Right Where I’m Supposed to Be: Thoughts on Vocation
The endeavor to find the vocational path is a monumental Biblical theme, a real-life day-to-day adventure, a perennial mystery. Yale Divinity School alumni and students here share some of their own experiences and intimations in the pursuit of calling. Their testimonies demonstrate the uniqueness of each case, but they also share one bright thread: the conviction that their stories, no matter how surprising the twists and turns, are somehow divinely guided.
The Open Road
After I graduated from YDS I was called to an assistant pastor position right away. It seemed ideal: it was a church I knew well, where I wanted to live, doing what I wanted to do.
However, very soon I ran into problems. I began to feel marginalized and rudderless, with no outlet within the church to hear me out. I was scared and angry, and wondered if I had mistaken God’s calling for my own desires.
I think this is one of the most common fears we have as ministers – that we somehow get the calling wrong. When that happens, it’s hard to discern whether to endure as a test of faith or jump ship.
Christ does call us to endure through difficulty and hardship, but endurance isn’t everything. I think too often we can be shortsighted, thinking God calls to a certain path and only by persevering on that path are we being faithful to God.
I think God’s paths are often much more open than we think. Thomas Merton, for example, felt called to the monastic life. Yet I also get the impression that the specifics of that call were merely circumstantial. He was flexible and looked for what God was calling him to do that day, not projecting a certain path that extended for years down the line. Reading his journals you can see that every day his calling was reinforced by his own experience and desire simply to be with God, which is what he saw as his true calling.
I think sometimes we try too hard to hold on to things that are already lost, losing track of the focus of the call – to serve and live in God’s grace – because we get so preoccupied with how that happens.
Looking back now I can see that I was called to be there, but it was to show me that I was called to do something other than what I intended. Had my calling been wrong? Absolutely not. God put me there for that purpose for that time. I could not be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t been there. My calling changed. Awareness and acceptance of that change made all the difference.
The Rev. Samuel Blair is Director of Spiritual and Bereavement Services at Gateway Hospice in Pittsburgh, PA.
A Sojourn from Sunday to Monday
By Kat Banakis ’03 B.A., ’09 M.Div.
I’ll admit: Mondays suck, but isn’t that a universal truth? We’re snatched too soon from our weekend selves and must return to our weekday roles, always a day too early. I go from being Rev. Kat at church to Kat the fundraising software trainer. Yet in both situations I’m a priest in Christ’s church. I’m building relationships and attending to people in distress and trying to move towards hope in the unseen.
My life of dueling Sunday and Monday roles started when I had a few years between graduation from YDS and my eventual ordination, and I found a much needed job at a nonprofit. The economy had tanked, and no church was hiring non-ordained people, full-time with benefits.
I called my much younger sister to bemoan my horrible fate in not being employed in a church. She gave an auditory eye roll, then said without an ounce of compassion, “You just have to change your understanding of who you consider your church to be. You go to your office every single day. Be their pastor.”
I tried to object, but she just waited silently until I realized the insanity of what I was assuming – that I couldn’t do ministry where I was. Sometimes I hate having a sister who’s a brilliant and blatant evangelical. In my new weekday role I had the honor of “communicating the austerity budget to the staff” (read: informing everyone that they weren’t getting a raise, that we’d have to cut shared costs, and that each department’s expenditures were getting hacked to pieces). Worse, the budgeting process had been pretty opaque before, so none of the managers knew what their expenditures had been or how things were allocated. Super.
Whether I succeeded or failed, you’d have to ask my colleagues, but what I tried to do was approach the task as ministry. I asked myself, “What would be the most loving and honoring way to handle this with my colleagues?” I opened up the financial records and walked through what each category meant with each manager and gave them access to all past and current expenses. Budgeting became a very public, very shared project. The money and the time were ours, together, and so were the solutions.
I prayed for my co-workers each morning as I swam laps, mentally going around the office cubicle-by-cubicle. They became the community I was given to love.
It was so incremental that I almost didn’t realize what was happening: I began to hear my call differently, as that of a tentmaker-worker-priest. Multi-vocational. I was living out the authority we’re all given in baptism to be ministers in the world, whichever day of the week it is.
