I feel like I have to start with a story. Once upon a time, there was a real worship geek. Robes, candles, chanting, leading prayers, being annoyed at any little error in the bulletin. Self-importance. Hurrying to conscript acolytes and communion assistants. Pretending to listen to the sermon while obsessing over whether to give a chalice or tray to Communion Assistant X. He loved it and thought that was ministry. It worked for a while.
But the annoyance grew, with the sermons, with the worship patterns, with people preferring praise services. To make a long story short (too late!), that was me. Somehow I had no idea there was more to church life.
Fast forward. When I joined Christ Church, Pastor engaged my thoughts, even though they were so narrowly-focused. But then on one of those early days, he forwarded me an older article from The Cresset and told me it was a must-read. He said it was “Valpo theology”, so of course I had to read it. Read it. Didn’t get it. What is this whole “law and gospel” thing, and what does it want with us? I guess that was the beginning of now. I didn’t think I’d ever heard about law and gospel. I suspect I had, but wasn’t ready to hear.
Over time, I’ve become so interested in Holy Scripture and theology. I find myself engaged by sermons and reflecting. It’s not like choosing a hobby. Nothing conscious. It just is who I’ve become. My emotional investment has been steadily growing in the church, and I find myself desperately wanting to serve this group of people with whom I share worship.
That’s the backstory.
One day, Pastor told me about the Crossings Community, and I was curious. He pointed me to their website, and it was fascinating reading. We discussed, I kept reading, and then he encouraged me to go to their upcoming conference. And I was really interested. I don’t know why, really. It wasn’t related to websites, or liturgy, or anything else I’d been doing. But we went. And I didn’t know it was going to consume me.
I spent days in the company of pastors, professors, and seminarians, going to workshops and lectures. I had a deep feeling of being where I belong, of being “home”. The seminarians talked about their studies and internships. Some were second-career people. I wanted that for myself. I wanted to do what they were doing. It was depressing to think about going home and losing that special fellowship. Of feeling like I was a peer with these people. I wanted to commit my own life in the same way that all these people had done, to learning, to development, to caring for people, and to what felt like a “special knowledge” of God that I wouldn’t otherwise have.
When I discovered that some of the other attendees were actually lay people becoming Associates in Ministry, it felt like an opportunity I wanted that wasn’t available in this synod. And so I came out and told Pastor exactly how I was feeling – wanting to pursue this learning and growing in a serious and disciplined way, beyond anything like Sunday School. Luckily he remembered that there was talk of starting Diakonia in the Indianapolis area. Returning home, I checked out the Diakonia website, and now I really had something to look forward to. And I kept on reading and praying and thinking.
And Diakonia really has exceeded my hopes. The trial-by-fire of the first 2 courses was good for me – all of the reading and writing. And in fact, I actually want to pursue even more demanding study. But, more importantly I feel like my hopes and desires are perfectly valid.
So, what do I feel called to do? I browsed information about the Associate in Ministry program. 600 hours of supervised field experience? Called to service in agencies, institutions, and traditional church programs? I looked at information about ELCA diaconal ministry in synods that have it. I started to understand – these are all career ministry paths. Is that the only way?
I love studying theology and early church history, and I look forward to much more of it. But how can I use it for service? How can I use it to provide the comfort of the Gospel to a hurting world? I care about people’s faith and connections to God. The church has done an amazing job at wounding people’s relationships with Christ, and I feel a call to help with that as well. My identity as a Christian has been growing from learning more about the early church and the people of Israel, and seeking my connection to those people as my ancestors.
I recently wrote about Seeking My Vocation. I’ve begun developing a vision of seeing Jesus in everyone, and serving Him by actually listening to people to understand their needs, and then serving those needs. Luther emphasizes a call for all people to serve where they are, through what they already do. And I’ve begun to see vocation as a life of individual service opportunities. Not being called to a single thing, but responding to needs as they arise. Recognizing needs by listening, being attentive, and discerning whether I’m called to jump in.
It finally occurred to me. If I were ordained and called to the care of a community, I’d have textbook responsibilities, but even more so, I’d be called to listen, be attentive, and discern the needs of the people in my congregation. I’d be expected to have a vision for the congregation. I’d also be urged to connect with peers for support, accountability, and wider service. I can model my vocation in that way, with the bonus of not being expected to do it all, and the liberation of not having to worry about financial support from the congregation. No numbers.
