I did not mean to end up as a pastor. Whenever I tell people that, they eagerly anticipate the next thing to come out of my mouth, expecting some dramatic story about a shrubbery that caught on fire and told me what to do with my life, or that I lived on the streets as a crack addict/nuclear arms dealer/puppy killer before God spun my life one hundred eighty degrees. But, alas, I have never sold nuclear arms.
I ended up in church ministry because I couldn’t think of anything else. That sounds much worse than I intend it to, but it’s the truth. While other kids around me could always come up with some fascinating future career when prompted, I never had anything to offer. My freshman year in high school, when our English teacher forced us to write a paper on our future career, I wrote about becoming a Supreme Court Justice. I had no interest in it; I just wanted to drive her crazy. It worked. And I also learned I didn’t want to be a Supreme Court Justice.
In this business, we call our vocational track a “calling,” implying that your direction in life is not so much an internal decision as much as it is an external correction. Those who enter ministry do so believing that they are called on by God to do so. That is part of the reason why folks expect me to have a good story about the extraordinary moment when the Holy of Holies invaded my petty little universe and gave me direction. Church folks especially want to hear this, because it lets them off the hook. If their pastor has it all together, they don’t need to worry about it so much.
But I came into this line of work by default. The church was the place that has always made the most sense to me. When I was a kid, my parents took me to church. In the moments when my life came apart as a teenager, and even in college, I found my way to a church. And when I came to that precipice known as college graduation, when the bill for adulthood comes due and everyone waits to hear what you’re going to make of your life, the only word that came to mind was “church.”
But I knew enough to know I didn’t want to be a preacher. Nothing against them, mind you. I have been lucky enough to always be in churches where the preachers were actually better people than they were preachers, and that is saying a lot. I don’t remember much about their sermons, but their character is burned in my memory. No one’s ever accused me of having too much character. Funny, I can do. Philosophical? I can swing that. But character?
So I entered seminary with the same sort of thoughtfulness you might display while filing an extension for your income taxes. I knew something needed to be done, but the math wasn’t worked out in my head yet, and here was this scholarship-funded opportunity to take a little more time to delay the inevitable.
But seminary is maybe the worst place to end up when you don’t know why you’re there. For all the supportive community, for all the spiritual depth, you are surrounded every minute by folks who have given up everything to be there. Their marriages were strained, their finances depleted, their minds stretched—they were there as a sacrifice. I was there on vocational vacation, spending someone else’s money to live in an ivory tower.
My fellow students spoke a different language, a vocabulary of purpose. They had come to that place not to avoid anything, but to confront the central questions of their lives head-on. In most educational environments, the most intelligent students are the ones by whom everyone measures their own progress. In seminary, it is the single moms who have left their only source of income because they believe the Creator of the universe has other work in mind for them. Looking for a bomb shelter, I found the frontline.
And again, I would love to say that once I made that fateful decision, my course in life unraveled like a scroll and I took my marching orders with grace and dignity. But I’m afraid it had the opposite effect on me. Being so close to those who had been so close to God only served to uncover my deep sense of unworthiness and uncertainty. In seminary, I learned that God did in fact speak to people, but that He did not have anything yet to say to me.
So I spent the next decade hiding on college campuses. As a college Chaplain, I could keep asking those questions that most mattered to me, but in an environment rooted in doubt. College students love to doubt things, and professors are just older college students. In an environment like that, my faith did not seem so unfinished. In fact, during most faculty meetings, I could easily be among the most faithful people there, or at least count myself among the minority who had visited a church since the Carter administration.
But then my thirty-third year came, and with it all the questions of calling I had brushed aside for two decades. Turns out, while I was ignoring them, they were regrouping.
I am a mainline Christian pastor during an odd phase for American Christendom. The church is dying, and it has laid the blame on the old. They were the only ones around the last time the church worked, so it’s an easy claim. There are very few people my age in ministry, so we are enjoying opportunities our predecessors never imagined, filling pulpits staffed for the last half-century by folks over the age of 55, simply because we were born at the right time. We are youthful, energetic, and hip in the church, even if we were complete losers when we were out in the world. We are called on to speak for our generation, even if our generation didn’t particularly want to hang out with us during high school.
The magic borderline between youth and irrelevancy seems to be 35. Under 35, you are raw promise, untapped potential with the kind of unfiltered and untested vision all churches need. Pastors who are balding and compulsively wear golf shirts stop what they are doing to listen to you unravel the mysteries of “the young people.” After 35, you are the kind of person who gets on Facebook because you are trying too hard.
I find it strange that this imaginary line between the angels and the aged comes so close to the lifespan of Jesus. It’s almost as if the church is saying that effective ministry should end in martyrdom, sometime around the age people are getting their first mortgage. Once you pass that age, we don’t really know what to do with you.
As I teetered on the edge of that ministerial milestone, preparing to enter the age of the antiquated, I realized I was reaching that point where this college chaplaincy thing was either going to be who I was for the rest of my career, or a stage on the way to something else. Every year, my friends back in the Alabama conference would invite me to come and lead a church. I knew that those invitations would not always be there waiting for me and the family. And so it was a mixture of faith and faithlessness, a convergence of career and calling, that led me back to the church.
I would love a more dramatic story, something that sounds a little more worth the telling. But I wouldn’t trade the mundane for the miraculous. It’s the sum of all those ordinary moments, the default-turned-divine, that finally adds up to vocation. Talking shrubs are great, but it is the steady drip of God’s grace, unseen and unasked for, that makes a calling.
This essay is the beginning of a four-part memoir. Continue reading.