These days I am ordained and on staff at a church, and I work full-time for a software company. It’s a great life for both me and the communities I serve too (I think). I have the freedom to speak openly from the pulpit about workplace challenges. My day job, meanwhile, has an employee with an unorthodox management style.
Every week, I always wish I had an extra day of living in my Sunday church self on Monday. But the drama of calling keeps showing me new ways to define my workload and my ministry.
Kat Banakis’ forthcoming book of practical theology for adults in their twenties and thirties is called Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice Press). She lives and works in the Chicago area.
The Music of the Search
By Michael Peppard ’03 M.A.R., ’09 Ph.D.
Since early childhood, I have never really imagined my life without consistent immersion in two things: music and Christianity. I acquired some other skills, explored more practical career possibilities, and knew that a music-filled Christian life could be had in abundance while doing virtually any job for my “living.” But by the time I arrived at YDS in 2001, I planned to study toward a career as either a Biblical scholar or a choral conductor. (Not exactly high-percentage choices!)
Matriculating as a YDS student through the Institute of Sacred Music, I immediately discovered that I was never, ever, in a hundred years of study, going to be a professional musician. Seriously, have you met the musicians at the ISM? They have already won international competitions before they arrive. So before the leftover sandwiches from orientation weekend had even been finished, the decision was made. I scheduled a meeting with not-yet Dean Harold Attridge and said (here I paraphrase), “Hi, I’m new here. What should I do to become a New Testament scholar?” My memory of his answer goes blank after he listed the fifth language I should learn “as soon as possible.”
Now in looking back on what led me toward that first week at YDS, I realize that from early college to my mid-twenties, I had been asking myself a series of questions. What do I think are my gifts? It seemed that I could communicate effectively. People were not confused when I spoke. Sometimes they even asked me to say more. Usually I was a good moderator: I enjoyed figuring out where people agreed and where not, and why so and why not. (My Dad thought I would make a good lawyer based on these gifts. Sorry, Dad.) Teaching was a natural response to these gifts, and I taught high school before coming to YDS. What do I wish were my “gifts,” but I can’t seem to acquire them, even with great effort? Baseball – curve balls stymied me. Basketball – I’m 6’5” and awful. I injure myself and others. Pilot – my vision was 20/200. Engineering – I hated computer programming. Piano – my left hand wouldn’t obey. Guitar – again, the left hand. So, I concluded, the world of ideas remained the best fit for me.
When the world stops moving so busily around me, the lazy Saturday afternoons of life, what do I find myself wanting to do? This question ultimately helped the most. After going out to parties in college, I would come home, pour a nightcap, go to my bedroom, and practice reading the Greek New Testament. A few years later, on weekend afternoons I would sit in the early Christianity section of the bookstore for hours. I even have a scrap-paper list of “goals” from 1999 that includes “memorize the Psalms.” So maybe another way to get at my vocation was to ask, What was distinctively, weirdly “me” about me?
These days I get to use the gifts I isolated and refined at Yale: I try to activate imaginations, frame better questions, and spur critical thought about Christian faith and practice without oversimplifying a complex world. And every day, there still is music.
Michael Peppard is Assistant Professor (New Testament and Early Christianity) in the Department of Theology at Fordham University in New York City.
As I give thanks as a Berkeley Divinity School/YDS graduate at age sixty-seven, “who knew” it was God drawing me forth across the decades?
Fifty years ago, I got no help with discernment. Longing to study medicine, I was allowed only to study nursing. Later, drawn again (as a cradle Canadian Anglican, by “who knew?”) into graduate study, I became a clinical psychologist and eventually moved to the U.S.
Pursuing my doctorate, now a single parent, a conventional Episcopalian – did I grasp God’s plan? I only knew I must apply His gifts. Twenty years after clinical practice, always involved with church, yearning to serve more, I started Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). And in truth, I heard a voice in my ear, one day in my private-practice office, and a tap on my shoulder: “get out of your chair!” Then with nudges, questions, requests – “why not seminary?” And the formal process began.
With intensive spiritual direction and the guidance of a fine CPE supervisor, I yielded finally to the Holy Spirit. “Who knew?”
I visited five seminaries. I almost did not pick Berkeley at Yale … presuppositions, you know. Today I give thanks daily for Berkeley/YDS and suggest the following:
2) ask every morning: “Lord, surprise me” and observe!