And yet, I’m reminded of my secular career. I recently lunched with a believing co-worker, and shared my developing vision for my ministry in the company. Understanding our shared vision and goals, and helping the rest of the team to understand them as works best for each one. Engaging support staff with greater welcome and patience, not as some sort of bothersome interruption. Really, affirming the dignity of all my colleagues, and helping to bridge the communication gap that always exists when you’re playing with engineers. Go read Dilbert. Yeah, that. Understanding the growing need for effectively bringing everyone into the tribe, as the company continues to rapidly grow. Understanding the challenges of dynamics in a growing group. Sound like church?
Days later I had my yearly review. I typed up my vision in a safe-for-work manner. What happened? “Oh, I see we’re on the same page.” Wow. Of course, days have passed and it’s hard to remember how that moment felt. I was promoted to a new position that emphasizes roles of mentoring and of of monitoring the quality of others’ contributions, on top of most of what I was already doing. Having some tasks moved to other people to free me for some design work that’s been a long-term goal. Like having a vision for ministry, and being called to serve a community in that vision.
I think that’s how it feels to be called.
You know, a congregation is so much like a company (but with the magnificence of the Gospel). My company has departments, and my church has committees. All pretty textbook categories. They try to function and think independently, but they need each other, and they’re impotent outside of the whole. I can write the most fabulous software in the world, but unless someone sells it, I’m unemployed. I can conduct a stewardship campaign and hustle pledges from members, but if I can’t convey to them the great gift of giving their resources to make us all whole, and to facilitate our ministry of bringing the Gospel to our broken world, it’s an impotent giving that doesn’t allow the Spirit to blossom in our midst.
Only when I understand our customers’ needs, can I write something that serves them. And only by welcoming support requests, can I fix errors and understand how we may be falling short. What if stewardship is evangelism is faith formation is education is ministry? And some of my colleagues will not understand. And some of my brothers and sisters in Christ will not understand. But I can still bring those people together under our common mission. Er, um, Gospel. Er, um, vision. That’s ministry. That’s my call. Funny how I learned that from a bunch of broken Dilberts. And, yet, there are many here who get it, who do understand.
I have to continue learning advanced coding techniques, in order to give good design, and in order to help colleagues better understand how to stay connected in our tribal knowledge. I have to continue studying theology and Scripture to better understand what to share with the congregation, to help them stay connected to a vision that they may not understand. You have to love the material – some drive that makes you dig deeper. You make connections along the way and realize when you have to follow a tangent. You don’t know why at the time. You’ll be talking to someone in the future, and it will be relevant. It will *matter*. You won’t expect it when it happens. And the details will fade into memory and you won’t be able to recount exactly how X helped Y. You needed to have absorbed the relevant Scripture, or obscure polymorphic policy. And you keep on, not just because you love it, but it’s you. It’s what you do and who you are.
I have to interact with colleagues from partner companies. Their products interface with our products, and become solutions for customers. We have a number of congregations in our community who have their own strengths and weaknesses, and together we live in a community with many needs.
I don’t think of the church as a business. Numbers. Pledges, visitors, buildings. We’re not selling a product. But it’s just so crucial to understand the underlying connections and relationships, and our interdependence, that is the only way for us to allow the Holy Spirit to blossom and thrive among us, driving us to meet the needs of our larger community.
This isn’t the presentation that I hoped or planned to give. I wanted to think that it was going to be something simple, like that I hate stewardship and want to teach Sunday School. Or maybe take classes at CTS. But that’s so superficial. My call is to establish connections in my own congregation, with nearby congregations, and to continue seeking wisdom and knowledge so that I can recognize and serve the needs I find. The categories, committees, congregations – they exist, but they don’t exist, and people will or won’t understand that. But they’re each an indispensable and necessary part of our shared vision.
And my call is to understand that vision more deeply with the help of our Pastors, to help them to know me, because our needs come from all directions, within and without. It’s to have the faith in myself that Christ has in me, to know that this wisdom will grow and will direct my learning and seeking as is needed. To know that our Pastors are my peers, affirming their dignity and worth and callings, and making myself an available resource. I’m a part of our shared vision – I already have the job. Sometimes the needs will come to me, and sometimes I’ll have to be proactive and seek them out. I know how to do that.
God grant me the wisdom to remember that when communications break down, when I feel passed over, when my efforts fail, that it all continues. The ministry continues. It’s larger than me, and larger than you – larger than all of us. We remain connected, and will be for eternity, until our Christ comes again in glory.