Susan T. Henry-Crowe, South Carolina Annual Conference
Anticipating a boating trip an hour before we left, our two-and-a-half-year-old grandson kept saying, “I do not want to go on the boat.” We assured him that it would be fun and that he would love it. Still, “I do not want to go on the boat!”
As we arrived at the dock, his daddy, holding him close, whispered something that seemed to console him. He got on the boat, donned with his life jacket. Wide-eyed, he looked up and joyfully said, “I do like the boat.”
I teased a little: “I thought you did not like the boat.”
“I do like the boat!”
A while later I asked, “How is it going? Are you still afraid of the boat?”
He smiled and said, “You just trust me!”
Suddenly I knew what his daddy had whispered: “You just trust me!”
Ordination was a bit like that some thirty years ago. Jesus Christ and the Church, through the bishop, says those off-putting—and seemingly condenscending—words, “You just trust me.”
“You just trust me.” For the most part, in those days, I did not fully trust the Church or the vocation. But neither did I distrustit. Mostly, I was curiously skeptical, intellectually and pastorally animated, frightfully engaged, and willing to go along for a while. Having sensed a kind of call seemingly different from that, which often comes to some, I was quite uncertain about the whole endeavor. However, I took my ordination vows very seriously, with a sense of mystery, honor, uncertainty, and pleasure. Pastoral ministry began.
I vividly remember one late afternoon about six years later, walking into my church office. I was overcome with a sense of assurance that this was my vocation and I really loved it! That is how my ordination and the confirmation of my vocation came to be. I belonged to the vocation, and it to me.
Those days, when young clergywomen came into ordained ministry, there was resistance, suspicion, fear, and lots of unknowing. There was also anticipation, humor, and joy. Clergywomen represented to the Church a new and unknown thing that was emerging. It was as new, frightening, and unknown to every clergywoman as it was to the church. This ethos created mystery and confusion. The words “I have never heard a woman preach” or “I do not like the sound of a woman’s voice in the pulpit” were heard. How is one in that role to give leadership and to help cast and fulfill a vision?
In those days, just as in the twenty-first century, “leadership” was hard to define. The term and concept are largely secular and steeped in Western thinking. Hence, the Western, postmodern world has imposed definitions of “leader”—rarely found as a term in either Hebrew or Greek Scripture—on clergy and laity alike. Terms laden with assumptions for the roles of clergy leaders, lay leaders, youth leaders, and Christian leaders abound. The Scriptures and the early church used very different language with very dissimilar meaning. “Make disciples, baptize and, teach” (see Matthew 28). The language of ordination and the work of ministry is “Take thou authority to proclaim [preach] the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, lead God’s people to serve, and order the life of the Church.” The nine years spent in pastoral ministry, six years in administrative and educational ministry in the Council on Ministries of the Annual Conference, and now nineteen years in university chaplaincy continue to shape an understanding of vocation (which I will substitute for the term leadership). The promises made at ordination are the same. Preach the Word. Administer the Sacraments. Order the life of the church. Lead God’s people to serve.
The work of vocational ministry is the commitment to faithfully explore unknown places to which God’s Spirit is leading the people of God.
The world has changed in thirty years.
American culture and politics have become less isolationist (for the most part). Music, media, and travel have contributed to this phenomenon. Young people listen to music from around the world. There is nothing that happens in the Middle East that cannot be known as it is happening. Many people are far more traveled than they were three decades ago, helping them see their own world with different eyes.
Young people born after 1980 have only known a few years in which the U.S. was not actively engaged in war. The events that preceded and followed the tragedy of 9/11 and the economic collapse in 2008 have deeply affected young people.
Bewildered by a more visible multireligious world, Christians must become more knowledgeable and sensitive to honest expressions of God in the lives of all people. This reality creates joy, confusion, and fear. Knowing neighbors, welcoming strangers, and offering hospitality to all is the first commandment. Yet, Christian people are often trepid.