3) you will never have enough information to “make the perfect choice” – let go and let God. The hazard for Yalies is to live too much in your heads. Only God is perfect.
4) look back, examine your earliest interests: seek your authentic selves. You cannot copy the saints. Be true to your better selves in humble recognition that your path will not be straight … except in God’s eyes.
The Rev. Judith Allison is Associate Rector for Pastoral Care at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Poway, CA.
Through a Glass, Diligently
By Kyle Brooks ’05 B.A., ’08 M.A., M.Div. third year
My grandfather, a Pentecostal minister, would often say to me in my younger days, “God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.” I have assiduously worked to discern just where I should be headed and what I should do when I arrive there.
At times, I have hoped that calling would strike in a fashion as dramatic as the revelatory events of the Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus. Yet there would be no flashing lights or ethereal voices stopping me in my tracks and altering my life’s course. On the contrary, the pursuit of my calling has been more piecemeal, a vision viewed through a glass, darkly.
Perhaps it is truer to say that we slowly unlearn our expectations and begin to see what has been before us all along. In any event, though I discerned a call to ministry some years ago, I had little idea what that might look like. As a preacher’s kid, I was all too familiar with the oft-unsavory aspects of parish ministry. I knew I was meant to preach, but I was reluctant, for fear of embodying the trappings. I felt an urgency to minister, but in what spaces, to whom, and by what means? The answers would not come immediately. After my undergraduate years, I took small steps forward. I was an associate minister for a campus ministry (the Black Church at Yale), eventually serving as the pastor for two years. Simultaneously, I was working in the nonprofit sector, working with New Haven middle and high school students, before obtaining an M.A. in Urban Education Studies.
In the fall of 2008, I became a biology instructor at Wilbur Cross High School, not realizing that mere blocks away, Yale Divinity School was awaiting me. Something years in the making was snowballing. Just over three years later, soon now to graduate from YDS, I found myself in the office of the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, facing a semicircle of religion professors who asked how my varied experiences informed my desire to pursue a Ph.D. in homiletics and liturgics. This fall, I plan to show them exactly how.
My time at YDS has been a critical part of my discovery that my ministerial calling is deeply academic. At YDS, I encountered instructors who not only saw my promise, but also demonstrated profoundly pastoral care through their words and deeds. They did for me what I hope to do for future students: encourage ministerial, academic, and personal development. The words of a song from my youth return to me: “I want to walk worthy, my calling to fulfill, if you order my steps, Lord, then I’ll do your blessed will.” God’s leading is the qualification, and I am doing my best to diligently follow.
After graduation, Kyle Brooks will pursue a Ph.D. in Homiletics and Liturgics at Vanderbilt University.
Shadow and Silhouette
By Stephanie Wong M.Div. second year
I remember being a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old, and wanting desperately to get away from myself so I could get a look at my shadow. I had been told the story of Peter Pan, who lost his and had to have it sewn back on. If only I could see my shadow as the sun did, at a distance and without me in the way! But of course, no amount of running or jumping on that sunny afternoon would make my shadow come off.
I’ve matured, but sometimes I catch myself trying to approach my vocation in the same unrealistic way. I imagine that it would be great to see my calling as God does, without me in the way. If only I could step far enough aside, the divine perspective would reveal a clear outline on the sun-bleached sidewalk.
For example, when I came to YDS, I was certain that God saw the vocation of a nun for me. I began the M.Div. program with intention to start the formal formation process with a local order of Catholic sisters, who I had come to know well as an undergrad in St. Louis and whose national headquarters are near Yale in Hamden. The Apostles are a wonderful group of women, and I wanted so much to be one of them, thinking of discernment through a Platonic framework: I wanted to be an instantiation of the Form of an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Coming to YDS, however, showed me that discernment has got to involve one’s whole self. I had been ignoring a great deal of anxiety – an inner frustration and lack of peace that I have since learned to recognize as God’s way of telling me when I am somehow mistaken and pursuing something at odds with who God wants me to be.
I found myself crying inexplicably a lot during my first semester, and it was crushing then to realize that, for all my hopeful projections and certitudes, I didn’t actually want to be a sister. Just as the sun wouldn’t create a shadow for me unless I were there to cast it, God wouldn’t give me the vocation of a sister merely because I thought that was the outline God ought to be drawing.
