Thursday, April 10, 2008

currently thinking about

Vocation.

Language of "calling" is somewhat foreign to me, although I have learned to use the word in a way that fits well enough within my other theological commitments. But it is not language I grew up with. "Call" seems to imply a sense of God's intimate and detailed providential involvement, not just in the world, but in one's own individual daily life and decision making processes. But this language has also been somewhat formalized, so that potential pastors and ministers in many traditions talk not just about "call" in a theological sense but a practical one as well--one finds a call to this place or that place, this church or that church, this ministry or that. In this more formalized sense, when all the negotiations and handshakings and prelims are over and one is invited to accept a position somewhere, it is called a "call:" I've accepted a call to such-and-such Church in Wherevertown, USA.

But we don't do that in the CofC, really. So in trying to think theologically about vocation and calling in our ecclesial context, there are a lot of things to be sorted out. How does vocation relate to formal ordination, and how does the lack of formal ordination in CofC practice affect how we do or don't use language of vocation? How does a doctrinal commitment to priesthood of all believers affect our sense of ministry and the status of preachers, teachers, elders, deacons, and others specially "called" to serve the church in specifically designated ways that intersect with our strong sense of everyone's status as a minister? Do we or don't we give our preachers a special kind of authority and status? Is this or isn't it consistent with our doctrine? What exactly is spiritual leadership and spiritual authority, and how is this related to vocation and formal or informal ordination?

And how, in the midst of all of this, do we talk about the vocation of women within our churches?

This year's Women in Ministry Conference is set for May 12-14, at the Manhattan Church of Christ. The topic is vocation; and the list of speakers for this year is exciting--women who have been working through all of the above, not just by sitting in a chair in front of a computer and blogging about these theological questions, but by living them and working them out in the most intimate way possible. They embody their answers to these questions, and they'll be sharing the fruits of their experiences with us.

3 comments:

Krister said...

This is a huge area of interest for me, mostly because it's what I struggle to answer on a relatively regular basis working within a specialized field of ministry outside of the context of what is generally considered "real" ministry (i.e., preaching and teaching). Something I've found in my reading and experience is that mainline denominations have a very distinct and certain understanding of the pastoral vocation/calling. They can enumerate the various ways one knows one is "called" to ministry (i.e., the internal call, the external call, one's inherent gifts, etc.) and speak of this idea as if it were self-evidently true.

I'm not sure how other ministers (professional as opposed to recreational or default priesthood) within the CofC articulate the concept of being set apart yet part of the larger body of ministers. Episcopals have a useful distinction for this (as you well know), but we are a rather sober group when it comes to ecclesial authority (I'm thinking about the power yielded by many of our elderships). As a result, we have a lot of people who get involved to teach and maybe even preach, but I am not sure that's always a good thing. Similarly, while we don't seem to respect the educational and professional training many ministers undergo, we seem to give an awful lot of authority to people in other lines of work who try their hand at teaching/preaching (e.g., medical doctors, successful businessmen, lawyers, etc.) as if success in any field equals the capacity to serve as a responsible ministerial leader.

In many ways I wonder if some of our ministers are hampered by their own lack of authority and dependence upon elderships more concerned with baptizing the status quo than with trusting the training and heart of their pastors.

By diffusing the responsibility or opportunity for ministry, I think a good number of our ministers are not fully pastors but preachers, teachers, spiritual formators (I'll just make up a new work), etc. As a result, the vocation of the ministry is bifurcated into a subsection of the pastorate. This is not always the case; I know of ministers within our tradition who engage in pastoral visitation, teaching, preaching, counseling, etc., but I think they are exception to the rule.

As a CofC chaplain, one engaged in specialized ministry where the focus is primarily on action rather than word, this vocational sea is difficult to navigate without the usual attendant sign posts along the way. I often feel more like a glorified volunteer than a true partner in ministry. This, I believe, is where I feel like my story best intersects the problem of recognizing women in ministry.

Clearly we must move past the tacit understanding of the informal spiritual authority and informal ordination of women within our churches. How we go about doing that will take some reflection and courage on the part of pastors and elderships.

I'd love to see our tradition remember and integrate the concept of spiritual direction as a useful conversation partner for this discussion. This is a rambling answer, but thanks for the questions. I'll keep thinking about this. shalom.

TKP said...

Is Kasey McCollum coming? She'd be a great addition to your committee next year, btw.

JTB said...

TKP, no idea. But I'm sure if she's anywhere near wherever next year's conference will be, she'll be coopted into planning. :)

Krister, I really appreciate your response. This is exactly the sort of stuff I think needs to get sorted out and the blog post was an attempt to kickstart my brain...so a good rambly comment tracing out the many directions these questions lead is perfect!

I especially like the point about "glorified volunteer"--you're right, that seems to be the best status that those outside our arbitrary (and shifty) sense of "real ministers" can achieve. The standard line is of course that we should all be content with that because recognition, appreciation, etc., is beside the point. I think the only possible response to that is, I'm not looking for a plaque celebrating my lifetime achievement, I'm looking for a little support and encouragement in the meantime while I try to get on with it--but I think anyone outside full-time professional ministry (including jobs like chaplains and social workers, pastoral care outside the borders of "church") is generally clueless about how draining it is and how deep the need for emotional support really is.