“Called” and “sent.” These two words sum up the ways in which clergy find placement in contemporary Christian culture. The first category is the larger, in which through a variety of mechanisms, clergy make themselves available for leadership within their denominations. Pulpit committees, resumes, interviews, and the inevitable potluck meals are on the pathway to finding a new pastorate for many Christian men and women.
The second type of pathway is that of being “sent,” appointed by denominational leadership to a ministry assignment with little or no input on the part of the one being sent. The systems vary by denominations, with the Methodist’s itinerant clergy the most common of the “sent” version, where, as my friend described, the pastor gets one vote, the congregation gets one vote, and the bishop gets three votes.
Not quite so for the Salvation Army clergy – no votes in this system, only the appointment board’s recommendation and the territorial commander’s decision. Time to move.
As “sent” servants of God, the first few moves brought a sense of excitement and anticipation to my husband and myself, as the challenge of fresh harvest fields re-ignited our passion for service. But as we get older, we find it harder to make the abrupt changes required of the itinerant clergyperson. As April eases its way into May, anxiety levels rise, and we stretch for ways to cope with what we’re experiencing.
Face the Anxiety
Will the divisional commander call tomorrow? Or won’t there be any call? What will I do if it does come? And how will I respond if there is no call? Serving in a denomination that traditionally makes all of the appointment phone calls on the same day, the “night before” can bring a sense of anxiety to the officers who have reason to believe that they might be reassigned. While I knew that this year we were safe (if we’re ever safe?), I experienced that anxiety a lot in the days before “D-Day” a couple of years ago, as my journal pages reflected.
I felt as though I was playing the bop-a-moley game. It’s found at those pizza and entertainment establishments whose threshold I’ve not willingly crossed in many a year. If you’ve been there, you’ll know why. But I do remember the game, for a monster head would pop out of one of the holes, and the player, focused, with hammer in hand, would bop him back into place before the next moley could sneak her head up. Unfortunately, there was no pattern to their popping up, and the hammer-holder could only stand ready, hoping to catch the next one before it was too late.
Pop! I can’t stand the waiting any longer. Bop! Be still and know that I am God. Pop! I know where my gifts would be used the best, but they haven’t asked me. Bop! Pop! I’m feeling so unsettled. Bop! Jesus reminds us that we don’t need to be anxious. Pop! Bop! Pop! Bop! I can’t handle this - Your Father knows your needs.. Pop! Bop! Get down, anxiety. Get thee behind me, Satan. Pop! Pop! Pop! BOP! Bop! bop!
I can handle this. After all, it’s only a low-grade anxiety, like a low-grade fever. It’s only kept me up a few nights, caused me to be slightly irritable, not much to worry about. Soon I will know, and this anxiety will be gone for now, I think. Perhaps to be replaced by another kind?
What can we do about the anxiety that comes with the territory of itinerancy? If anxiety medication is not an option, what do we do if it appears?
Embrace the Feelings
It does no good to pretend that we are not anxious when we are. Bopping all those ugly popping moleys takes an incredible amount of energy, and while it may serve as a distraction for a time, it is, in the end, a health-threatening response. Acknowledge that the season of unknowing is a difficult one. Because you are feeling anxious, are you less spiritually mature? Not necessarily – perhaps just more realistic about what a change will mean for yourself, your family and congregation.
Look for Signs of Grace.
In the midst of the unknowing, I began looking for signs that God was present to me, even in the mists of anxiety. Paula D’Arcy wrote of how her story and the life of a redbird intersected in life-giving ways in her book, The Gift of the Redbird. Just weeks after I read her account, during a very difficult time in my life, a red bird appeared in my backyard, and I saw her three times over the course of two weeks – and I have not seen her since. This week, I saw two redbirds in my backyard – and a tiny yellow one in the front yard. I claimed these feathered guests as the reminder of God that insisted, “I’m here,” in case I forgot how faithful he was during those weeks of uncertainty in the past.
Listen for the Wind of the Spirit
On a weekend of vacation, I found myself in the church I grew up in, between my mother, frailer each time I see her, and my sister, with her new son in her arms. As we stood to sing, the organ began a haunting melody:
Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free,
Spirit, spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, Wind, wind on the sea.
You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes,
From the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, our men clear their eyes,
With bold new decisions your people arise. (James K. Manley)
Pay attention, nodded the Spirit. Just in case I didn’t, there they were again, in Joan Anderson’s beguiling account of her friendship with Joan Erickson:
Blow through the wilderness . . . stir me from placidness . . .
A Safe Ear
Traditionally, there has been a request for secrecy until the arrangements of a move can be finalized, and having to keep this life-changing news to yourself can make a difficult situation worse. That is when it is good to have a listening ear outside of the denomination. For as careful as you are to speak only to those you trust, too much pressure is placed on them to “keep the secret,” and too much is at stake in the air of flying gossip. A spiritual director, former seminary professor, or pastor in another denomination out-of-state could be a safe choice. As an extra perk, you get an outside perspective on the situation.
At some point in your life, you trusted God enough to place your life under the authority of the denomination in which you serve. I was twenty. I look at my young adult sons and ask, what does a twenty-year-old know about trusting God? About life? Yet I made that commitment, and I have kept it now for thirty years.
Yet a high level of anxiety, especially one that seems out of proportion to the actual likelihood of a re-assignment, could be a sign that you need to pay attention to. Can I continue in this system? What are the options? The week before new appointments are announced is not the best time to entertain these questions, but taking a serious look at them with your spouse and family during a less stressful time can be life-giving. It may be that you are able to continue in the ministry under these conditions, and, like my Methodist friend, find a sense of God’s peace about that direction: “My husband is being asked to move again, and this time he really struggled with a continuing of his call to ordained ministry within the denomination. But, through prayer and the baby steps of listening as well as we could, we felt called to continue within the denomination.”
You may find, however, that your understanding of God and life has changed, and that you can find obedience to him without being in an itinerant system. There are no clear-cut directions in the scripture that prescribe one system or the other – if there were, then (maybe) there would be one system. God may be giving you permission to seek other options for service, or giving you the motivation to work for change in the system. After all, it is a system that has been created by people, not handed down from Mt. Sinai. The Salvation Army’s system developed out of the context of one family’s vision, based on what they knew of the church in the mid 1800’s, with an overlay of a military metaphor. Right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, it is what it is. Maybe we just need to unplug the Bop-a-Moley machine – or get a bigger hammer!
Major JoAnn Shade D. Min