Summoning the best from us

February 7th, 2023

When I was a freshman in high school, we took a test, or actually an “inventory”—the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory. The results were designed to give one an idea of what professions or jobs for which you would be a good fit. I had not thought about that for many years, until an article appeared in the Washington Post

In a re-occurring series, the “Department of Data”, the Post explores questions posed by readers—exploring just that, data. In a recent article “The happiest, least stressful jobs on earth,” (Washington Post, January 15, 2023) Andrew Van Dam reviewed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They asked people how meaningful they found their work and how happy/stressed/pained/tired they felt on a six-point scale. The subheading of the article gave away the results, “For meaning and joy at work, ditch the desk and head outside.” According to the “Time Use Survey”, the happiest, most meaningful, and least stressful jobs are to be found in agriculture, logging, and forestry. 

I must confess, I laughed out loud when I saw that—not that I am in any of those jobs. It was because those many years ago, the Strong Vocational Inventory informed me that I would be happiest and most suited to be a forest ranger. Second on the list was librarian. I wasn’t surprised when I saw librarian—I loved to read and spent many happy hours in my local library. But forest ranger? That had never entered my mind. I wondered if it was because both my grandfather and great-grandfather had been lumberjacks in northern Minnesota. I do not seem to remember Strong saying anything about being a minister or homiletics professor. 

Growing up in The Episcopal Church in the 50s and 60s I never gave the ministry a second thought. The church did not ordain women deacons until I was almost done with college. And I was in seminary when they voted to ordain women as priests in 1976. 

What might the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory have predicted for you? You chose the path toward ministry, but if you will be honest with me, there may have been a few moments over the past few pandemic-years when you were tempted to turn to profession B or C or even D? These years have been so hard for everyone. And all are having to retool who they are and what they are doing. After 34 years at Wesley Seminary in Washington, and seven weeks into my final semester of teaching, the entire world shut down. I found it rather ironic. For years I had protested that I could not, or would not teach preaching online. (How could you do that?!) In the final seven weeks of teaching, what did I do? I taught online. 

Throughout that first pandemic-year, if clergy took the “Time Use Survey,” I suspect the results would have been staggering. Were we happy? No. Did what we were doing have meaning? Hard to tell—we couldn’t see the congregation. And stressful? Absolutely! Is it much better as we enter our third year? Are professions B, C, and D continuing to look better?

You may be asking yourself, where am I going with this? Do I want you to think about leaving the preaching ministry? As Paul would say, “By no means!” I want to tell you about the wonderful, good news that I found in that Department of Data.

The first data table was “well-being by industry.” As I already revealed, the happiest/most meaningful/least stressful was agriculture/logging/forestry. Second was a bit surprising – real estate, followed by construction. What was at the bottom of the list? Finance and insurance. I looked through the various industries listed, and I wasn’t sure where I would put ministry. Educational services came in about middle of this listing, just below retail and above repair/laundry/membership. (Not sure what that is.) Second from the bottom—professional, scientific, and technical. Are we even an industry? I will come back to that question.

I have good news for you. We may not find ourselves on the list of jobs—but we are on the other two lists! The author focused his article on workers who “report fresh-air endeavors” saying they “nourish well-being.” The article was on the first page of the Post Business section and the whole left third was the picture of a tree. But he seemed to ignore what topped the other two data lists. The second list was “Well-being by location” and the final list, “Well-being by activity.” Mr. Van Dam seemed to ignore those other two lists when he came to the focus of his article. Outdoors was only second on the location list. And sports/exercise/recreation were second on the activity list. So, what was first on both of those lists? The location for well-being? Place of worship. (The bottom of the list was bank.) And the final list, well-being by activity, was religious and spiritual activities. 

It would seem, Mr. Van Dam, that it would have been more accurate for you to include the picture of a church/synagogue/mosque at the bottom of the tree. Here is the good news! People find that what we are doing makes them happy, gives their lives meaning and is, by far, the least stressful moment in their lives. I took that to be very affirming and encouraging. The data would seem to confirm that, as we respond to Jesus’ call to preach, to “Go and tell,” what we are doing is central in the lives of the people to whom we prearch. 

Given all that we have been through, it is understandable that so many of us are discouraged and frustrated as we try to guide the church through these challenging times and into this unfamiliar  new place. Is it wrong to be frustrated? Again, to quote Paul, “By no means!” All we have to do is turn to Jesus and Paul to see people who were discouraged and frustrated at moments in their ministry. 

When Jesus tried to tell his disciples what it meant to be Messiah – Peter did not want to hear that. His response tells us that Jesus was definitely irritated and aggravated, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt. 16:23) And Paul? Turn to the opening of his letter to the church in Galatia, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you . . .” (Gal. 1:6) There were probably moments when Paul thought of returning to his old line of work.

It is important to be reminded of something that the list of jobs demonstrates. I wasn’t sure where to “place” our job. And I believe that is because we do not have a profession or a job. We have a call, a vocation. Some years ago, in an article in Circuit Rider, Richard Lischer reminded his sisters and brothers in the preaching ministry that “A profession summons the best from you. A vocation calls you away from what you thought was best in you, purifies it, and promises to make you something or someone you are not yet.” (Richard Lischer, “The Ultimate Vocation”, Circuit Rider January/February 2006, p. 4) It was always important for me to remind my students of their call.

At the beginning of the new semester in my introductory preaching classes I would bring in a large piece of rock and set it on the table in front of me. As I began to introduce the class, what we were going to be exploring together and doing, the students would look at the rock and wonder what that was doing there. What did it mean? I suspect some of them occasionally wondered if I was going to hurl it at misbehaving students, or following the preaching of their sermons. Never! But the stone was there to be a reminder and an encouragement to those beginning preachers. 

Eventually I would arrive at the portion of my introduction where I placed before my students the reasons for teaching the class. There are a number of clergy who do not think that you can teach people how to preach—one is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Others have argued that preaching is not taught, but rather caught. I explained that I believe people can learn how to preach. In fact, I told them that I thought that preachers never stopped learning or growing in their preaching. Finally, I arrived at the rock sitting on the table and what I believe is an important reminder in the Gospels. 

After entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt, to roar of the cheering crowds, the angry Pharisees commanded Jesus to silence his disciples. Looking at the religious leaders, Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)

Yes, the entire creation proclaims the glory of God. But, holding up the stone I would look at everyone in the room and tell them that I knew, for certain, they were much more eloquent than rocks! People can “hear” the preaching of creation and God’s presence in the world by looking at the stones. But it is their preaching, week in and week out the encourages, sustains, comforts, and confronts the body of Christ. We have been called to proclaim the good news of Christ’s presence in our world. And as students, preachers, we gathered each week to learn from and uphold each other as followers of Jesus to explore how best we could answer Christ’s call to, “Go and tell!”

Who you are and what you are doing is so important. Thank you for your hard work. God is with you encouraging and leading you into this strange new land. 

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