the theology and meaning of call at Andover-Newton Theological School. I always emphasize to my students that a healthy call involves both joy and sacrifice—something I have learned from my own ministry.
My interest in this area gradually emerged as I encountered a series of painful events after about 10 years as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC). Several of the projects I pursued were failing, and the church I was serving was in decline. It was no longer exciting to hear people call me “reverend.” And my limitations as a minister seemed increasingly apparent.
I knew that I wasn’t as gifted as the “successful” ministers I read about in professional publications, and I grew depressed and uncertain about both my future and my calling. As I prayed about what to do, I felt led to interview other clergy about how they had sustained their calls to ministry over time.
When I initially contacted other pastors about interviewing them, they assumed that I was completing work for a doctoral project. But I explained that I needed their help. I hoped that their experiences could help me as I struggled for answers. I asked all of the pastors to share with me how they knew their call was from God, what they most enjoyed about ministry, and what made ministry difficult for them. Most important, I asked if they had ever questioned their call to ministry—and how they had renewed or rekindled the call when it seemed uncertain.
I soon discovered that several of the 15 pastors I interviewed had struggled with these issues. Some had struggled with difficult personalities in their congregations or with understanding what a “pastor” is expected to be like. In their own ways they had sought to rediscover their call.
But others said that their call was alive and healthy—despite tough times in their personal lives and ministries. They said that negative aspects of ministry had no effect on the sense of hope and mission they found in their work. I noted that these clergy had sought out mentors to encourage them at various points in their ministries and that they regularly set aside time to share laughter and other experiences with clergy colleagues in a variety of settings. They also set aside time for their families and other interests outside the church. They did not let their work at church consume them. I was particularly struck by the pastor who said that “our calling to ministry is to be as happy as we can” –which means knowing who we are and taking pleasure in that. I decided that I needed to make some adjustments in how I viewed my own calling.
Finding the Joy
First, I decided to have more fun. I had previously viewed ministry primarily as sacrifice, so it was interesting to ask myself what I most enjoyed about ministry. I love to travel, so I decided to organize a mission trip for my congregation. We traveled as a church to North Dakota, where we spent time with a Native American church. We saw other parts of the country, experienced another culture, and found that these experiences had a positive impact on our church.
I then decided to ask my church for a sabbatical. I had been at the church for six years, but there was no sabbatical in my contract. And because I had always focused on giving myself to the church, it was difficult for me to ask them to do something for me. But I was pleased to learn that it made them feel good to do this for me. I enjoyed planning the sabbatical—and intentionally planned a schedule that left periods of time for reflection. I scheduled in time to walk the beach, think, and write. But by the end of my time away, I found that I missed my ministry and wanted to return to it. During that time away from the church I also realized that it brings me joy to explain the Christian faith to people in a simple way and then see how it transforms their lives. After returning from the sabbatical I developed a course for my congregation called “Discipleship 101.” In this course we reviewed the basics of Christian life and belief. It was exciting for me to see how the lives of those who took the course became more filled with the Spirit over time—and how they grew anxious to do God’s work in the world. I also developed a healing ministry that God used to touch a number of lives. Each of these ventures gave new meaning to my life in the church.
New Meaning Through Sacrifice
These new aspects of my ministry demanded new sacrifices on my part. And each new experience required that I assume risk by stepping out into places where I had never been before. I attended conferences and seminars so that I could be challenged and learn new things—and I sacrificed my time, energy, and political capital in order to lead the church in new directions. But each new sacrifice left me feeling both joy and fulfillment. I discovered that sacrifice and fulfillment are interdependent in a healthy call. The joy I experienced was linked to my sacrifice.
From a spiritual standpoint, I also came to understand that in the early years of my ministry I had considered it mine—not God’s. I wanted success and to show others that I was a great minister. Acknowledging that my ministry was God’s instead—and turning it over to him—was a freeing experience that I now carry forward in my work. I strive to be faithful rather than successful, and that has made all the difference in my life and ministry.
I believe that maintaining a healthy call in the many seasons of ministry means asking ourselves tough questions and finding that the answer is still “yes.” Is my ministry sacrificial? Am I taking risks and venturing out to new places and experiencing new things? Am I experiencing joy? When we can truly answer “yes” to these questions, we will know that God’s call is alive within us.