As I approach the end of my second year at YDS, I’m glad to have become, like Peter Pan with his newly attached shadow, more reconciled to my vocation. I can perceive it now as I move and see it adjust along with me. I’m working part-time at a local inner-city Catholic middle school for my internship, serving as a chaplain while preaching, leading a group of middle-school peer ministers to clarify their own sense of service, and mentoring students in the afternoon study hall. Although I never would have thought I’d enjoy this ministry so much, I am thrilled to be returning next year as an employee at the school to help teach the religion classes and organize the students’ afternoon mentoring program. When I am there, talking and laughing with the students and other teachers, I can see out of the corner of my eye that God is drawing for me a beautiful vocational silhouette.
Stephanie Wong received a B.A. in English Literature and Religious Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and plans to graduate from YDS in 2013.
Go Without Fear
By Zack Mabe ’03 M.Div., ’05 S.T.M.
I first experienced a calling in college. After months of prayerful discernment, I chose to do “the straight track”: college, seminary, ordination, and parish ministry. Ordained at age twenty-five, I found myself wondering if I had done it all too fast. Soon, though, I realized I had done it all according to the timing of my calling, and it was just right.
Sometimes, the world of ministry has been a little scary – whether because I felt I was being judged for my age, or because of the uncertainties of this economy, or any other reason of the moment. Most of the time, however, the world of ministry has been amazing: full of wonder and awe, humbling, exciting. I find my sense of call being renewed and reinvigorated annually, monthly, even daily. We are a people of love and hope, not a people of fear. So I would say to a young person starting out: Rise! Go for it! Do not base your response to your calling on fear of the economy or anything else, but on hope and love.
The best way to summarize the wonder of God’s call is to describe Ash Wednesday at our church. Every year on Good Friday, we distribute blank paper and invite the congregation to write down prayers, thoughts, concerns, celebrations, etc. We invite people to place those sheets of paper at the foot of the cross. Our Bible Study group then takes up those papers, along with our palms from Palm Sunday, and we have a prayer service where we burn them together and make ashes. On Ash Wednesday the next year, all are invited to come forward and receive the ash that is made from our palms and our prayer requests. For me, it feels like an entire year’s journey in discipleship – ups, downs, joys, risks, blessings, mistakes, laughter, sweat, tears, and lots of prayer – rubbed on my forehead in a humbling reminder that I belong to God.
During that service, we also set aside time for extended silence … The whole experience takes me to a profound place that I find difficult to articulate. I feel blessed to be able to share my faith with my church family on such a sacred day. It reminds me I am right where I am supposed to be.
The Rev. Zack Mabe is pastor of Terryville Congregational Church, UCC, in Terryville, CT. He is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Hartford Seminary.
By Jared Gilbert M.Div. third year
Growing up in a Pentecostal evangelical church, I learned that a calling was a critical part of being a Christian. Fulfilling a call to evangelize the world was almost as important as getting saved. In that trembling church in the cornfields of Indiana, mythologies of calling were rooted in the ecstatic encounters with the God of St. Paul, Charles Finney, and the heroes of evangelicalism.
But this intensely individualistic notion of call never quite made sense to me. It seemed to leave out the community, or leave it behind.
A neighbor and I used to organize a weekly dinner party in my Brooklyn neighborhood. “Tuesday Night Dinner” was simple: one person hosted and provided dinner while guests brought wine to share. Invitations were offered friend-to-friend – the only requirement for joining was residence in the neighborhood. The dinners gathered a diverse group who often had little more in common than being a friend of a friend of a friend, but shared an interest in community-building over a meal. Professional networking and small talk were rare as conversations turned to sharing life stories, troubles, thrills, sex, religion, politics – more like talking to close friends than a roomful of neighbors.
Our loose neighborly network flourished, and I discovered that those kinds of person-to-person interactions were more important and more theological than most that I experienced in church. These people were too creative, too queer, too political, or too smart for the churches I knew. Congregational life seemed to have nothing to offer or gain from these neighbors who were filling vital roles in the community. Can the church not accommodate these outlier identities? I felt called to build a new church among them. I was called into a community, rather than called out or apart. My calling to start a church was revealed in this network of neighbors.
