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The worst of all jobs, and yet...

What makes this crazy work worth doing? A sense of call, says the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver.

May 12, 2009

So many of my friends have left pastoral ministry that I’m beginning to feel like a character in an Agatha Christie mystery. As characters start disappearing I cannot help but wonder, “Who will be next?”

I was concerned enough about this trend to write an article in 2001 for Congregations magazine called “The Good Life: Celebrating the Pastoral Vocation.” In it, I pointed out the unique rewards and satisfactions of being a pastor. I considered aspects of the pastoral life that many pastors find most difficult and suggested that if we approach them from a different angle, those are the very things that are most wonderful about the pastoral life.

But then I showed the article to a friend who was considering a different career. He said, “Yeah, it’s a good life if you’re called to it, but if you are not called to it…” He let that sentence trail off. He didn’t need to finish it because I knew what he was saying, and I knew he was right.

Recently I had a telling conversation with the father of someone headed to seminary. He made it clear that pastoral ministry wasn’t exactly what he had in mind for his daughter, but he said, “I hear that churches are making a comeback, so there will be no lack of jobs.” And, it’s true, as long as there is sin and death there will be plenty of work. But we are not used to ministry being described like a job that could be found in classified ads.

Pastoral ministry just doesn’t add up in the same way other professions do. To paraphrase John Newton, a central irony is that it can be the worst of all jobs, and yet it can still be the most glorious of all vocations.

Sometimes, when I describe to my wife a particularly discouraging day at the church, she responds, “Well, then, why don’t you just quit?” She is not a churchgoer, so this is not a rhetorical question. On such occasions it is hard to explain why I keep at this crazy work, except to say that I am called to it. I have not found ways to talk about why I feel compelled to do this work, and why I find it a glorious vocation, except by using the language of call.

My family tree is so laden with ordained ministers that it veritably bends to the ground under the weight. In my family, ordained ministry is considered a high calling, indeed: My older brother received something like sympathy because he did not have a call to the ministry. He had to settle for being a highly successful lawyer. At the same time, coming from such a family presented a challenge to my discernment about my own call. Whatever a call to the ministry might mean, I was quite sure that it is not a generalized shout to an entire family.

To discern a call is not merely to grant that a job is worth doing, but also whether you are the one to do it. It is figuring out what job God has put your name on -- and not just the family name, your name.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great pastoral leader, said upon his retirement, “If I had a thousand lives to live in this century, I would go into parish ministry with every one of them.” But, as some would point out, Fosdick enjoyed a successful ministry in a privileged setting in a large Manhattan church. Surely that makes all the difference. Or does it?

Once I sat at lunch with a group of older African-American Methodist pastors at a conference in Florida. These pastors had served churches in poor, rural areas where tourists rarely go. They told of times when they were paid in bags of rice and baskets of potatoes. One pastor said he served a church with a hole in the roof over the pulpit they had no money to fix. Whenever it rained, they moved the pulpit aside and put a bucket in its place.

I just listened. But then, in a lull in the conversation, I asked the question. And I knew from the way they were talking what their answer would be. When I asked, “Would you do it all over again?” at first they looked perplexed. Then they responded with passion, each saying in his own way, “Of course I would do it over again. I would do it over a thousand times.”

I’m not sure I could go as far as Fosdick and these pastors did. If I had a thousand lives to live, I might use one or two to do something else, like become a jazz pianist or an NBA point guard. But, with just one life to live on this earth, I am grateful that God called me to be a pastor.