So, my call story:
The first time I pronounced the Assurance of Pardon during a worship service, something clicked. It was the summer of 2002, and I had just begun my first required field education experience, a 10 week church internship in Parkville, Missouri. On the very first Sunday, I was tasked with leading the Call To Confession, the Prayer of Confession, and the Assurance of Pardon. It was the Assurance that did it.
Something crystallized in all of my education and experience in that moment. Saying to a sanctuary full of strangers, “Believe the good news: in Jesus Christ we are forgiven” instantly felt like the thing I was supposed to be doing in a way nothing else had. At the close of the internship I returned to seminary fully committed to training for the pastorate.
Almost every pastor I ever met has a story like that. There was a moment, an encounter, an exchange. Some call stories are about worship, like mine is. Some are about pastoral care, or service. Some happen in solitude. One of my favorite, Frederick Buechner’s, is about laughter.
Here is what I now think about call stories, though. They aren’t forever. They don’t impart an eternal identity. They don’t give you a template for what to do with the rest of your life.
Why did I think, at 26 years old, that I had hit upon the thing I was meant to do forever? Why do some of my friends in ministry struggle, years into congregational ministry, to reconcile their experience of actually being a pastor with the vision of the calling that so arrested them in the beginning?
Let’s be honest about the hazy romanticism and sentimentality we attach to “call” talk. It’s not helpful. As much as that duo can sink marriages, it can do the same to ministry careers.
Here are three propositions about calls to ministry, then:
- A call experience is a window into a God-given talent and love for a type of work. The clouds may part for you while leading worship or while ministering to the sick in hospital or while driving the van on a mission trip. There is something in the work you’re good at and that makes you come alive.
- We’re called to work, not to roles. Confusing those two is troublesome. My vision of my work was bound up in my understanding of the role of a small church pastor; when, three years after my ordination, I couldn’t find any small churches to pastor, I came to doubt that I was called to ministry at all. What emerged was a very different role (Associate Pastor) with a different community (youth) than my call had envisioned, but that allowed me to deepen the work.
- Many call stories are set in the called’s youth or early adulthood. They testify to a spark for something about ministry that, at 40 or 50, may not be a raging fire. That doesn’t diminish the validity of the call, and it doesn’t mean that the called has forgotten their “first love” of ministry. It means they grew and changed. The church did too. The world did too.
What is the work you fell called to? There is more than one role in which to do it, for sure.