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A Satisfying Vocation?

by L. Gregory Jones

"Ministry a satisfying vocation, survey finds." Headlines like
this, reporting on the initial findings of a national clergy survey conducted
by Duke's Pulpit and Pew Project, appeared in newspapers, church periodicals,
and elsewhere this past spring.

It was not the only, much less the most important, finding of the survey.
But it was the one that, over and over again, reporters and editors found
most fascinating and newsworthy. Why?

Perhaps it was because the news sounded so different from the dominant
religious news story of those weeks and months - the scandal of sexual
abuse and its cover-up by Roman Catholic priests and bishops. Or perhaps
it was because the reporters were grateful to report on good news about
the ministry, reassuring church people that the clergy are still committed
to their vocation and find it fulfilling.

Yet others questioned the results. How could ministry be seen as such
a satisfying vocation, given the reports and stories of burn-out and other
morale problems, a high drop-out rate in the first five years of ministry,
financial struggles among clergy, splits within congregations as well
as denominations, and the reluctance of clergy to encourage others to
consider ordained ministry as a vocation. The news seemed polyannish,
if not deceptive.

The report seems even more baffling when looked at in the light of these
clergy's answers to other questions. Most troubling is that over half
of the clergy across the denominations reported that among their greatest
daily problems is their "difficulty reaching people with the Gospel
today." How could ministry be a satisfying vocation for clergy if
they find ministry's central task to be so difficult?

Might it be that clergy find ordained ministry to be a satisfying vocation
in principle, in spite of the enormous obstacles, challenges, and systemic
distortions which make it so difficult in practice? After all, my wife
and I know from our own involvement in congregational ministry how deeply
satisfying and rewarding it is to be invited to share in the lives of
other people. Ordained ministers are invited into some of the most intimate
times of people's lives - the joys of marriage and new babies and anniversaries
and promotions and new jobs, the griefs of broken relationships and deaths
and the loss of work and tragic systemic injustices.

Even more, ordained ministry is shaped by rhythms of life with other people
that are intrinsic to human flourishing: timeful movements of work and
play and rest; the cultivation of intimate relationships yet a rich diversity
of acquaintances; making a joyful noise yet also being still; rigorous
study and prayerful listening; an opportunity to make a significant social
difference yet often in quiet, hidden ways.

Ordained ministry offers an opportunity to be in solidarity with those
on the margins as well as to offer counsel to the leaders of a community,
a chance to explore how best to form faithful children while respecting
and caring for wise (and not-so-wise) elders. Where else can you draw
the generations together in profoundly life-giving ways, receiving and
offering opportunities for life abundant in the presence of God?

At its best, ordained ministers and their congregations cultivate a life
together that is, indeed, deeply satisfying. It is why we are so touched
and nourished by powerful depictions of ministry - by pastoral memoirs
such as Richard Lischer's Open Secrets, or collections of sermons such
as Barbara Brown Taylor's Gospel Medicine. It is why people are drawn
to congregations where the presence of God in Christ is so clearly present
in life-giving ways.

We should not be surprised that people recognize that ordained ministry
is a satisfying vocation. We should be surprised, and troubled, that so
deeply satisfying a vocation is beset by so many challenges, obstacles,
and systemic distortions in contemporary American life. What are the problems
- in our seminaries, in our congregations, in our discernment and recruitment
of potential clergy, in our evangelistic outreach, in our readings and
engagements with cultural changes - that so many clergy could find it
so difficult to reach people with the Gospel today?

What is happening that so many clergy feel that they are unable to support
themselves and their families with the kinds of material resources to
enable a well-lived life? Why are there not enough books, and films, and
music, and art, to sustain and support the pastoral vocation - and why
are the clergy not turning to those available resources that might nourish
them more deeply?

Why do many clergy seem so lonely, a loneliness that often becomes painfully
real only at the point of serious misconduct or dropping out? Why are
clergy finding it so difficult to distinguish the urgent from the genuinely
important in their work? Why are we not telling more stories, and telling
them well, of places where ministry is faithfully flourishing? Why have
we so often asked the clergy to become amateur practitioners of other
vocations, such as therapists or politicians or managers - rather than
to cultivate a genuinely pastoral intelligence shaped by the crucified
and risen Christ? Why are clergy not commending to others a vocation we
find satisfying?

The Pulpit and Pew project is gathering and gleaning significant data
as well as undertaking historical and theological analysis in order to
help address questions such as these. To be sure, many of these questions
are not new, and we ought not pretend that there was some golden age from
which contemporary clergy have fallen. But neither should we pretend that
the present state of ordained ministry is where it should be. Nor should
we lament the present as if there is no hope for the future.

Rather, we ought to be encouraged that ordained ministry is so deeply
satisfying a vocation. The problems are real, and the challenges we confront
are daunting. But at the heart of the vocation of ordained ministry -
and the friendships, practices, and treasures that sustain ministry's
work - is the opportunity to reach people with the Gospel, bearing a life-giving
witness to the gracious love of God in Christ. What can we do to make
what is satisfying in principle more satisfying in practice for more people?

Copyright 2002 Christian Century Foundation. Reproduced by permission
from the August 14-27, 2002 issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions:
$49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

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