Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What is Call? -- Part 2

Please see earlier Part 1

There is a story about a new seminary graduate coming out of a meeting with Mississippi Bishop John Maury Allin many years ago.  The new graduate had been told by Bishop Allin that he would be serving three small congregations in the Mississippi Delta.  He was commiserating with a colleague in the Bishop’s ante-room when Bishop Allin stuck his head out of his door and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you – there’s one more congregation I want you to serve.”  The new graduate, of course, symbolically clicked his heals and saluted.  It was part-and-parcel of the call.

It seems to me that the understanding of call has evolved over the years.  I suspect there are many layers to that evolution, but the needs of the church remain.

Very few people “perceive a call” to rural ministry.

Very few people “perceive a call” to small church ministry.

Many people “perceive a call” to urban areas. A corollary of that axiom is that many people “perceive a call” to a specific geographic area

Many people “perceive a call” to large churches.

Few people “perceive a call” to congregations with lower compensation. Likewise, many people “perceive a call” to congregations with higher compensation.

Very few people “perceive a call” to places that are challenging or in conflict.

Few people “perceive a call” to serve multiple congregations.

All of this is true and accurate, and I am sure for a variety of reasons.  But the true third rail in this process is the spouse’s preference.  Ironically, it is symptomatic of both a growing awareness of the importance of spousal fulfillment and significant sexism.

It has become an issue for spousal fulfillment because, I believe, there is increased awareness of the health of the family system among clergy families. No longer is the clergyperson viewed as an isolated entity.  That understanding and appreciation of the family unit are healthy developments.

However, it is also important that the couple which enters into the process of ordination – and those who are already within Holy Orders – have an anticipatory conversation of the unique nature of ordained ministry.  Ordained ministry may call someone to serve in some place which the spouse does not prefer.  It may require adjustment of the family’s expectations, all within healthy norms of family life.  This is a point I seek to hammer home in interviews with aspirants for Holy Orders – “You will not go back to your home church. You may well go to some place you do not wish. The winds of the Spirit may call you into some unanticipated places.  And the Church will need you there.” A couple should have that conversation well in advance of the issue arising.  The possibility should never come as a surprise.

The problem of sexism is a deeper issue.  In the days when clergy were largely male, it was assumed that the spouses (all females) would go wherever the husband was assigned or called.  That paradigm has shifted dramatically. Now that many aspirants, postulants, candidates and clergy are female, the male spouses are granted some deference from prior expectations.  It seems that the thought is, “Of course we would not expect him to leave his position with the company he serves.  We will accommodate that need.”  That, I would argue, is unfair to the female spouses, who have gone any place for so long, and to the Church, which has unmet needs in many quarters.

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