Vocation and Calling

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor

For several years I have imagined the day when I'd be able to teach in a college or seminary classroom. When I was a Freshman myself a good friend convinced me that I was smart enough to go obtain a Ph.D., a thought that had never once crossed my mind before that day. We were students in a small college ran by Fundamentalist Pentecostals, so when I graduated as verifiably not a Fundamentalist Pentecostal I knew I wouldn't be teaching there! I went to a seminary ran by conservative Evangelicals for my two graduate degrees. Unfortunately, when I graduated the second time I knew that I was verifiably not a conservative Evangelical. In a world where networking is everything I've had to walk away from the ones I had developed in order to retain my integrity. I know I will never be employed as a professor by any Fundamentalist Pentecostals or conservative Evangelicals.

Now I am realizing that this may be the end of the line for any hope of being a full time educator in a college or seminary. I am not saying that it is, but I do realize that the job market is terrible, and that it is unlikely that my degrees from schools that prepared pastors for pulpits that promote particular ideologies that I no longer embrace will  make me competitive with people who went to Ivy League universities or famous state schools. Again, I may be surprised one day to receive an offer, but I don't expect it anymore.

This leaves me in a tricky place because I enjoy academics a lot. I like researching. I like writing. I even like presenting at conferences. I intend to continue doing these things, even somewhat boring things like writing book reviews. Also, I fully intend to finish my Ph.D. because this is a privilege I should have never been afforded and I believe that the subject I am researching is interesting enough to see through to the end. My supervisors are both brilliant men who are very supportive. Again, who knows, maybe some surprise opportunity will present itself, but I don't want to put "all my eggs in one basket" as the saying goes.

In two of the Churches where I have worshipped over the past few years I have been asked by the Pastors if I had ever considered being a Pastor myself. The answer is "yes" I had. When I was in San Francisco I was an associate Pastor at a small charismatic Church in the inner city and that experience convinced me that I had no idea what I was doing. When I went to seminary I began to relinquish responsibilities that would never be given back to me as I began my pursuit of academia. When my Pastor in Portland, OR, asked me this question I expressed disinterest in the idea. A few years later when my Pastor in San Antonio, TX, asked me this question I realized I was far more open to the idea. I think life circumstances have softened my heart.

Now I wish I would have done a M.Div instead of a MA and Th.M, but hindsight is 20/20 and even now I don't feel like I've reached the place where I can truly speak of "hindsight". This is where the point of my rambling here becomes clearer: I wish I knew how to discern calling; I wish I knew how to recognize what vocation would best fit me. Maybe there is some third option: pastoring plus adjunct lecturing is a popular one. Maybe I could be a campus Pastor somewhere that teaches a course or two? I enjoy researching two subjects primarily: the historical John the Baptist (in the broader context of early Christianity and early Judaism along with the socio-political aspects of Judea, Galilee, etc.) and ancient pneumatology (especially as it relates to early Christians views of the holy spirit). I imagine I could do this on the side while working for a Church, possibly, time permitting. 

In his sermon "The Nature of Enthusiasm" John Wesley talking about knowing the "will of God" makes this statement:

"This is the plain, scriptural, rational way to know what is the will of God in a particular case. But considering how seldom this way is taken, and what a flood of enthusiasm must needs break in on those who endeavour to know the will of God by unscriptural, irrational ways; it were to be wished that the expression itself were far more sparingly used. The using it, as some do, on the most trivial occasions, is a plain breach of the third commandment. It is a gross way of taking the name of God in vain, and betrays great irreverence toward Him. Would it not be far better, then, to use other expressions, which are not liable to such objections. For example: instead of saying, on any particular occasion, "I want to know what is the will of God;" would it not be better to say, "I want to know what will be most for my improvement; and what will make me most useful" this way of speaking is clear and unexceptionable: it is putting the matter on a plain, scriptural issue, and that without any danger of enthusiasm."

For Wesley we trouble ourselves trying to discover every detail about what we should do with our lives. It paralyzes us. I know people like this. Instead of going after a career, or a relationship, or whatever else they freeze because they don't want to be outside of the so-called "will of God". Wesley indicates that "what" we should do with our lives is relative in comparison with "how" we should do it. We should ask ourselves what pursuits will make us better humans, better Christians, and what pursuits will make us "most useful" in the world. For a long time I thought I would be "most useful" in a classroom. Who knows, that may be true, but I'm prayerfully considering that it may not be true.

The United Methodist Church has a website called ExploreCalling.org. Through it I found several talks by active clergy and I was moved by their testimony toward the wonder of being present for births, baptisms, communion, and deaths. Might I find just as much fulfillment in doing this as I would in a classroom? It is quite possible. Also, Pastors do get to teach! 

A few years ago while reading Eugene H. Peterson's memoir The Pastor I realized that there is no shame ultimately in pursuing academia only to find one's self working in a local parish. He walked away from his doctoral studies at John Hopkins University and we might argue that the world is better for it. The Church may need more "Pastor-Theologian" types behind the pulpit, presenting the sacraments, praying and discipling. I have said that if I were a professor I'd want to be a pastoral professor. Maybe there was a reason for why I felt this and maybe there is a reason for why I've been asked about pastoring by pastors while receiving almost no opportunities in the classroom. I don't want to be rash here, or reactionary to recent circumstances, but if you've read this far, and you're my friend or caring acquaintance, pray for me for wisdom. Pray that the "eyes of my heart" would "be enlightened" (Eph. 1:18-19) so that I'd see clearly and walk in peace. Pray that I'd be humble enough to dream the dreams of my Christ rather than my own and that wherever his Spirit leads will be satisfying to my soul. Your prayers mean a lot to me whether or not I know you. While Wesley is right that we shouldn't sit around panicking when the Spirit doesn't guide our every move there is something assuring about those rare occurrences when things do become clearer and I am confident that praying for such clarity is good and right.

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Point of clarification: I am not saying pastoring is a "fall back" career. I hope it doesn't sound like that. I am saying that I haven't envisioned myself in such a role for some time and now I am wondering if I've been close minded.