Transforming Pastoral Ministry: Calling!
One of my favorite holiday movies, that I often watch right smack in the middle of the Christmas season, is The Family Man.
I’m a big fan of the cast, which includes Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven, and Saul Rubinek.
But more than the cast, it’s the storyline that gets me.
A Glimpse of What’s Possible
Here is the gist: single, billionaire playboy (Cage) falls asleep one lonely Christmas Eve night in his upscale NYC apartment. The next morning (Christmas Day) he wakes up in the Jersey suburbs. Happily married to Tea (who wouldn’t be) with two incredible kids.
There is only one problem; this isn’t his life. It’s the life he said no to a decade earlier in pursuit of the American dream.
Now he is getting a “glimpse” of the life that slipped away!
Early on in the “this isn’t my life” portion of the movie, Cage’s best friend, played by Piven, tries to prevent Cage from committing adultery.
He does so by conveying a simple but powerful truth Cage had told him years before:
“Don’t screw up the best thing in your life just because you’re a little unsure about who you are.”
I love that line and the truth it contains.
Unsure of Who You Are Leads to Unhealthy Behavior
I’ve learned, through my twenty-plus years in ministry, that the most severe mistakes I’ve made can be traced back to an inherent uncertainty about who I was in that moment.
Indeed, calling, if it is anything, is about knowing who we are and why we are here. When we get those two in order, the rest can – though not always – fall right into place.
When we don’t have a gut-level and experiential knowledge of who we are and why we are here, we can cause tons of pain and engage in a host of mistakes.
This who I am and why I am here perspective is all about identity and personhood, which I wrote about last week.
This week, I am going to explore a few specifics related to identity and personhood.
Child of God
I offer them for your ‘contemplative’ practice in the hopes that we can reclaim some of the lost territories when it comes to pastoral calling in the modern context!
We are children who are deeply loved by the Heavenly Father. Central to our mission is our willingness to reflect on, contemplate, and be assured of this reality.
When we become unsure about this, we then get defensive and argumentative about everything else! But, when the central reality of our identity is bound up in the relationship we have with the Father, through the Son, we can rest much more easily in seasons of conflict, strife, and pain related to direction and leadership within our congregations.
I remember one situation years ago when I wasn’t so sure about my calling as God’s child. At least not in the sense that it is the primary and most vital calling of my life!
I was confident of a particular direction in which I felt the church needed to move toward regarding how we ministered to our children and families. After a strong pitch to my elder team regarding this direction, I was shocked by a negative response.
Resistance to a Plan Isn’t Rejection of Personhood
We spent an hour or more in an energetic discussion. In the end, the elders didn’t see things my way.
As the elder chair at the time went to move on to the next agenda item, I stopped him and made one final comment. In an argumentative tone, I made certain that every elder knew that we weren’t done with this conversation and that the direction I proposed would be the precise direction we would go in as a church.
Within a month, we went with my sense of direction.
I felt like I had overcome a significant hurdle to my leadership that month.
The truth is, I turned a mole-hill into a mountain because I confused their resistance to my plan as their rejection of me as a person.
This is the type of thing that happens when we aren’t sure about our calling as children of God and when we are convinced that this is the primary calling upon our life.
Planting with a New Perspective and Practice
Over the years, I’ve become more aware of this calling and – as such – I am far more likely to work with rather than against those with whom I am in disagreement.
Why? Because I seldom experience a challenge to my sense of direction or vision as an implicit rejection of my identity and personhood.
I’ve come a long way.
When Melissa and I moved to Vero to plant Pillar, we did so with only a sense of the magnetic north. We did not, however, establish a specific vision and then marshal the troops (congregation) to help us achieve that vision.
We took an equally opposite approach. I gathered three other folks around me, and we spent a year in prayer, dialogue, and group discernment. We sought to listen to the Lord and get a sense of His desire and vision for Pillar.
The season was long and, at times, grueling. I look back on it now as a season of God’s gracious and abundant gift-giving.
The Gift of Himself and His Presence in Our Midst
He gave us the gift of Himself in profound and life-changing ways.
Not everyone was happy about the length of time it took for us to discover God’s vision. We had a few criticize the approach and even ridicule it.
And, when we introduced it, we were less than overwhelmed by the response.
Through it all, my identity and personhood – my primary calling as God’s beloved – held me fast.
Yes, I got frustrated but I never insulted my brothers and sisters nor did I ever harbor ill-will.
