In our most recent post, Natalie reflected upon the sorts of milestones the summer had brought for us. Our first year in Pasadena went by so fast–and I have no doubt that Year Two will move just as quickly!
Sometimes in the midst of our quickening life here, it’s hard for me to take a step back and reflect on what has transpired since coming to Fuller. There have been so many memorable classes, challenging conversations, wonderful people, and formative experiences that I sometimes fear I am moving too quickly to fully embrace them.
Today, however, I took some time to myself to reflect back over the last year and consider the question: “How have I progressed in the pursuit of my calling since coming to Fuller?” Addressing this question, I hope, will help me keep addressing another, weightier question: “What the heck am I gonna do after seminary?” After all, I came to Fuller in the first place to continue equipping myself for some sort of call to ministry. While I am still sorting through the answer(s) to these questions, I thought that those of you who know me well might at least be curious to know what my thoughts on these matters are currently.
Before diving right in though, I thought I’d share that I was aided greatly in this reflection through reading Fuller President Mark Labberton’s brand new book on vocation called, well, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. From Dr. Labberton’s many years of pastoral ministry, he shares a wealth of wisdom on vocational formation that is presented in a concise, accessible, and practical way (which is quite refreshing, might I add–I’ve read my share of books by pastors and theologians that was none of those three things!). I commend it here to you for two reasons: first, because it is an important book on vocation; and second, because Dr. Labberton is using the royalties from the book to establish scholarships at Fuller. Enough said.
Putting First Things First
Last year on a trip to visit my in-laws, we stopped by my mother-in-law’s classroom on the last day of school with her first grade class. Mrs. Graf introduced us to all her students and told them a little bit about us.
“Everyone, this is my daughter, Natalie. She lives in St. Louis and works for a company called Beta Gamma Sigma. And this is her husband, Kyle. He’s going to be going back to school again, just like you all. But he’s going to school to become a pastor. Does anyone know what the name for a school for pastors is?”
One particularly precocious young man shot up his hand.
“A cemetery?” he suggested with confidence. I didn’t think that first graders knew that joke, but perhaps I was mistaken.
There is an unfortunate but pervasive assumption among some that going to seminary will kill a student’s faith. It is even more unfortunate that there are indeed seminarians (and seminaries) around the country that have helped to reinforce this assumption.
This, however, is not what I have found at Fuller. In fact, quite the reverse is true: I have been amazed by the number of people who are genuinely seeking to model the way of Jesus in their own lives and possess a deep commitment to him. Daily, we are forced to consider the essential beliefs and practices of Christianity in sustained and honest ways. Sometimes, this serves to reinforce things in which I have always believed and have sought to embody. Other times, this encourages me to remember things which I have always believed but have not been very good about embodying. Still other times, this challenges me to re-consider beliefs that I have taken for granted as Christian but were perhaps not accurate expressions of the Christian faith.
This is what Dr. Labberton calls in his book addressing the “First Things.” Before we can ever consider what sort of career or position in life God might call us to, we must be thoroughly committed to live out the good news of Christ wherever we are, whatever we are doing. This is our primary calling. My seminary education thus far has helped me to do this in many ways, not least of which through the example of the committed people (both on staff and students) that are part of Fuller. Of course, I still have a long way to go, but I have felt essentially supported in this throughout my time at Fuller.
“The Andy Factor”
That’s probably not the first place the conversation of “career” or “calling” or “vocation” goes though, is it (though as Dr. Labberton argues, it really should be)? Normally, we’re talking about what one does from 9 to 5, what sort of work a person undertakes.
When someone asks me what I plan to do after seminary, the stock answer I give them is, “some sort of pastoral ministry.” I don’t say more than that because I really still don’t know more than that. Some of my friends have always known they wanted to be the senior pastor of a church, or work for WorldVision, or lead worship services. I, on the other hand, have always struggled to understand what my exact role should be.
Am I supposed to be a worship leader? A writer? A pastor? A teacher? None of the above?
In the spring, Nat and I had the privilege of sitting at a dinner next to a leader in Fuller’s community named Andy. We respect him greatly, and just getting the chance to talk with him was an unexpected gift. However, as we continued talking, a second, more unexpected gift emerged. Andy shared a little bit of his background with us, and his story began to resonate deeply with mine. Andy worked in campus ministry for several years–that’s how I started in ministry. He serves as a worship leader for his church–that was my first paid job in ministry. Now, he is known more as a writer and a speaker, which means that he also teaches and leads in a variety of contexts. Those are the very skills I came to seminary hoping to hone.
Let me be clear here: the point is not that I want to be Andy per se. Rather, getting a glimpse into his life gave me a glimpse into what it means to live out one’s primary calling through one’s career. Andy is a committed follower of Jesus, and he has learned how to use a range of gifts that God has given him through his working life. It didn’t happen all at once, and there is no real job description for the breadth of what he does now. While he does indeed have a job title with his employer, his job title does not encompass his calling.
Among a few core friends who discuss vocation regularly, I have taken to calling this “The Andy Factor.” As I shared these things with them, I began to realize how freeing Andy’s story was to me. Instead of stressing about which traditional pastoral role I was supposed to pursue, I began to understand that leaving the question more open-ended may in fact be the more faithful thing to do. After all, I may not even be aware yet of the role which I am to fill after Fuller. I do know that it will require me to use the best of what I can offer to serve God and others through my work.
Insert Vocation Here
One reason I have been frustrated in the past in thinking about career is that we often frame one’s career vocation as a sort of mantle that God puts on us. We haven’t become fully alive yet until we finally get the big cosmic clue that this job was the one we were made for. This one is the one we were supposed to do all along.
I am sure that for some people, they really do have this sort of experience. But then I think about the Andys of the world again. I would say that he is “doing what he was made for” right now. But does that mean that he wasn’t “doing what he was made for” when he was still working with the campus ministry?
My boss at Fuller’s Field Education department likes to call one’s current ministry role their “ministry assignment.” I like that, because an assignment implies both that you are sent by someone to do a job and that there’s the potential that at some point, you might not be on that “assignment” anymore. You may be asked to move somewhere else in the “kingdom department.”
However, I am not too sure that all the particulars of one’s ministry assignment are literally “assigned.” When I was about to start my second year of work for The Crossing, my supervising pastor asked me to fill out my own job description and submit it to him.
Fill out my own job description? Who gets to do that?
After I submitted it, he sat down with me and worked through what I had suggested. Because I had worked there for a year, I already owned several responsibilities and had an idea of some others that I could take on. Most of my job description he accepted wholeheartedly. However, there were some things that he said no to because he knew my gifts and experience didn’t match those tasks. Others he said no to because they weren’t really deep needs of the church. He also added some things to my plate that weren’t necessarily my first choice of things to do but that were needs in the church I could help fill.
I’ve come to envision our sense of career calling a little bit like this. It’s a little bit less like a job description whose details are already worked out and handed to us by God, and a bit more like a job description whose details take shape over time. If we have been rooted to a community of believers in prayer and conversation, and if our gifts and passions have been confirmed by the experiences of others, then maybe sometimes God invites us to start by filling out the form as best we can. Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the church, he then works with us over time to help us live out our primary call to follow Christ in ways that are consistent with who we are. That’s how I’ve come to think of it anyway.
So, what do I plan to do after seminary?
“Some sort of pastoral ministry.”
And, at this point, that answer suits me just fine.