I mean no offense to bulls or their need to excrete. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about the over-worn concept that God “calls” professional ministers to ever greener, more lucrative pastures. How convenient for them! But for those left struggling (and paying) in the pews, it stinks to high heaven.
My mother, may she rest in peace, started me along this line of thought. When I was a teenager she worked in a small-town branch of a large regional bank. This afforded her lots of opportunities to pick up tidbits of information, usually provided by the customers. One of her customers self-identified as an evangelist. One day as winter approached Mom came home in a grumpy mood. “The evangelist came in today,” she said. “He said God is calling him to preach in Hawaii for the winter. I don’t think God calls people to go to Hawaii for the winter.” Huzzah Mom!
On another occasion years later, I attended a family member’s church. This pastor had a reputation for strolling the streets of his town praying. He announced from the pulpit, “I’m going to continue to walk the streets of this city praying until every last family is converted to Christ, or God calls me to go somewhere else.” I murmured to my wife, “Guess which of those things is going to happen.” As it turned out, he had an affair with the church secretary, which was only disqualifying because he wasn’t in Congress. But I digress.
In partial self-disclosure (full disclosure is a lie), I’ve had my own experiences with the idea of call. It hasn’t been pretty. I went to seminary and grad school (my resume is elsewhere on this blog). I went through the pastoral ordination process. In my denomination at the time, as in many others, ordination was a tedious committee process once you had satisfied the educational requirements, typically a Master of Divinity that includes indoctrination into your own denominational principles and procedures. A certain type of person tends to be attracted to ordination committees, a type I’ll call “God’s gate-keeper.” These people feel that they are defending God and God’s church from a horde of barbarians. There are certain words they need to hear you say, such as “I believe (or feel) that God is calling me into XYZ ministry.” They will resort to torture if you don’t say these words. I didn’t, and was assigned to supervision by a pastor who told me just that: “Tell them you feel called, that’s what they want to hear.”
A ministry to which I really did feel called was to teach biblical studies at a seminary in the Philippines. Unbeknownst to me, the missionary recruiter responsible to recruit candidates for consideration considered herself to be in the army of God’s gate-keepers. I was naive. I thought she was recruiting people. She saw her job as blocking the unworthy. I didn’t say the magic words, “God is calling me to teach theology in the Philippines.” Instead I asked uncomfortable questions like, “What are the educational resources there for my children?” She was not there to answer questions, she was there to throw blocks, and block she did.
After failing to land an academic job armed with a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard Divinity School, I put myself in the pastoral job market and was hired as a pastor. It didn’t go particularly well, especially when a building tenant decided to build their own building and the church couldn’t afford to pay me any more. I tried to transition to half-time, but the controlling family in the church cried, “Then we’ll be a part-time church” (an absurd notion indeed) and started complaining about the presence of my four-year-old daughter in worship services. Apparently she occasionally made a sound or something. I resigned. I did not tell them, “God is calling me to go to XYZ.” I told them I couldn’t handle it, and I quit. It was ugly.
Since then I’ve been in the pews, with occasional part-time stints in support roles, mostly in music. God calls pastors to come, to retire, or to go to a bigger and wealthier church. God sure is fickle.
In many denominations the practice is for the pastor who wants to move to keep this an absolute secret from his or her flock. They cannot be allowed to know that the pastor has already decided to divorce them, because the flock might move pre-emptively and fire them. They might wind up just like 7.8 percent of their congregants: unemployed for a time. A denominational official once told me, “Never ever leave a church until you have another job in hand.”
This is certainly standard advice in the business world. The difference is that a CEO or computer programmer typically does not tell the employer he is abandoning, “God is calling me to serve elsewhere.” His or her colleagues would rightly identify this as self-serving bullshit. But in the church it’s the expectation.
So the denominational hierarchy is complicit in enabling a pastor to abandon a church, leaving the church with no advance warning and no time to prepare for the tedious process of hiring a new pastor. Then, in full-employment-for-administrators fashion, denominational “experts” come in and lecture the congregation about the steps they must go through in order to “call” their next minister. In fact, I recently learned that one denomination actually demands payment of a 15-percent-of-compensation penalty for a congregation that does not “call” their next pastor in a timely fashion! And all this money goes to feed the poor, right? HAHAHAHAHA!
Having discerned God’s call to escape from the current hell-hole of his or her own making, the departing pastor turns on the tears and other emotional manipulation, declaring the period of trial or bankruptcy facing the congregation their “wilderness experience.” He/she fondly recalls all the great and wonderful relationships he/she is now abandoning, wistfully supposing that an invitation to preach some time in the future will be forthcoming. It all invokes in me a feeling of revulsion, of nausea.
Things would be so much better if pastors just told the truth. After all, they regularly invest their personal opinions about God and what what God intends for human behavior with the appellations “Truth” or “Word of God.” It would be nice to hear a pastor say, “I’ve failed to live up to your expectations and my own. I’m tired of working here, I want more money, more prestige, a better climate, etc.” Instead, they say, “God is calling me to Hawaii. I have no choice but to obey.” But then, none of us who works for an employer ever tells the full truth about our relationship with work, do we?