For me, calling is a collective act. It involves a whole community. My faith and ministry are inextricably connected to the communities I am part of, religious or not. While I reject the mythology of calling that I learned as a child, the idea that everyone is called has stuck with me. Whether in rural Indiana or in the streets of Brooklyn, the Gospel is social change. This Gospel requires that everyone be called, from the private equity investor or young artist, to the out-of-work parent or elderly neighbor without a retirement plan. Contrary to the notion that God has “called out” an individual for some extraordinary purpose, in the pursuit of justice there are no holy orders – only different tools of power to enact the Gospel.
Fulfilling my calling is crucial to my neighbor fulfilling her calling, and her calling is essential to fulfilling that of her neighbor, so that one who is called is a part of a flourishing network. My calling is to build a church within that network that enacts the Gospel to create social change.
After graduation this spring, Jared Gilbert will work with the United Church of Christ to start a congregation in Brooklyn.
Hang On and Enjoy the Ride
By Steve McKinley ’67 B.D.
When I entered YDS in the fall of 1964 I had a clear sense not only of my basic Christian baptismal vocation but also of a particular vocation: God’s call to parish ministry. When I graduated three years later the sense of call was just as strong, and by then I knew enough about parish ministry (or so I thought) that I could envision the rest of my life. I knew what I would be doing, and had a clear expectation of where I would be doing it.
Good for a laugh, huh?
I spent thirty-eight years as a parish pastor, and in those thirty-eight years I was called upon to do all kinds of things I never imagined, in places I never would have expected to be, using tools that didn’t even exist when I started out. I logged my first years as a pastor prior to the arrival of Microsoft and Apple, back in the age of the typewriter, the mimeograph, the film strip, and the flannel board. I learned to do ministry in a church that no longer exists. Fortunately my education made it possible to change along with the church. There have been days when I have missed the church I used to know, but that is as pointless as missing the hair I used to have on the top of my head. I love the church of today even more than I loved the church of yesterday.
The gospel call to the church is unchanging, but the shape of ministry molded around that gospel call is constantly in evolution.
Keep flexible, be prepared to be surprised, and be willing to change and move in unanticipated directions. None of us can predict what the church will look like thirty years from now. We don’t know if the denominational structures we have known will still be relevant. We don’t know if full-time ordained leadership will be the norm or an exception.
But we do know that the call of God will be there, and I can testify that today as I carry out a different kind of ministry with seminary interns, I sense the presence of the call as powerfully as I ever have, and am grateful to have had the life God has given me. If you’re just getting started … hang on and enjoy the ride!
Steve McKinley is an associate in the Contextual Learning Department at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.
By Luanne Panarotti M.Div. second year
After preaching for the first time in 2007, I immediately called my sister-in-law to share my delight and astonishment at the opportunity, which seemed to come out of the blue. She was not even remotely surprised.
“When you were young, we all thought you were going to be a nun,” she chuckled. “You were the only kid we knew who actually liked going to church!” And I did: I loved the ritual, the liturgy that was at once familiar and yet full of mystery. Recently, though, I came upon a drawing I had done in my third-grade catechism class, of a priest celebrating the mass – and “he” looked remarkably like me.
I didn’t want to be a nun. I wanted to be a priest.
Though I didn’t recognize it as such until fairly recently, the call to ministry has had a hold on me for as long as I can remember. By the time I was nineteen, I relented: I changed denominations, switched majors, and was looking toward seminary. Following college, I decided to postpone plans for grad school, not feeling quite ready. I worked in publishing. Became a cheese buyer. Coordinated continuing education classes. Led ecology field programs for school groups. Wrote about organic gardening.
Somehow, the brief postponement turned into decades, and seminary seemed a thing of the past – until the day our new pastor asked if I would like to preach a sermon. Suddenly, I was on the journey again – or had I never disembarked from it?
I guess the difference between a call and all the other demands and inclinations and hankerings in our lives is that a call is tenacious. We may be fickle, but God’s claim on us is constant. You can spend time slicing wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, writing brochure copy, or wading into streams to identify macro-invertebrates. Heck, you can even board a boat bound for Tarshish if you’re more nautically inclined. It might buy you some time and teach you some valuable lessons – but I believe you can’t escape the call without sacrificing who you were meant to be.
