Not long ago, I went through the call process as an ELCA pastor for the second time. The first time, I recall, was a slow and demoralizing affair, but at least the possibilities were contained. Assigned to the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, I pestered the bishop’s staff to grant me interview opportunities and then waited until finally there was a congregation that wanted to give me a job, and that settled it. The second time through, when I had more say in the matter, I discovered how heavy the burden of decision is when the field of futures is wide open and God’s voice is not at all clear.
I had served for seven years as an associate pastor in an affluent Chicago suburb when I updated my Rostered Leader Profile, checking the “open to the possibility of a call” box and expanding my geographical preferences to five different Midwestern (Region 5) synods. It had been a good first call, but I was outgrowing my role, putting pressure on my relationship with my senior colleague and growing impatient with the backlog of ministry ideas I couldn’t take the lead on. My wife, pregnant with our second child, was wanting to quit her full-time job in order to stay-at-home parent for a season.
Beyond a shared ambivalence about the prospect of raising little Christians in suburbia and a desire to stay within a manageable travel distance from grandparents, ours was a relatively “unrestricted” search. “We are trying to be open to the Spirit,” I surely said, as one does, in numerous introductory conversations with the synod offices. In practice, though, this meant that I was sometimes getting congregational profiles to consider from all five synods at once, with an occasional surprise phone call from Minnesota, Nebraska, or Texas thrown in. Chicagoland interviews and Skype interviews were not difficult to schedule, but sneaking away to various places in Wisconsin or Iowa without my congregation getting suspicious was a taller order (clergy often liken such conversations, guiltily, to having an affair). It was hard to maintain focus and stay fully invested in the community I was pastoring, but the discernment itself—trying to tell which was the “right” path forward—was still harder.
As I groped for the proper criteria for just how to know, I was repeatedly presented with what I can now identify as three strands of wisdom, each possessing an element of truth, but none of which I was ever fully able to trust.
First was the seemingly worldly advice Figure out what you want (and go out and get it). Interestingly, it was another pastor who put this to me most succinctly. I was having an introductory lunch meeting with a close-to-retirement colleague, a forty-years-in-the-same-parish veteran who was looking for a successor to mentor for a couple years before handing over the reins. This was the only neighboring suburban call I agreed to look into; it was a large, vital, fairly traditional, typically homogenous church with immaculate facilities. The pastor and I had been getting to know each other over our thirteen-dollar lamb burgers until finally he looked me in the eye and said, “Mark, let me ask you this: What is it you want?” It felt in the moment like he had homed in on a very pivotal question, and yet one that might also be the devil’s question. When he followed up his comment by telling me how “marketable” I was, and I felt my ego swell, that was when the old enemy blew his cover.
On the one hand, Jesus himself sometimes asked a similar version of that question (“What do you want me to do for you?”) of individuals at a crossroads; James and John, who desired greatness, and Bartimaeus, who desired sight, are notable examples juxtaposed in Mark 10. In the former case, the question only exposed the disciples’ foolishness and showed that they didn’t know what they were asking. And, of course, Jesus’ own prayer to the Father in Gethsemane gave voice to his personal desire but ended with “Not what I want, but what you want.” The way Jesus asks the question shows that Christian discernment must have some sort of cruciform character. What we want for ourselves, though not irrelevant, is not the most important thing. Hopefully, we will not be asked to go and do the opposite of what we want, but I wondered if there was a middle place, where I might be called to give up some things I rather like for Jesus’ sake, without chasing down misery (as though a congregation could ever be much blessed by a pastor who views them as his next hairshirt)? A few weeks after an interview with the call committee in that place, I said no to that potential opportunity, and, in general, said no to the question of what I wanted being the only question.
A variant of this is: Trust your gut. Some of my most trusted confidants, including elder clergy, told me to listen to my gut. I found their counsel to be a good check on my relentless drawing up and revising of pro and con lists, but it still left me wondering why even seasoned Lutherans thought my gut was less tangled up in the simul justus et peccator than the rest of me. Since seminary, people had been telling me I belonged in or around academic communities, preaching if not teaching and writing among them. My own mother told me, upon learning of one call we were considering, that I need college-educated parishioners in the pews to understand what I am talking about.
