Saturday, August 08, 2009

What does it mean to be called to a vocation?

Masasa mentioned in a comment this week that she is struggling to describe her sense of call to the ministry and asked if I would, at some point, talk about my own sense of call. She is working on her application to seminary and as part of that process must describe this motivating experience in her life.

For me, the call to the ministry was a series of sporadic and increasingly intense moments in my life that helped me see myself in the role of parish minister. Each moment came at a time when I was struggling with some life stage. Maybe a timeline of sorts will help describe how that was.

I graduated from Linfield College in 1963, with a major in Modern Languages. I had some vague notion of becoming a translator but as I investigated those requirements, I realized that as a speaker of a language other than English, I was a dilettante. I took Spanish and French in college because they were easy for me, not because I had any burning desire to speak those languages or travel to places where they were spoken.

So as I hung around my parents' home that fall after graduation, I considered applying to seminary; graduate school would at least give me something to do and I could get a job as a Christian Education director in some church. All my friends seemed to be going to seminary and that might be fun. Of course, CE directors were glorified Sunday School teachers in my book at that time (I have since gained an enormous respect for DRE's) and I didn't want to teach Sunday School.

A stint as a welfare worker here in Washington state solved the problem initially and gave me a taste of a public service career. But living at home was the pits and I didn't make enough to live elsewhere, at least not in any kind of style, and I would still be in the same small town as my folks.

Next stop on the journey was a stint as an American Baptist Home Missionary, in Denver, which introduced me to some of the joys and challenges of working in a church setting. I was a program worker at the Denver Christian Center, in the inner city (29th and Curtis, for you Denverites), teaching preschool, after-school programs for older kids and teens, and playing the piano for Sunday services. This experience, which lasted only a year and a half till the Center morphed into a United Way agency (now Curtis Park Community Center), gave me a sense of providing a religious message that was not salvation-oriented but humanitarian in nature. And it opened my eyes to the huge problems festering in poverty-stricken city ghettos.

Marriage and starting a family changed my trajectory as it became harder to justify working so many evenings and living farther from the Christian Center than I had as a single person. So I left the CC and went back to school, working parttime at Colorado Women's College to cover tuition costs so that I could get teaching credentials.

The summer before I started teaching Spanish in a small junior high in Evergreen CO, my husband and I were part of the first Colorado Outward Bound teachers' course and I carried this experience in the wilderness into my work as a teacher for the next 25 years, moving from the classroom into a guidance and counseling position for 19 of those years.

By the time the two by four between the eyes came, I had spent many years preparing to be called to something bigger than public education. I have always been a person who takes a long time to work up to something; once I'm ready, the decision is obvious and there's no looking back to wonder if I'm doing the right thing. I've rarely been wrong in those decisions; they seem to make themselves.

The actual experience of "CALL" came in a Sunday morning service, Sept 12, 1992. It was at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, and I was delivering a short homily for the Committee on Ministry's Ingathering Service. I was the one member of the committee which had much public speaking experience----largely wielding a microphone in the school lunchroom to keep order on lunch duty or to deliver a registration information session to parents of incoming sevies or to administer standardized tests----so I was volunteered to deliver the homily for the service.

The theme was our congregation's experiences over the past year and the hopes we had for the coming year: a greater sense of community, deeper spiritual life, that sort of thing. I could see that people were responding positively to what I was saying---a few laughs, even a tear or two---so I figured I'd done okay. I sat down in my place in the choir and our minister, the Rev Robert Latham stood at the pulpit. He turned to me and said, "Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister."

It was a thunderbolt. I sat stunned in my seat as all the pieces of my life fell into place. There was no doubt in my mind: I ought to be a minister.

It took awhile for me to get to seminary, from that point, and additional experiences along the way helped add to my sense of direction: a pastoral relationship with an elderly member of JUC, a deepening relationship with the clergy at JUC and with other clergy in the Denver area, an intense week at the district's Leadership School, district leadership positions, and a chance to take early retirement from my school job. I came back from General Assembly in Spokane in 1995 fully ready to enroll in seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and never looked back.

I have never doubted my call to the ministry, even through very hard times in my first parish setting. It never occurred to me to quit the ministry; this is where I belong, where I am doing the most satisfying work I have ever done, and where I hope to continue until age and/or infirmity makes it impossible. Even then I will continue to be "in ministry" to the best of my ability, whether I am actively serving a congregation or not.

Masasa, I hope that gives you some idea of what it has meant to me to be called to the ministry. I'm not sure you wanted a story but that's what I have to give. Today, what it means to me is that I am involved deeply with a congregation of people whom I love sincerely and I feel their love in return. I am moved to tears when I think of the honor it is to serve them, to offer them my thoughts about a spirit-filled life, about the work we can do in our community, and to encourage them in their lives; I have been honored to offer memorial services for people I dearly love and expect to offer many more. Ministry is the culmination of my life so far and I am grateful for every day I spend in it.


LinguistFriend said...

There are a number of bits of this that you have told us previously over the past few years, but it all comes together very well and lucidly and interestingly. It is of course only one example of how these things can unfold, and other people have told their stories, but yours is in the spirit of our age. You could have brought more into your story, e.g. marriage and a child and a divorce and their interaction with these events. (Christian Century on July 14th had articles on benign versions of such issues, but not all are benign). Those topics are perhaps too much work or too individual or too personal (or all of the above) for what was needed, in which you have been very generous.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, LF, for your thoughts and kind words. The post was already pretty long, so I did leave out some factors.

Masasa said...

Oh BLESS YOU Kit for writing on this!! You are so SWEET!

Lizard Eater said...

"I sat stunned in my seat as all the pieces of my life fell into place."

Yes, yes, yes. Perfectly said.

ms. kitty said...

Masasa, Ogre and Lizard Eater are also posting on call. LE has a post up and Ogre will be posting soon. I appreciated your suggestion.

Mile High Pixie said...

Very cool to finally have a timeline of what makes someone (like you) say "hey, I wanna/oughta be a minister." And glad to know that you've experienced the Curtis Park side of Denver--it's not all 16th Street Mall and Cherry Creek, for sure. I drive past the Coalition for the Homeless health clinic on a regular basis over on north Broadway, and I let out a little sigh/prayer when I see those folks lined up outside the building and covering their mouths or holding an injured limb.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie. I always think about you when I post about Denver, knowing you'll know the references.

ms. kitty said...

Masasa, be sure to check out this post as well:

It's by Matt Tittle at Keep the Faith blog.