Sunday, January 13, 2013

On leaving ministry for farming

I’ve been asked if I view this next step in my career/vocation as ministry. It’s an interesting question. I think there’s only a small segment of the population -- a segment with which I happen to spend a lot of time -- that would ever think to ask it. I guess when a person who’s spent her whole adult life making a living in some way working for the church or churches or those who love churches, then it makes sense to ask when she’s almost 48 years old and decides to leave theological education to become a full-time farmer if she sees this next step as yet another movement of following God’s call into ministry.

I’m overly educated as a pastoral theologian. I’ve spent the better part of my life viewing the world through one theological lens or another. I’m inclined to make meaning using theological concepts. And, on a practical level, viewing this next step as just another movement of God’s call into ministry helps justify the student loan payment I continue to make, as well as the heavy investment of my time, energy, and soul over the last 26 or so years. It’s natural to want to see ministry as one continuous thread through my whole career. Then, maybe, my life would make sense, in some grand narrative way. Right?

On the one hand, there's a temptation to use the question to point to a growing sense that the church needs as broad a definition of ministry as it can muster to accomplish the enormous task of being salt and light in the world. Certainly caretaking of the earth and environmental stewardship is part of accomplishing God’s work in the world. I don’t want to do anything that takes away from a renewed sense that ministry is something in which all people of faith participate. If calling my new work “ministry” helps accomplish a deeper awareness of Christian vocation, then I say confidently, “Yes, Of course it is.” Thinking theologically comes relatively naturally to me and I am inclined to continue considering how my work in this world is in some way connected to God’s work in this world. Certainly I pray that it always is, well, at least for as long as I believe that’s a helpful way to view the world and my work in it. And, I believe churches would do well to encourage all people of faith to consider these questions about their work. I don’t, however, think that’s where this question posed to me is coming from though.

The question leaves me uneasy, perhaps because it is a flashpoint for the grief of leaving behind work/career/focus to which I’ve given a great deal of attention for a long time. When I committed to such work, I never imagined I would do anything else. I believe when we step out of what we’ve known for so long into that which is unknown to us, we often do so with a search for what is familiar. We cling to forms we recognize, and do so at our own peril. When we look for what is known, we run the risk of missing the beauty that the unknown can bring to our lives.

The answer to the question of whether I view this next step as ministry is simple. No. I’m farming. It’s the most honest answer, at least from my theological perspective. I believe ministry belongs to the church. It is not for me alone to decide whether or not my work is “ministry” per se. I don’t feel any particular need to label it ministry to somehow add value to the work I’m doing. Its value is inherent in the work itself, not the label I or anyone else gives it. Any urge to label it ministry for me is only an attempt to cling to that which I have known, instead of letting go, so as to embrace fully the graces and gifts that this next step offers. In saying no, I also don’t fall down some slippery slope of defining how one person’s farming is ministry and another’s is not. And it allows me to state firmly and confidently that I don’t think that what God was up to when I chose to follow along a path that led to ministry 26+ years ago was any more or less significant than what God is up to in my life now. Neither God nor I have abandoned the other.

My theology professor in seminary taught that from the perspective of the Christian scriptures, there really is only one call that can be identified. It is the call to follow. Period. I’m okay with that. It’s worked just fine up to this point in my life. And I have to admit there’s something really freeing about remembering that right now.