It seems that at the very core of every ministry should be the goal of helping those in the communities we serve to discern and follow their calls: to see that who they are and what they have to offer is the stuff of kingdom-building. Too many of us live with the notion that a call is a booming supernatural pronouncement to a select few, some sky-rending, scroll-eating, knock-you-off-your-donkey experience. Then it comes instead as a series of gently whispered clues along some life-long treasure hunt. Take care not to overlook it.
By Inese Radzins ’93 M.Div., ’95 S.T.M.
– Simone Weil
As a professor of theology I often hear the word vocation, especially in connection with the current economic crisis. My students are asking important questions about their future: what is the economic feasability of pursuing an advanced theological degree, what social capital does this degree actually possess, and what real value might theological education provide? These are all important questions. But they are not for me the only ones to ask.
When I talk with students about vocation, I often suggest that they engage in a process of “transvaluing” their inherited values. I ask them to begin by considering how their questions are formulated by a particular socio-economic and political system. The recent Occupy movements have shown us the way that our society is deeply rooted in a capitalist economy – one that teaches us to value in terms of quantity, having, profiting. How much is something – my home, my degree, my profession, or my retirement account – worth? What can I get for it?
The young Marx provocatively asked if there is any possibility of thinking and living otherwise than through the rubric of having. Theology, at its best, can offer this different form of engagement.
My own vocation as a theological educator was forged at YDS in the mid-1990s. In courses with professors such as Shawn Copeland, Louis Dupre, Serene Jones, and Katherine Tanner, I learned a kind of “transvaluation of values”: that what matters is not necessarily calculable in terms of our normative social values. Profitability and instrumentality are not the only way of measuring life. Reading the works of Toni Morrison, Plotinus, Gutierrez, Cusa, and Schüssler Fiorenza, I learned a different way of thinking. It emphasized the importance of poetry, music, mystery, relationship, justice, and love in forging a creative engagement with life. In offering other forms of valuation it taught me to see the world differently and to understand that not all things in life are valuable in terms of our current capitalist ethos.
For me, a theological vocation is rooted in the possibility of questioning, rather than simply adopting, the normative structures of our everyday world. Rather than measuring in terms of profit we might consider living, as Audrey Lorde suggests, by addressing human needs. A transvaluation of values places these human needs – material, creative, spiritual – at the center of life. The poet, hospice chaplain, musician, therapist serving Iraqi veterans, or advocate for the homeless show us this other way of living. Their vocations are rooted in a form of creative production that understands the need to give and, at times, to give something up, to lose oneself. As such, they think in terms of needs met and relationships built. What if vocation were also thought in terms of these other – somewhat less profitable – values?
Inese Radzins is Assistant Professor of Theology at Pacific School of Religion and Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, CA.
By Lyvonne Briggs, M.Div. third year
For many people, the term “discernment” invokes a notion of quality. A discerning clientele expects luxury service with attention to details. A discerning eye can spot flaws in a priceless gem. But what about a discerning spirit? I’ve learned it is not so much attached to “quality” as it is rooted in “productivity.”
Jesus charged His disciples to be productive and sustain an intimate relationship with Him. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) In order to answer my call, I had to know where I was going. And I couldn’t know where I was going until I knew where I was. And I was called to abide – continue, remain, persist – in Christ. I knew I was called to preach good news and proclaim freedom.
When you are doing what you are called to do, there is a synergy of time and talent. You are in your element, in the zone. Some of us have witnessed it in the lives of Howard Thurman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us have gleaned these potent moments in the acts of pioneering minister Jarena Lee and activist Pauli Murray. But what about your own life and journey?
Discernment is a process. You gain clarity through experience, instead of relying solely on book knowledge. Identify your passions, the issues that burden your heart. Ask trusted friends and family what strengths they see in you. How we view ourselves is sometimes quite different from how others see us.
Discernment is intentional. Carve out daily quiet time to pray and meditate. Sure, you could commune with the Divine when it’s convenient, but how much more glorious when it’s offered as a sacrifice. I sense God’s fingerprint on my life, particularly when the seeds of opportunities bloom so suddenly that there is no denying God’s watering activity. In the midst of a blossoming entertainment career, I was planted by God in a relationship with a YDS librarian. An email led to a campus visit, which led to my subsequent application and admission. God’s plans for my life unfold when I am least expecting them, while remaining expectant.
