If you know me, you’ll know this is nothing new: I always get panicky as a major life change, impossible to see from where I now stand, draws nearer. In high school, it was college. In college, it was seminary. Now, it’s the pastoral life. Lately I’ve been feeling something akin to cold feet. That’s the best way I can describe it. With graduation visible on the horizon and a real occupation just beyond that, I’ve suddenly begun to wonder if I’m going into the right line of work, if somewhere along the line I missed the exit ramp for the perfect career for me and have gone a hundred miles in the wrong direction, if I’ve yet figured out where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep need or whatever that quote is from Buechner.
When things get like this, I return to my tried and true solution: talk it out.
So I went to my pastor, friend, and spiritual director, and she listened while I talked, and then I thought while she asked questions. And this is what we uncovered.
A whole constellation of values and worries and considerations have come together to make me wonder about my call.
For one, I’m in a leadership class that has exposed me to all of the facets of leading for which I feel totally unprepared. I might be good at conducting a worship service, but a budget meeting? And I can probably lead a congregation through the emotional turmoil of divorces or deaths, but what about a capital campaign? Rather than feeling more equipped, I’ve felt acutely aware of how many tools I still lack.
Another factor at play is the simple fact that I cannot picture our future congregation—or our future more generally, for that matter. This is one of the limits of being human. Apart from God himself, no one knows what lies ahead. It’s one of those facts of life that’s self evident, and yet we bump uncomfortably up against it every time we cross a threshold like this. It’s not hard to not know the future when it will probably look like the present. But to look into next year and see an impenetrable haze?
I also have a strong aversion toward the idea of leaving a congregation within a few years of arriving there. This aversion has grown out of a combination of things. Because of a sense of pride, I don’t want to be numbered among those who leave the ministry within five years. I want to think that I’ve been better prepared, that I have more resources and don’t have to flee at the first sign of conflict. More nobly, though, writers like Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry have convinced me to live in a way that mimics the monastic vow of stability. I believe in remaining with a congregation, in being committed to place and a people. In a world where people jump at the possibility of a promotion and readily move their families from one coast to the other in pursuit of financial security, Christians ought to demonstrate a different way of life, one motivated not by finances but by relationships, one that sticks it out and learns to forgive rather than merely tolerating someone while secretly counting down the days until the next move.
We lingered for a while on this last reason. I confessed that I’m simply tired of impermanence. I’d like to be in a place where it feels worthwhile to paint and hang pictures, where I can enjoy the bounty of a garden for more than a season or two. With no plans to leave a place, I’ll be able to settle into friendships.
I mentioned my big-garden, sunny-window, chicken-keeping dream, and then it came to us. That dream is just that: a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s my Tarshish. It’s the place I want to go to escape my vocation.
And maybe, at the same time, it’s an indication of a deeper longing, a longing for heaven. The idea that God’s people are pilgrims, exiles, aliens in a strange land is as old as sin. I’m not the first person to long for a home that I’ll never reach this side of heaven, and I’m not the last. This is the burden of the Christian life. Even if I surround myself with all the trappings of a beautiful, joyful, satisfying life, I’ll never feel fulfilled, because this is not my home. I could remain in a congregation for the rest of my life and still feel homesick.
It’s not that I’ve missed the exit ramp for the vocation most suited for me. It’s that on this earth there’s no such thing. Rather than fantasizing about some perfect future house, I should take the ache as a reminder that my home is with God. Rather than despairing that I will be on the move forever, I should take comfort in the hope that a home awaits. And I’m banking on the promise that it’s got a gorgeous garden and an ancient tree.