I remember a humorous conversation I had with Matt just a few years ago in which I described why I was most certainly "doomed" to be called as a pastor. I provided the succinct, overarching statements that might grace the header of my resume or pastoral profile: passion for connecting people across differences through dialogue, love of theological thought and exploration, skilled public speaker, seasoned writer (with a love for devotional writing, in particular!), pianist and singer, beginning guitar player, capable administrator with years of relevant experience in a comparable field, and a desire to relate to the deepest longings of people and communities. With a self-satisfied nod, I said, "Can't you see it? I'm marked! It's inevitable!"
If you can read that these statements were said without real joy--a distinct emotion from humor--you might well have been in the room with us. As the child of a pastor and grandchild of two, I felt, quite literally, the fear of God each time I imagined serving in the world as I saw them serve. I watched my father and grandfathers come of age in mostly rural protestant churches where clergy members did everything: shovel snow, CHECK; mow the church and parsonage lawn, CHECK; prepare Sunday's sermon, CHECK; serve as hospital chaplain, CHECK; bake bread for communion, CHECK; answer the phone and door at all hours of the day or night, literally taking money from personal bank account to help parishioners and strangers meet financial needs, CHECK; baptize, marry, counsel through divorce, bury, CHECK. I could go on and on. Without strong personal boundaries, or seminary training to establish these, their churches took over their lives. I grew up bearing the consequences of an often unhealthy model of servitude. It was not a call I was in any way prepared to answer. If the phone was ringing, I was most decidedly unavailable.
My childhood and adolescent dread shifted into the bemused, but doomed mentality depicted by my conversation with Matt. And then, it shifted again. During the Maundy Thursday service just over a year ago, I watched as the pastor and associate pastor of my church broke bread for communion and raised the cup into the air, and I experienced a palpable, dramatic shift inside. Planted in me was not dread, but a sense of the honor of their role--the gift of their service. I considered the many pastors I had encountered personally, and the gifts each had offered to me. I thought about Tom, the chaplain who married us and who regularly extended himself as a listener and wise questioner as we sought to adapt to the changes in one another and in our relationship. He might have saved our marriage with some critical, well-considered pieces of advice....he certainly empowered us to save it for ourselves. I thought about John, and the meditation group he initiated--the regularity and sacredness of which created space for me to discover some profound truths about myself and who I have been created to be. I thought about Marlene, serving our church as a volunteer associate pastor after a debilitating accident. Her astute observations about faith were formative in my life, and the selflessness of her service was truly inspiring.
The shifting continues still, as I casually wade my way through seminary courses, exploring what it feels like to be in that environment. I am certainly curious more days than I am fearful, and this openness will yield something rich to my life even if I don't seek to pastor a church one day. In a recent conversation with a woman who is, for me, part therapist and part spiritual director, I was describing the evolution of my thinking over all these years. Looking up, hoping against hope once again that she would respond with some sort of answer, I saw her wry grin as her eyes said to me that she would again respond to me with questions--I would not walk home with the tidy package I came seeking. After she asked me to respond to a series of forced choice questions (e.g., now or not now? being or doing? inside or outside?), she spoke to me words of my true calling. She said, "You will never make any choice, have any role, pursue any study that will make you more the essence of God than you are right now. This is who you are called to be--Jennifer. Fully Jennifer, here and now." Days later, my current pastor reiterated the same essential message in an email to our church community in which he commented on his morning inhaling of the sweet lilac bush outside his home. "A lilac being a lilac--this is the Divine Essence."
Will I someday be called as a pastor? Perhaps. Have I already--in fact, always--been called by God? Indeed. And I'm relaxing, breathing, inhaling and exhaling my way into a full answer to Her call.