As I prepare to answer the call to ministry through pastoring, scholarship, and advocacy work, I am grateful that I listened to God’s nudging. Hearing the call is labor-intensive, but the fruit it will bear is worth the toil. Take this time to slow down, reflect, and talk to people you trust as sounding boards, encouragers, and truth-tellers. Your life’s journey, grander than you could ever imagine, awaits.
Graduating from YDS this spring, Lyvonne Briggs plans to seek ordination with the American Baptist Churches USA, pursue a Ph.D. in homiletics, and relocate to the South.
By Anna Wallich ’77 B.A., ’81 M.Div.
“Ministry is where need and passion meet,” my counselor said many years ago when I was struggling with the meaning of “real” ministry in my life, or rather the lack of it. I am one of those YDS alums who has never been ordained or worked for pay in a church setting, and yet I consider my adult life to have been filled with ministry and opportunity.
God is nothing if not flexible and creative, taking me at my teenaged word when I responded to God’s call and promised to spend the rest of my life in service to God. I had been suddenly and severely ill during my senior year of high school, and through this experience I came to believe that the meaning of my life would not be found in chronic overachieving academia but in a life of compassion and generosity. I went straight from college to YDS, hoping to become a pastor. But after significant doctrinal differences surfaced with my denomination, I instead became a clinical social worker.
Life didn’t go as planned in other ways as well, and yet throughout my years of work as a psychotherapist, raising three children after my divorce, volunteering, teaching Title One Reading, and becoming a Stephen Minister and Team Coordinator at my church, I was always known as someone who ministered to men and women who were in need of some pastoral care.
Theological understandings change, but the values of faith-filled reflection and service to the world remain foundational. I may never have been a paid “minister,” but in hindsight I would consider all my adult years to reflect the original meaning of the words, “service to God.”
Life may take you places you didn’t imagine, so find ways to allow your particular passion to meet the human needs you will find everywhere. Be creative alongside God, and take a broad view of the meaning of ministry. God gives us many chances – I’m now in my late fifties and finishing up a Th.M. in Pastoral Care, finding work in “real” ministry as a Spiritual Director in my new parish. In the end, though, it’s not the place or the title or the job that makes the difference; it’s the gift of knowing that you have been a blessing to others in their circumstances, just as others have been a blessing to you.
Anna Wallich lives and works in the greater Manchester, NH, area.
By Sabrina Moran M.A.R. second year
My best friend was interested in art, so I bought watercolors and paintbrushes. We sat around after kindergarten, in makeshift smocks, painting and talking about how we would fill the museums with our work one day. When she developed a curiosity for poetry in late primary school, I perfected my rhyme scheme and tagged along. Later, my friends joined the town soccer team, so I laced up cleats. And when my teachers told me I had a knack for mathematics, I obliged them as they dissolved my summer to send me away to a special school for future engineers.
My paintings are pedestrian. My poems lack passion. I’m too non-aggressive to succeed in contact sports. My soul died at engineering school while I stayed up late stabilizing bridge models and perfecting my robot.
Everyone ends up somewhere, but only those with vision end up somewhere they intend. What is it that I am actually called to do, and why can’t I see it?
I could spend my entire life this way – ungrounded and unpurposed, tossed to and fro, with no es- tablished sense of self – but I believe it is my responsibility to discern what it is that I am called to be, so that I might be an effective steward of the gifts I have been given. This knowledge is bound up in vision and calling.
In Os Guinness’ The Call, he writes, “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” It is a two-fold beckoning. First, God calls us to Godself: we are called primarily to know and love God. Secondarily, God calls each of us to serve in unique ways. This secondary call, Guinness explains, frequently consumes us, supplanting our desire for the primary call as we attempt to establish our identities apart from God.
For me, the greatest challenge in discerning vocation has not been a mis-ordered prioritizing of my calls. It’s that I scarcely attend reflectively to my secondary call at all. I allow other people to tell me what I am passionate about and where I should go. When I do that, I forfeit my own call.
If I have no vision, people will give me theirs. But I want what God has for me, and that demands I spend more time reflecting upon vocation on my own, learning who I am uniquely, in light of my primary call – to serve God in all that I do.