But how is trusting one’s gut different than going where one is most comfortable? In a denomination where nearly all the clergy have master’s degrees, aren’t almost all of us more at home among educated, broad-minded folk: the enclave urban neighborhoods, the handful of high-culture suburbs, the mid-sized places anchored by a research university, or better yet, a Lutheran college? What are the implications for an ELCA where too many pastors are looking for where they feel they “fit”? (For starters, without discounting financial factors, it might look like the current 37 percent pastoral vacancy rate among rural and small-town congregations in an ELCA where 48 percent of the congregations are in those settings [Inskeep 2016]). Or, to use a different example, if my gut tells me to seek out a Reconciling in Christ congregation, like those I have served in the past, where the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons is public and unqualified, might I be snagging one of the handful of positions that are truly open to my LGBTQ colleagues? I am not sure it is my gut that tells me to account for these candidates in the bigger picture, but rather the challenge of an outside Word. That is not to say that our instincts are beyond God’s use or power to redeem; some of the brightest red flags in this search were first detected by my gut. And yet, conscious of how subtly sin clings, I was never quite confident that my gut should get the final say.
Third, even if not one soul advised me to, I still would have been striving to read the signs. Anyone faced with a significant life decision tries to. For nine exhausting months, I was in a state of hyper-attentiveness, determined not to miss a clue in speech or circumstance. Just prior to an interview with one call committee in an urban setting, I was struck with a cold that clouded my responses and made enthusiasm impossible to convey. Did it mean anything? What about the form letter from one synod that said, in short, we have nothing for you at all here? God closing the door on a whole quarter of a state? Or was it an accident when my iPod, set on shuffle, chose from among ten thousand songs “Pink Houses” just as I crossed the city limits into one unlikely small town prospect, John Mellencamp proclaiming confidently that a town like this was “good enough for [him]” (and could be for you too, hint, hint)?
A constant cause for doubt, however, in trying to spot God’s hand like this—and this is especially the case in the ELCA call system—is that there are so many flawed human beings involved, all of us clumsily trying to get our ducks in a row. The “congregations-in-transition” have a lot of steps to follow before they are even ready to interview, and their call committees are full of volunteers that struggle mightily just to get their schedules aligned. Key decisions, like approving a Ministry Site Profile are sometimes not made until an annual congregational meeting rolls around in January, and then many of them spring into full throttle search mode just as pastors under call are in the thick of Lent and Holy Week. While God may hold all of our times, as the psalmist declares (31:15), the notion of neatly orchestrated timing seems far-fetched given all the variables.
There were some holy coincidences along the way, but I had to be reminded again and again that discernment is not divination, and faithfulness is different than fatefulness. When we make the mistake of assuming that there is only one right path to choose, the fear of getting on the wrong track—and the idea that such a mistake would be on you—becomes debilitating. Rather, comfort came to me in the promise that God was acting in ways beyond my sight, perhaps on multiple paths simultaneously but always for us and for the good—and not just teasing. Loosen your grip on the notion that there is a “right” path, said this voice, and trust that whatever “you” decide, I am with you.
What proved decisive in where my family and I landed was not my decisiveness at all. There was one call committee that just got seized by the conviction that I was the one for them, and they didn’t hedge much at all about it. I was moved by how they pulled out all the stops to welcome us and showcase their community. The parish is located in the seat of a rural county, full of rolling, unglaciated hills populated by dairy cows and sheep. In the town, there are two restaurants that meet our standards for a dinner out and too many bars. Many days, despite all the thoughtfulness and effort I put toward the process, I feel surprised that this is my home and bewildered by how I got here.
In the end, perhaps faithfulness lies in letting a place choose you, rather than believing we become capable of such a choice if only we are given enough information and the right advice. One answers a call, and, in the ministry, a call comes through the church. Whether we are achieving our dreams or finding “our kind of people” or deducing a match made in heaven, these are not particularly Christian habits of mind. In time, I found they all become oppressive. But, in discerning a path, we show up generously when invited, we die to ourselves, we pray in the face of the unknown, and when a call comes at last, we leap.
Mark D. Williamson is the new Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
Inskeep, Kenneth W. “ELCA Clergy Serving Congregations and Geographic Settings.” ELCA Research and Evaluation Report to Conference of Bishops, February 2016.