by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
We hear during the service of ordination these words: “Believing that the call of the Church is the call of the Holy Spirit…” and my denomination at least only ordains ministers who have been extended a “call” (job) usually from a congregation. Jesus calls his disciples to put down their nets and follow him, to fish for people; we are called to do the same. To be a loving parent is also a calling, yet not every parent pursues it as such, and some who feel they are called to parenthood do not have the opportunity to exercise that calling in the ways they hoped. The concepts of Christian vocation and callings are experiencing a resurgence of attention as a way to honor the important roles of our lives. Others have written inspirational things about valuing and following our callings. What I have not heard is the admission that as with any role that wields power, there are dangers.
Do we use “calling” to legitimize bigotry?
We trust that the call of the Church is the call of the Holy Spirit. Is it the Holy Spirit then that prefers white, cis-gender, heterosexual, male candidates over all others? Congregations comprised of sinner-saints vote to call pastors and deacons; committees of opinionated people sort through candidates long before full congregations even get that chance. Why does it take so long to place many qualified candidates “awaiting call,” especially people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks and women – if at all? Does the Holy Spirit not want them in church leadership, although they have perceived a call from God, been trained and had their call affirmed outwardly through multiple steps of the approval process?
We need not question the entire theology behind calling church leadership, but we would do well to acknowledge a type of dual citizenship for it. “Calling” belongs to God, but we sinners hold the reins within our earthly systems. We are the ones deciding whether or not those who experience the pull to pursue their calling in the Church are going to be affirmed by our power structures.
Has the “calling” become an excuse for ourselves and others to violate boundaries or justify poor compensation?
The concept of calling sets clergy apart, as it claims a spiritual authority to lead. But being set apart is lonely. The respect of being “called to ministry” can mean that we are held to a different set of standards. Can a pastor get angry? Must her spouse or children behave like angels? The scrutiny of being a public figure whose actions or reactions are held against myriad idealistic standards can wear us down; it is like death by a thousand paper cuts. In care-giving positions whose daily tasks are not well-defined (what are the exact steps to foster community?) nor understood, the “called” tend to make ourselves available as much as possible to meet expectations that we are working, ever-present, supporting everyone.
Too many clergy of my acquaintance have died in their callings in their 30s and 40s, and although there may have been a mistake during surgery or a genetic risk, every single time my colleagues talk about the toll of stress in our profession. People overwork in many fields and take on too much stress. But shouldn’t a “calling” be the exception to that? Surely God does not want us to work or worry to death, or for our calling to consume us. When we imbue the calling with too much power, it can take over even our family and self-care time, melt our boundaries, command our thoughts and impact our health. And we let it, because it is SO IMPORTANT, God-given, we believe. It is impossible to balance two callings, if what a calling means is the right to over-ride all else.
Those of us who attempt to hold two “callings” simultaneously, or even two in our household, know how numerous and regular the bouts of tug-of-war can be over which calling must override the others. To hold together a ministry calling and parenthood, or ministry and the calling of a medical professional (as my spouse and I do) means that minimally, someone is often late or missing an event or moment to serve one of the other callings. We alternately obsess over or try to ignore what examples our choices set for those who observe us. And in the quest for balance, we probably do not ask for help nearly as much as we need it. For clergy, this can mean not just seeking support outside the parish – from colleagues, therapists, etc – but inside. As a parent, I need to tag-team with my spouse for respite. I need to call in the grandparents so we can get away for our anniversary. Pastors need to do this too. We need to be courageous about exhausting our vacation time and continuing education budgets, taking comp time after funerals, and negotiating for salaries appropriate to our expertise and the cost of living in our area. We should not accept less as a way to suffer honorably for our calling. We have to task our lay leaders with holding us accountable to tending our physical and mental health and keeping our “day off” off-limits.
Is the way we view a “calling” pressuring us into staying in situations that burn us out? Do narrow definitions of “calling” deceive us?
Insert your own vulnerable stories of burnout here. We all know them: the warning signs that told us it was time to go, personally or professionally. Yet sometimes we ignore them, thinking we are doing the right or honorable thing for the sake of the “calling”. I knew 3 years in that I was by far the longest-serving pastor the complicated congregation I served had since its 2 predecessor churches consolidated. Valuing stability and a transition plan above all else, I stayed too long for myself. It took my own sense of calling to pastoral ministry a good long break to recover afterward.
A calling may be for a lifetime, but what if the form it takes can change as we do, and the needs of the Church and world do? I am an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Lutheran tradition, yet right now I am staying home with my kids and writing for an audience beyond one congregation. In addition to writing theological things, I try to tell my kids the truth about the world around them, how people are and should be treating one another, what God did in Scripture and still does in our interactions today. I bathe them and remind them they are beloved. I feed them and coach them into being loving towards one another. I am not saying that I am preaching the Word and administering the sacraments at home, but I am also not saying that I am living outside of my clergy “calling” now either.
Knowing the dangers of a calling has helped me to redefine the concept, and could help the Church to do the same.
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is a writer and Lutheran pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota