vocational schizophrenia

ice on lake macatawa

Part of my problem might be this: I feel conflicted about the pastoral identity in general. When I worked at Zondervan, I read dozens of manuscripts, each of which emphasized its own model of pastoral ministry. Some authors championed the pastor as shepherd, leading and tending the slow, straying flock. Others saw the pastor as coach, cheering and giving feedback to teams of Christians. There was the pastor as missionary, the pastor as preacher, the pastor as risk-taker for the kingdom of God.

I know I’ve acquired these models from elsewhere, too. Thanks to Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry, I see myself as a farmer who lives close to the land of the congregation, who does not barrel in with her whatever-horsepower bulldozer and plow up the soil without bending close to it and breathing in the loamy fragrance. A good farmer knows the weather and the land, the animals and the crops, and pays more attention to wisdom than to the enticing dance of dollars (which are only an illusion in the worlds of farming and ministry anyway).

Or again: pastor as memory assistant. This one came from Tim Brown, who once in a sermon compared pastors to the assistants who work in dementia units. We’ve all lost our memories—our Christian memories, the part of us that knows that we belong to God and have been graciously chosen and redeemed—and we need someone to keep feeding us the plot. So, week after week, on Sunday mornings and throughout the week, pastors keep telling the story: this is who God is, this is who we are, this is how you figure into the grand narrative.

And just today: pastor as disciple-nurturer. (Forgive me, Kathleen Cahalan, for bungling your model, but there was something compelling about it even though I heard only the briefest snippet.) It’s something like all Christians are called to discipleship, but only some are called to ministry. And the work of the ones called to ministry is to prepare, mature, and equip the disciples. Within the group who are called to ministry, each person has a more specific calling, but the aim is still simply to deepen the faith of the disciples.

ice floes

Most of these guiding metaphors are true of the pastor and are necessary to fill out a complete picture of the pastorate. (Some are more biblical, faithful, and sensible than others.) But it seems more reasonable to spread those various models across the swath of all pastors than to expect me to comprehend them all within myself. After all, God parcels out his gifts to us in such a way that only “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). As least according to Paul, one minister does not have to fulfill all five roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. Yet one look at the church ministry section of a bookstore is enough to send any otherwise-stable pastor into a tailspin. I have this image in my head of a business-suit-wearing, pom-pom-shaking, staff-wielding woman, totally bewildered by her eclectic paraphernalia.

Are other occupations burdened with the blessing of so many models for their work? Do chefs and CPAs and consultants have vocational identity crises? I guess they probably do. If I were a chef, I’d wonder whether I should simply fill the stomachs of those in my restaurant or if I should nourish their bodies or delight their senses—but I wouldn’t have the added weight of trying to ground my vocation in Scripture. (Nor, I imagine, would I have every person in the restaurant trying to encourage me to do it their way while also comparing me to the previous chef. Although, now that I think of it, eaters-out can be quite demanding.)

frozen air bubbles

Just when I think I might explode from pastor-model overload, my mom swoops in and rescues me. Thank goodness for the wisdom of mothers, who have a knack for asking the right questions just when we need them. We were standing in my kitchen on Saturday night, cleaning up after dinner with my dad, my sister, and her friends. I was stirring a batch of granola for the next morning and telling her how overwhelmed I felt when I tried to imagine the sort of pastor I’ll be. She heard more or less what you’ve read so far. And then she said, “Well, Grace, what things excite you? What things are you good at?”

Those were questions I could answer. I know the parts of pastoral ministry that energize me. (And the parts that don’t. You’ll never see me as a pastor-coach.) Suddenly, an abstract, enormous question became manageable. I was brought back to some of the same conclusions over tea with my friend, that it’s mostly not about fitting into some mold. It’s about living out of the person I am, gifted by God in my particular way, and not trying to be apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.

It’s not easy to move out into the world that way. I want to have some guiding principles, a description of what kind of pastoring I do. Such intentionality would give me purpose. But I’m called to be Grace. And though it’s more difficult sometimes, it’s also more authentic and more faithful.


9 thoughts on “vocational schizophrenia

  1. Last week I got a chance to listen to Chris Jordan speak. He is an artist and filmmaker and environmentalist. Speaking of photography, he said that if you have a devotion to your subject it will come out in your work. I think it applies to our work as artists as well as to our vocational work. I can see the devotion to place in your photos (which make me miss Michigan greatly) and your devotion to the congregation is also clear. Nurture your devotion and the work will be good work.

    I love your farmer-pastor metaphor.

  2. Thank you, Grace, for wrestling with these issues of vocational identity in public. I’m always encouraged by your thoughts. I also loved your farmer-pastor metaphor. Wendell Berry is happily added to my list for today’s reading.

    • It sometimes feels too vulnerable to be exploring these ideas out in the open like this, Julie, but responses like yours hearten me!

      As for Wendell Berry, you should put Jayber Crow on your list first and then Hannah Coulter. I’m less familiar with his essays, but they’re good too!

      • I’m only familiar with his poetry and essays so would love to read one of his novels, though it may have to wait until my coursework is completed for the semester.

  3. I’ve been wondering about this too. It’s almost like medical school, taking general classes and being presented with the different specialties in medicine and feeling like I’m being forced to choose one above the others. One I am particularly fond of is some combination of pastor and worship leading… which just adds something to your list.

    Your mother asked a great question… something I think I need to consider for myself as well! Thanks for this post!

  4. Haha! You’re generous to write about the swooping rescue but neglect altogether to mention how good I am at bringing tears to the surface :). And, as you know, any wisdom I have with the “What are you good at?” thing comes from the school of life, esp. before deciding to earn a master’s degree at age 38. It took me awhile!

    One of God’s wonderful gifts is his way of bringing about circumstances that allow us to develop the gifts he’s planted in us from the beginning. Honestly, I think that answering those two questions is an on-going process of discovery — discovery of what God is doing in and through each one of us.

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