Today, nearly nine years later, I rest in the discovery process we began with!
To rest in the discovery process is to allow people to criticize, ridicule, and misrepresent what we are doing without taking offense. More so, it’s to make room for people to join us and still be reluctant to participate in the intricacies of soul-care and spiritual formation.
It’s hard work because it’s core-identity shaking work.
A Well-Loved Soul is a Soul that Loves Well
I cannot be about this work if I don’t experience my life – at its purest essence – as one that is deeply, wonderfully, and generously loved by a good and gracious heavenly Father!
That’s why I’d suggest that every pastor get away from it all on a regular basis, at least quarterly, to spend in-depth time contemplating his or her sense of calling and the convictions surrounding calling.
Doing so will free our soul to be companions on a journey toward Christ and His ways in our world rather than combatants in an attempt to build the church and increase its influence in our community.
For decades I was confused about calling.
I believe most of us are.
After all, our calling, vocation or mission in life is often tied tightly to doing something.
In fact, when you ask someone about calling or personal mission, they will likely list off a host of things they are doing.
Ruth Haley Barton notes our rampant confusion regarding calling when she says,
“We set young leaders up for a fall if we encourage them to envision what they can do before they consider the kind of person they should be.” —Ruth Haley Barton
In the church, where we should know better, this misapprehension of calling takes on cosmic proportions. Primarily because we spiritualize everything and thereby make it far more urgent than callings in other areas of life.
Here, for example, is a personal vision statement I lived by as recently as ten years ago.
Biz’s Vision (ca. 2008)
“To reach the world through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ;
Leaving no stone unturned and no sin unchecked;
Remain faithful to this call until the day that I die!”
“Leave no stone unturned and no sin unchecked.”
I don’t even know what that means today.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I believe there is immense power in the simple and Spirit-led preaching of God’s Word!
I also believe that vision and calling are both action-oriented. Therefore, words like reach, preach, check, etc. are not unimportant.
Even now, as I reflect on this ‘calling,’ I see that it comes from both deep and sincere desires.
Yet, for better or worse, I lived under the misconception that calling was about something I do, or was doing.
Our calling certainly includes what we do. It is, however, never limited to what we are doing.
This specific calling is essentially action-saturated from beginning to end. It doesn’t even speak to personhood; nor does it reflect on the type of character or internal strength required to pursue it!
The central reality of calling, that who we are is more important than what we do, is missing entirely.
Who I Am Frames What I Do
In the last eight or nine posts, I’ve suggested that discovering purpose and calling – both personally and congregationally – is vital. It’s actually the first Pillar I suggest as something that we do on a regular basis if we hope to have a successful and effective ministry in today’s context.
Yet, I am going to also offer a rhythm – a way of going about our calling – that will cause us to dig deeper into the core of what it means to be called. When we discover what it means, we can then ask why it matters.
Finally, we will reflect on where we might expect our calling to carry us if we begin in the right place.
It’s a high calling, to be sure.
A few years ago I ran across an article by Dallas Willard that shed’s brilliant light on the notion of calling and our inner formation. In his opening remarks, he states,
“To fulfill the high calling which God has placed upon us in creating us and redeeming us, we must have the right inner substance or character. We must come to grips with who we really are, inside and out. For we will do what we are. So we will need to become the kind of people who routinely and easily walk in the goodness and power of Jesus our Master. For this, a process of “spiritual formation”—really, transformation—is required.”†
We will do what we are.
So, before we do, we certainly better know who we are.
The specific rhythm I rely on, as I continually seek to know who I am in Christ, is the rhythm of Contemplation.
In the next few posts, I am going to suggest that there is no way to be secure in our calling, much less comprehend the depths of our calling if we are not engaged in what I call “The Contemplative Life.”
I will do so by examining a host of biblical passages and characters related to calling.
As we explore the process of being called we may rediscover the contemplative life the ancients lived so well. This contemplative way of living provided abundant space for them to reflect on their calling.
You may be surprised to find that the contemplative/reflective way of life took place within the context of the world in which they were called.
It should, however, not be a surprise to discover that this contemplative way of life was genuinely anchored to an intimate and ongoing relationship with the Father.
It is, after all, the Father who initiated the call then and initiates the call today!
It’s easy for a pastor to convince him or herself that our primary calling is to the role we play within the context of the congregation we serve.
It’s natural to assume that when we are with our people, we are there in a particular capacity that demands a specific role.
