Thursday, August 12, 2004

"So, what kind of position would you like?"

In less than 8 hours, I rejoin the work-a-day world.

Oh, it's not my final stop on the career journey...just two or three weeks of temporary work with the Chicago Parks District, helping them get ready for their annual audit. I'll be at the Garfield Park Conservatory - a beautiful location - and a very easy commute on the Green Line "L" (instead of driving out the Eisenhower Expressway!). So it will be a blessing, and I am very, very grateful.

But this starting back to work also signals a bellwether shift in my career plans...all around this question of "what kind of position would you like?" Over the last four months of job hunting, I have been asked this question more times than I would even want to describe (or admit). And after four months, the only rigorously honest answer I can give is the answer nobody wants to hear.

You see, the job I want is as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And there are a lot of people who think I'd do pretty well at it.

There's only one tiny little problem with this little pipe-dream. According to the regional powers-that-be at that same national church organization, I don't fit their profile for ministry. I have too much personal debt, I am told. And based on that criteria, my "entrance" into the candidacy process has been postponed indefinitely, until I eliminate my debt. (Not "get it below some theoretical threshold," as one person at LSTC suggested; the letter from Kansas City was quite clear. Eliminated.)

In fact, when I went back to my candidacy committee last April, I was told (again, very clearly) that the issue of indebtedness of ministry candidates was the overriding concern. When I asked the committee to consider the gifts for ministry that other people had seen in me, and allow me to go forward in school part-time while reducing my debt, I was told, "Steve, as far as this committee is concerned, you don't HAVE any 'gifts for ministry' until your debt is repaid."

(I'm sure that, after some reflection, the person who spoke those words might have wished they had found a more loving, caring, pastoral way to get their message across. But trust me... I got the message.)

Now, let's be clear about this. My vocation to ministry has not stopped, simply because of the decision of a group of people in a building in Kansas City. It's still what I want to work toward. But my candidacy for ministry, and the opportunity to participate in a ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA (or, in fact, any rostered ministry in that church), is effectively on ice for about, well, a significant number of tens of thousands of dollars. A good long while, in other words.

So, all the things that I thought about leaving in order to go to grad school, to be a minister? That's what I'm left with. Now, don't get me wrong - they're all things that I do pretty darn well ... and I'm looking forward to getting on with doing them well, for someone. But here's the kicker:

I left them - all of them - to go into ministry.

In fact, for the last year I was in financial-systems management, the closer that I got to coming to Chicago, the more trivial and meaningless the tasks I had been assigned to do seemed to become. The last month I was there, I literally was marking time until I could embark on the path I really felt called to follow.

So when people say, "Why would you like to work with us?", I'm almost certain that it would be impolitic (not to mention impolite) to say, "Well, actually, I don't want to work for you at all. I'm just using you, and your firm, so I can get back to the work I really feel called to do."

So I don't say that.

Now, trust me: I have read Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, and DeCaussade's The Sacrament of the Present Moment, not to mention the 12th step of the AA program, which says that once that we have had a spiritual awakening, we try to practice the principles of a spiritual life "in all our affairs" (including at work). I know that I can "do ministry" on the Green Line, or at a local congregation, or in prison ministry, or wherever, without a collar. (I was doing it for six years before I got to Chicago.) And I do know that I will be a member of the priesthood of all believers wherever I am, including at whatever work-site to which I happen to be assigned.

But as much as I feel victorious and somewhat vindicated for finally finding work in one of my former professions, and as excited as I am about getting started tomorrow, it still feels more than a little bit like failure. I'm broke enough that the job I want is the job that will pay me...period. And I'm grateful to be starting....don't get me wrong. And I'm especially grateful for the people who have supported me (and continue to do so, until my first check comes in!). I could not physically have survived without them. So I am grateful - and I know that I have way more blessings than I can even begin to describe. I'm sunny-side up, suckin' air, sober, and free - and that makes it Christmas Day for a guy like me. I'm truly still very much "in the bonus round."

I know all of that.

I just can't help wishing that things had turned out different....that's all. Because, as Ken Medema sings so well for both of us, "We are bound for greater things." And this little stage of my life seems to feel like moving away from greater things, not toward them.

This, too - like gallstones - will pass. For now, I'm going to bed, so that I can get up tomorrow to "suit up and show up" - which appears to be the "next right thing" on my journey, anyway.

1 comment:

Christian said...

Hey Steve!

I posted this at See Life Differently in response to your response there, but I wanted to leave it hear as well just to make sure that you saw it.

The way your desires to pursue ministry have been frustrated really resonates with me - we spent 5+ years of our lives trying to "serve the Lord" vocationally, only to have one door after another slammed in our face. And we finally got to the point where we gave up and bagged it all and I just pursued software work (which I was very, very, good at).

And then we spent another 7 or 8 years getting frustrated with that. I can honestly say the worst part about Christian service is the Christians. After all, the Church is a whore...

I wish I had some nugget of wisdom to share (but it would probably just sound like a crappy platitude so I won't even try). I will tell you that I empathize with your experiences, and I wish there was an easier way. Somewhere in this mix, I am beginning to appreciate that God uses suffering to sharpen us, and that this is actually a good thing, part of what it means to be a Christian and to be shaped in his image (Phil 1:27).

I don't understand it fully, but I believe it and am gradually coming to embrace it (even though it still hurts).

In our case, God has been gracious and had taught us awful lot we never would have learned otherwise. After all these years, he is now finally bringing us back into a place where we actually hope to serve in ministry again.

I don't know whether that will be your story or not - but I know that God is good, and he's not going to give up on you! Whatever else, cling to that truth! With you in the fight...