Sabrina Moran is a graduating M.A.R. student in Philosophy of Religion, with plans to teach elementary science before continuing on with Ph.D. work in Theory of Mind.
By Richard F. Collman ’69 M.Div.
I just finished participation through singing, writing, and delivering program commentary in a choral and hymn festival at a Benedictine abbey in Eastern South Dakota. There, since 1999, I have been an oblate, a person formally associated with a monastery seeking to live in harmony with the Rule of Benedict. A background in theology, music, liturgy, parish ministry, and ecumenical relationships has defined my own calling as a Methodist minister for nearly fifty years.
When I entered YDS in 1965, I knew I wanted to be a United Methodist minister but also express my faith through music too. With this dual vocation, I felt called to reform the church from within. Great social causes were the order of that day – civil rights, Vietnam, the emergence of house churches. In the middle of all this, when the interior spiritual life was hardly mentioned at all, YDS taught me much about how to think and how to approach parish ministry, and allowed me to take courses in the School of Music and count them toward the theology degree. I remain grateful to YDS for helping me nourish these interests. Ultimately, I would spend twenty years as a parish minister and twenty years as a minister of music working to renew the church through liturgy and music. Today, I call myself a minister-musician, a broker of beauty and a steward of mystery.
What have I learned? First, as the mainline church declines, it needs to continue to reach out more ecumenically to other Christians in common social causes. One example would be the work of evangelicals and liberals together on contemporary issues, as Jim Wallis has demonstrated. The church of the post-World War II boom that I grew up in is no more. I feel those denominational empire-building days are over: we are historically returning to something more normal for Christianity, perhaps a smaller but more vital and countercultural stance, if American churches can recover from their cultural captivity.
Second, the church will take on new forms of expression as its influence fades in the U.S. and Europe but expands in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. Though we have been slow about it, world liturgies and world music have come into our hymnals and music in the West.
Third, I have been forced to become much more open and far less judgmental, exercising more love and charity toward different stances in faith and musical expression as I age.
What advice would I offer a young person starting out today? Pay attention to the nudges and urges within, since these may be God speaking to you. Honor these and act upon them whenever possible.
Be nourished in your tradition. Honor and respect it, but be hospitable to all other expressions of faith, diverse as they may be. God speaks through them as well as through your own background.
Always engage in contemplation that stirs both critical reflection and action. Think, and write, and do. Ministry is much harder these days. But you are gifted and blessed, whatever the obstacles. Doors will open. Trust the future. You are called to be a hinge of history in a reformation we cannot yet articulate.
Richard Collman, retired, lives in Northfield, MN, where he plays organ in a nearby Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, teaches college courses to seniors in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium, and remains active in the local arts scene promoting music among all ages.
By Callista Isabelle ’05 M.Div.
As I write this, I’m beginning my third week in a new call as a college chaplain. I am surrounded by moving boxes and just getting to know hundreds of new names. “Tell me why,” people say, as they inquire about my leaving a place and people I love and moving to an unfamiliar place to serve a new group of people. Well, how exactly do I explain a deep sense of call?
My understanding of vocation is evolving. It has been shaped by my parents’ farm work ethic, Luther’s theology, supportive mentors, mountain-top moments, and professional failures.
I understand my vocation to be, at least in part, to nurture other people’s understanding of their own vocations. I count this as a privilege. It is also tender ground on which to walk. There’s a fine line between affirming the gifts someone has and pressuring one to use these in a certain way.
Like me, you may remember someone nudging your own sense of vocation forward in helpful ways. When I was a freshman, my college chaplain gently suggested, “You might consider seminary.” I replied, baffled, “What’s seminary?” Fifteen years later, this chaplain remains a mentor, and the conversation continues.
There’s a lot at stake here. What is the right path? If we don’t follow it, will our lives be ruined? If we don’t find the one thing we’re convinced must be planned for us, are we a lost cause?
Such questions weigh heavy on the shoulders, hearts, and minds of the college students I serve. The questions are especially burdensome if the answers seem already decided for them by someone else, or if they are genuinely confused about present and future. I spend a lot of time reassuring young adults that God loves them first, and calls them to vocations (plural) second.
For those of us serving as pastors, priests, teachers, or chaplains, we may need to remind ourselves (and each other) of this more often.
The Rev. Callista Isabelle is College Chaplain at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, and a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.