What has been apparent to me over the years is the extent to which the question of calling is the fundamental, ongoing, but often hidden issue of pastoral ministry. This question of what God calls us to be and to do is not a question that once posed and answered can be put away, never to be raised again. Instead, it is a persisting issue for those whose everyday lives raise the question in various guises. It may come in daydreaming about an easier life where the rewards are apparent and the struggle to make ends meet is not so difficult. It could be a fantasy of a life without church treasurers who begrudge any expense or without ever-present voices that chip away as a kind of negative Greek chorus. It can be a question about roads not taken and work that was considered, but not followed. It can be the siren call of what I might have done and what I might have become. It can take the shape of the most essential question, that is, whether I have any faith left, or believe anything at all?  

In this regard, one of the ministers who shares the story of his life and ministry in The Spirit’s Tether indicates that he had had “few experiences—direct or indirect—of the presence of God.” He wonders whether he is really a Christian or just a charlatan who has built a rather comfortable and rewarding ministry on just a few grains of sinking sand. But . . . while I’ve never really seen God, while I’ve never really heard the voice of Christ speaking, while I’ve never really had a born again experience, I do see in the scriptures, and in literature, black print on white page, and in whatever it is that happens in the transaction between that black print and my heart and mind is a life-giving experience that I have long since come to believe is the presence of Jesus Christ for me.” (180) 

When we first considered being an ordained minister, we tended to skip over the matter of where we were on the road to becoming a Christian. In this sense, the call to lead is often far ahead of the essential call to follow. It may be that we knew too early and too young how to take care of other people, and we did not pay attention to what we most needed in order to care for ourselves, or, more accurately, to be cared for and shaped by our faith in God. In this regard, the questioning of a call in ministry almost always leads to rethinking what it means to be a Christian in the first place.  

When the vocational question reappears in the practice of ministry, it is entangled with the question of self-identity. While, obviously, a first sense of call to ministry involves our self, it is mostly about choosing what we want to do with our life and, if we are brutally honest, less about what God might want us to do. In my experience, there is not much recognition at this initial point that calling is about yourself and God in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing. Later, however, in dealing with the question of calling within congregational life, the questions of self—who I am, who I am becoming, and what I want most to be—shape the issue in ways far more complex than when we were ordained. In effect, the question is given urgency by recognizing that we may not have ended up how we first imagined. We are like a character in one of Anne Tyler’s novels who asks herself, “Who is this person I have turned out to be?”  

In the early years of ministry, we do not yet have the kinds of experiences that push us into the subtexts of our own life to explore who we actually are beneath the persona of pastor. It is often when we are weary and worried, worn out, or just plain stuck in routine that the essential issues of identity rise to the surface and we search for what makes us feel real and what makes us feel alive. For Christians, this aliveness is centered in the Christ who lives within us, and who, outside of us, calls us to ministry , though not necessarily calls us to churches that are without difficulties.  

The eight men and women who are the subjects of The Spirit’s Tether have remained in ministry because they have been able to deal with the crisis or series of crises that came into their lives. Each had large dreams of the kind of ministry that would be theirs. For some, this included high ambitions and the hope for wide spread recognition of some sort. They thought God would bless them in ways of their own choosing. For most of them, not much worked out the way they anticipated. For some, the crisis that shook their identity was a church conflict. For others, there were difficulties within their marriages and personal relationships. For women, the continuing need to justify their ordination with some men and other women in the church was a never-ending struggle. For a few men and women, the repressed memories of past trauma could no longer be contained and erupted to claim their attention.  

Throughout the life of the church, the continuing decline in membership and resources of the churches establishes a trying and often unyielding setting for ministry. Even where congregations are growing in numbers despite contrary national trends, the future is uncertain. And in congregations where the statistical facts are clearly visible, then how to be the church in such changing circumstances ways requires enormous skill and fidelity. The cost of being a pastor in such a context is that much of what impinges upon you, eats at your soul, and gnaws at your well being is hidden, out of sight, and too often you are left feeling that no one wants to hear what you have to say or to confront the facts of the church you serve and lead.  

The challenge, then, is how to speak truthfully of the church’s life without falling into unending complaint or uncontrolled anger. It is the challenge of recognizing the anxiety and fear that fill your heart in dealing with the church’s present day issues without presenting yourself to the congregation in ways that make you vulnerable and leave many uneasy with your leadership. This calls for courage, which I think is a more accurate term than the one currently in favor, namely, “non-anxious presence.” The temptation is to misread this latter image as squelching what you feel and know in order to present a cheerful countenance. To be courageous, though, is to realize exactly how scared and uncertain you are and still be able to lead, equip, and support your congregation in living with questions that do not have any immediate solution. In this case, you do not deny how you feel, but you know what you have to do, what you cannot do, and you do it without gimmicks by the grace of God.  

The leadership issue of courage, then, ultimately is a theological issue, the “courage to be,” a matter of trust and faith in the midst of a hard reality. Such trust and faith are what I have seen in the ministries of the eight men and women whose stories are told and whose vocations are followed in The Spirit’s Tether. 


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog   


This article is adapted from a presentation by Malcolm L. Warford at Knox College, University of Toronto, May 9, 2012.  The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry by Malcolm L. Warford was published in 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 



AL415_SM The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry           
by Malcolm L. Warford         

The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry tells the stories of eight men and women from their days as students at Union Theological Seminary in New York through their work today as pastors in local congregations over thirty years later. This book is a distinctive resource for ministers, congregational leaders, and those in theological education whose role it is to prepare women and men for their sojourns into ordained ministry.          

AL411_SM Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry             
by Barbara J. Blodgett        

Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.         

AL221_SM Learning While Leading: Increasing Your Effectiveness in Ministry             
by Anita Farber-Robertson       

As the world changes, so do people’s expectations of their faith community and clergy. This book uses three case studies to speak to religious professionals about the challenges they face; to provide readers with specific, user-friendly techniques to become more aware of how they function; and to learn new ways to lead. Clergy will find real-life examples of how more effective leadership enhances the life of the community and promotes the deepening of members’ faith.         

AL399_SM A Lifelong Call to Learn: Continuing Education for Religious Leaders             
by Robert E. Reber and D. Bruce Roberts       

A Lifelong Call to Learn is aimed at directors of lifelong learning and continuing education that serve both clergy and laity in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish seminaries and conference and retreat centers. While proposing new approaches in continuing theological education, it also addresses the need for programs that involve both clergy and laity at the congregational level and that support ongoing interreligious dialogue in our increasingly pluralistic society. In this time of foment in theological education, when institutional leaders are striving to develop new models for the basic master of divinity degree, this collection will be of keen interest to theological educators in every setting .    


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Nienaber,Susan 120xDealing with Congregational Tension and Discord  

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Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
July 24-26, 2012 
Palisades Retreat Center, (near) Seattle, WA



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