For example, when I am engaged in pastoral care, in the privacy of my office, I am often tempted to play the role of ‘fixer,’ or ‘advocate,’ or ‘super counselor who solves everyone’s problems with ease and grace,’ etc.
Then, when I am in a meeting with elders, deacons, or various ministry teams I sense a need to play the role of visionary, leader, team-builder, or manager.
The Danger of Distance and Despair in a Role
Once I convince myself that the primary calling of my life is about the roles I play in my life, then it becomes easy for me to distance myself from the people I serve. As the distance grows (subtly but with certainty), the voice in my head tells me that I sit above, apart from, or over, as an ‘expert’ of sorts, the dear members of my congregation.
Such an orientation doesn’t lead me closer to my calling or make my work more fulfilling. Rather, it disconnects me from my sense of call and prevents me from exploring the depths of my calling. Distance and disconnect will ultimately lead to burn-out, despair, dismissal, or worse.
Indeed, if I asked you to imagine the various settings in which you live out your calling day by day, you would likely gravitate toward the role you play or the work you do.
And, while both are related to one’s call, they are not our primary calling. Rather, they derivatives or off-shoots of the more profound calling which move us closer toward what it means to be fully human.
Image Bearing and Our Fully Human Self
When I use a phrase like being fully human, most wonder what I mean.
To be fully human is to be image-bearers of the Most-High.
Lest we forget, image-bearing is the original calling. As such, it’s one that’s accorded to all of humankind.
Recall the words of Genesis 1:26 – 27:
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness! Let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the flying creatures of the sky, over the livestock, over the whole earth, and over every crawling creature that crawls on the land.” 27 God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.
These verses identify at least two realities, in my opinion, to which “image of God” speaks with certainty.
- The image of God means that we’ve been created with a unique capacity to be in relationship with God.
- The image of God means that humans are God’s representatives on earth.
In other words, to be made in the image of God is to be created with a distinct purpose. The purpose of enjoying and celebrating a life-giving relationship with Him. When we settle into this image-bearing reality, we become God-glorifying representatives (vice-regents, ambassadors, etc.) of His image in the world.
Living as Image-of-God-bearing people is, in other words, what it means to be fully human. Anything short of this is less than human, in the biblical drama at least.
Notice also there is a sacred rhythm within the divine image.
It’s the rhythm of being-doing, being-doing, being-doing.
Distorting the Image, Disordering the Rhythms
Pause for a moment and reflect on your life and ministry. As you reflect, are you surprised by how easily you’ve reversed this sacred being-doing rhythm?
If you’re like me, then you’ve reversed it into a disturbing doing-being rhythm
We have a problem!
It is a problem that has crept into the church and taken over the ministry.
The problem is that we’ve distorted the image of God. When we distort his image, we disorder His life-giving rhythm of being-doing into doing-being.
Restoring the inner calling of Pastoral Ministry as one of being-doing will require practice. Specifically, practicing a host of spiritual Rhythms that the church has left behind.
Particularly the Rhythm of Contemplating the core realities of identity and personhood.
Contemplating Our Calling
I understand that words like contemplate and meditate tend to freak people out these days.
To contemplate means: to reflect and look on (or into) something, to gaze intently, observe, or meditate. It also means to chew on something of great importance, etc.
Reclaiming the Ancient Truth Behind a Vital Rhythm
I offer this Rhythm of Contemplation as a life-giving way of going about our calling as ministers, servants, and pastors! This Rhythm will cause us to dig deeper into the core of the meaning of our calling. We will then address things like why our calling matters. Following on the heels of why, we will consider where our calling may take us.
Over time, practicing the Rhythm of Contemplation will root us in what’s true and most genuinely authentic about our inner world.
David Benner, in his excellent book, “Sacred Companions” notes the importance of inner authenticity and it’s relationship to calling when reflecting on the concept of genuine presence,
“Genuine presence involves being genuinely myself. I can be present for another person only when I dare to be present to myself. And as noted, I can be genuinely present to myself only when I can be genuinely present to God. Presence to another person is sharing this gift of my true self-in-Christ. It is not playing a “spiritual friend” role. It is simply being fully my authentic self and then setting this self aside as I seek to create a place within myself where I can receive another person.”
Being rooted in what’s genuinely authentic and most-true of us enables us to engage in life-giving ministry.
The more deeply rooted we are, the more likely it is that the roles we play will become the overflow of the relationships we have.