Denominational Christian identity is far less defined and appreciated than it was thirty years ago. Young people are not nearly as committed to denominational identity as to Christian identity. How is the Church to understand its role in this changing context? How is it to articulate and define the spiritual life of the Christian community called United Methodist?
On the one hand, there is nothing new. On the other, there is quite a lot that is new.
Again, the work of vocational ministry is to faithfully explore the unknown places to which God’s Spirit leads us. What are the challenges and the promises for those committed to ministry as a vocation? The challenges involve identity, spiritual formation, evangelism, and social holiness.
Identity and Spiritual Formation
The issue of Christian identity is critical. How does the Church help congregations articulate and deepen faithful identity? What does it mean to be a “faithful Christian” in a newly discovered multireligious world? What is the witness to and with the poor, those in prison, the stranger, and those in need of a home or homeland? What unique contributions do Christians bring when addressing global issues? How do Christian Methodists live authentic and faithful lives?
How is authentic spiritual life shaped and lived?
A life of prayer and witness in Christian community shapes and undergirds Christian identity and spiritual life. Issues that are best considered in Christian community are faith and ecology, economy, sexuality, justice, and peace.
New ways of thinking about the gifts and resources of creation are in embryonic formation. Rethinking scarcity and abundance are challenges that twenty-first-century Christians must engage. An essential spiritual life is committed to living green. Young people are committed to this life and witness. An appreciation of work, not just for economic reasons, but also for moral reasons, is emerging.
Resources of congregations are more limited now than in fifty years. Congregational resources spent on maintaining church buildings and clergy salaries challenge these new priorities. Young people and older working adults have more limited economic opportunities. While I am somewhat removed from these immediate congregational challenges, I see with college students, faculty, staff, parents, and seminary students fear that it induces low morale.
Caring for all of God’s children [without regard to race, gender, economic status, and sexual orientation] requires trust.
Evangelism and Social Holiness
The terms evangelism and social holiness are being redefined. Traditional understandings of world, community, neighbor, and family are changing. Bearing the Good News of Christ’s love to and for all people is the evangelistic and social mission of the Gospel.
How is authentic evangelism/social holiness lived?
Again, a life of prayer and witness in Christian community is required for faithful evangelism and social holiness.
For example, persons identified as “immigrants,” “refugees,” “strangers”—many people and communities considered to be “other”—are not welcome in Christian communities. This fear challenges Christian communities, the Church, and vocational ministers. How do Christian communities support and love their neighbors, coworkers, friends, and communities? What is it to give spiritual guidance to this fear and anxiety? How do vocational ministers form and create the environment for Christian understanding and respect to flourish? How do they help congregations and communities in their charge bear faithful witness to the love and longing of Christ?
Women with seminary degrees, ordination, and short histories in pastoral ministry attest to the challenges. Sometimes a clear vision or commitment from the Church on these matters is missing. Most of the young women seminarians I know are committed to the Gospel, to life in the Church, to ordination, and to ministry. The caveat is that they will live their lives where ministries of love and justice, sacramental and spiritual life, are biblically and theologically engaging and globally and socially faithful.
United Methodists in particular and Protestantism in general must continue to articulate a vision for vocational ministry that is comprehensive. Education is at the heart of transformation. As with all Protestant identity and voices, the church must be: biblically and theologically sound; seeking authentic authority; engaging global, social, and spiritual issues; in search of economic viability; intellectually engaged; and allowing and honoring protest and minority voices.
Women in Vocational Ministry
Clergywomen are prayerful carriers of the Gospel vision, the agents for transformation, often going to places unknown. They lead complicated lives, with families or no families, low salaries, distant networks, and are sometimes isolated and alone. These women live authentically faithful and engaged lives. They inhabit life in small and large membership congregations, in agencies of advocacy, on college and university campuses, in theological education, in evangelism and justice programs, and in the work that is socially responsible and spiritually transformative.
The work of vocational ministry is profoundly fulfilling. The work of formation and transformation in and through the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a worthy calling. It is authentic for the Church to say, “You can trust me” because the mission of the Gospel is trustworthy and transformative—especially in unknown places.